INDIANAPOLIS – One league executive at the NFL combine said the Carolina Panthers are a “sh-- show’’ with three straight five-win seasons, a quarterback situation that is a mess and a coach who hasn’t gotten a public vote of support from owner David Tepper.
Others wonder if there is a shift of power with Matt Rhule being one of five head coaches who didn’t have a formal podium interview, while general manager Scott Fitterer did.
Amidst all the uncertainty surrounding the Panthers, one thing is clear: They have to figure out the quarterback position to turn things around and give Rhule an opportunity to coach beyond the 2022 season.
And that won’t be easy.
“There’s a lot of teams looking,’’ Cincinnati Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin told ESPN.com. “And there’s not enough elite guys to go around, and that’s something that everybody is keenly aware of.
“There’s a lot of good quarterbacks to go around, but finding the elite one is very difficult.’’
Tobin got an elite quarterback in Joe Burrow, the top pick of the 2020 draft out of LSU, who, in two years, took the Bengals from one of the worst teams in the NFL to the Super Bowl.
Carolina doesn’t have the luxury this year of having the top pick or a quarterback class with the immediate star appeal the past two drafts did. The free-agent crop isn’t stellar, either.
That doesn’t mean the Panthers won’t try, at least in terms of getting Watson or possibly Wilson. They made a hard run at Watson a year ago before his legal issues, he faces 22 civil suits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate behavior during massage sessions, and the Texans’ price tag became a stumbling block.
For now, the Panthers are stuck with Sam Darnold, 32-year-old Cam Newton (if they choose to re-sign the 2015 NFL MVP), adding a mid- or lower-level quarterback via free agency or drafting one with the sixth overall pick.
Many at the combine would consider the latter a reach, although Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett and Liberty’s Malik Willis both consider themselves a top-10 material and believe they should be the top quarterback chosen.
Willis has ties to Newton. He was in Newton’s 7-on-7 football tournament and played at Newton’s Atlanta-based high school.
“There's a good franchise player at six in this draft -- without identifying who they might be,’’ Fitterer said.
Carolina’s decision on Newton will be known over the next two weeks. Fitterer said the team will meet face to face with the first pick of the 2011 draft before free agency begins March 16 and let him know if he’s in their plans.
At best, it appears Newton would be a role player and not a long-term solution.
Darnold also doesn’t appear to be a long-term solution, but Carolina is locked into the third pick of the 2018 draft at $18.9 million, since his fifth-year option was picked up last offseason before he went 4-7 as Carolina’s starter to bring his four-year record with the Panthers and the New York Jets to 17-32.
“We need stability at the quarterback position, whether that is Sam or somebody else,’’ Fitterer said. “Somebody needs to take hold of that position and own that. Right now, it’s open. If Sam does it, that’d be great. But it’s open.’’
Brandon Beane understands. His priority when named general manager of the Buffalo Bills in 2017 after spending the previous 19 season with the Panthers was to find a quarterback.
He traded up from 12th to seventh in 2018 to get Josh Allen, who led Buffalo to the AFC Championship in 2020 and the divisional round in 2021.
“I was like, come hell or high water, we have to find a quarterback,’’ Beane said. “If we don’t find it, the other stuff won't matter.’’
Fitterer will consider trading down if he can pick up extra draft picks and still get the right player, whether it’s a quarterback or left tackle. He might be willing to go as far down as 19th because this draft class is so deep.
He also needs draft capital, having traded away his second- and third-round picks a year ago in deals for Darnold and cornerback CJ Henderson.
Regardless, Fitterer will exhaust every avenue to find a franchise quarterback. He also will spend the offseason investing in the offensive line so whoever plays quarterback has a chance to succeed.
Carolina quarterbacks were sacked 52 times in 2021, fifth most in the NFL. Darnold was sacked 35 times in 12 games; Fitterer and Rhule believe that impacted his ability to succeed.
Considering Burrow was sacked more times (51) than any quarterback in 2021 and still made it to the Super Bowl, there was no denying Burrow is an elite player.
“Definitely nice when you have one,’’ Fitterer said. “You can sleep better at night.’’
Fitterer also reminded you can win without an elite quarterback, but you have to surround that player with others who compensate for his weaknesses.
Making upgrades in the offensive staff also should help. Coordinator Ben McAdoo will bring a more physical running game to the attack with more play-action that should take some of the stress off the quarterback.
“It is harder,’’ Fitterer said of winning without an elite quarterback. “Everyone wants that No. 1 guy. I’d love to have that, but we’ll see where that goes.’’
Rhule said fixing an offense that finished 30th last season is as important as finding an elite quarterback. He insists his job security isn’t a concern despite a 10-23 record during his two seasons.
Tobin and Beane understand. They also recognize the importance of the elite quarterback and are thankful they’re not among the 12 to 15 teams looking for one.
“I hired a lot of people,’’ Beane said. “And I didn't want to see anybody get fired. And I knew if I didn’t want to get fired, you’ve got to have a quarterback.’’