Malik Willis? Kenny Pickett? Matt Corral? It's time for Carolina Panthers to draft a first-round QB

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule and new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo were in almost every television shot and photograph this past week at pro days for top NFL quarterback prospects Kenny Pickett of Pittsburgh, Liberty’s Malik Willis and Mississippi’s Matt Corral.

General manager Scott Fitterer and assistant general manager Dan Morgan were almost as visible.

So either the Panthers want the NFL world to know they’re strongly considering a quarterback with the No. 6 pick of the April draft, or they’re tossing up a big smoke screen to divert attention.

It was no smoke screen.

After missing out on acquiring the Houston Texans' Deshaun Watson, who chose the Cleveland Browns, the Panthers are turning their quarterback focus to the draft, even though Fitterer said on Friday Sam Darnold “was in the lead for the job.’’

It is time for a team that has used only one draft pick on a quarterback since Cam Newton was the top pick in 2011. That pick was West Virginia’s Will Grier in 2019, and he was a bust.

Even Fitterer admits building a complete team around a young quarterback is the best recipe for long-term success due to the high cost of successful veteran quarterbacks.

Carolina’s current recipe of recycled quarterbacks isn’t working for sure. Over the past four seasons, seven Panthers quarterbacks have started at least one game. Four have started double-digit games.

Since Newton developed shoulder issues after a 6-2 start in 2018, the Panthers have gone 16-41. Over the past three seasons, Carolina’s 15-34 record is the fifth-worst in the NFL behind the Jacksonville Jaguars (10-39), Detroit Lions (11-36-2), New York Jets (13-36) and New York Giants (14-35).

This is largely due to poor quarterback play.

This doesn’t mean Carolina will use the sixth pick on a quarterback. There is still a need at left tackle, a position that has been in flux since Jordan Gross retired after the 2013 season.

But it does mean quarterback is hugely in play, particularly after Fitterer shored up a lot of other positions in free agency.

Let’s take a closer look:

Setting up the draft in free agency

The Panthers' No. 1 free agency goal was to improve the offensive line. Fitterer did that with Los Angeles Rams guard Austin Corbett and center/guard Bradley Bozeman. Add them to a line with right tackle Taylor Moton and the biggest hole remaining is left tackle.

The Panthers have pumped up Brady Christensen, a third-round pick last year who did a nice job at left tackle the final two games, so they are somewhat comfortable there.

Unless Alabama’s Evan Neal or N.C. State’s Ikem Ekwonu falls to No. 6, which is unlikely, according to most mock drafts, Carolina likely would look at another position or trade down. There is no consensus that Mississippi State offensive tackle Charles Cross is worth a top-six pick.

So that puts a quarterback in play. If the Panthers believe Pickett, Willis or Corral fills what they’re looking for -- a quarterback with a big arm, big football IQ and big legs -- then there’s no reason to look further.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper, who isn’t high on the quarterback class, could see the Panthers at No. 6, Atlanta Falcons at No. 8 or Seattle Seahawks at No. 9 take one. Specifically, drafting Willis.

Kiper calls Willis a “right-handed version of Michael Vick,’’ and really the only quarterback worthy of a reach in the top 10.

ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid is so high on Willis that he has him going No. 2 to Detroit. If that happens, Reid still could see the Panthers taking Pickett, who once committed to Rhule when he was Temple's head coach.

“Carolina can’t put Sam Darnold or Cam Newton out there again,’’ Reid said. “This is a make-or-break year for Matt Rhule.’’

As for other positions, the Panthers shored up the secondary by re-signing cornerbacks Donte Jackson and Rashaan Melvin to play with 2021 first-round pick Jaycee Horn and 2020 (Jacksonville) first-round choice CJ Henderson.

Carolina also strengthened the safety spot with Xavier Woods and middle linebacker with Cory Littleton and Damien Wilson. It added defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis to play beside 2020 first-round pick Derrick Brown.

That doesn’t eliminate a defensive lineman from being the sixth pick, but based on Fitterer’s free-agent moves, quarterback and left tackle easily stand out, if all other things are close.

Left tackle vs. quarterback

You can win without a franchise left tackle. Cincinnati made it to the Super Bowl last season with Joe Burrow being sacked 70 times between the regular season and playoffs.

As Liberty coach Hugh Freeze reminded some when pushing Willis as the best quarterback in the draft, none of the playoff teams did a great job of protecting the quarterback, so that player needs to have great mobility.

From that standpoint, Willis has the most upside. That’s why Kiper says the 22-year-old might be worth a “flyer.’’

He compared Willis to Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert. He reminded folks that Allen was the third quarterback selected in 2018, No. 7 overall, and Herbert the third in 2020, No. 6 overall.

“You’re betting on the talent,’’ Kiper said. “They did a lot better than [most of the] guys taken ahead of them because of talent.’’

Smoke screen?

While interest in a quarterback at No. 6 is real, there’s also reason to magnify the interest in case there’s a team wanting to move up for a quarterback, like the San Francisco 49ers did last year. They sent their 2021 (No. 12), 2022 and 2023 first-round picks to the Miami Dolphins for the third pick to select Trey Lance.

It’s doubtful this year’s class will draw that kind of a package, but the Panthers could use extra draft picks. They don’t have a pick after the first round until No. 137 in the fourth round because of the 2021 trades for Darnold and Henderson.

So if Carolina can trade down and stay inside the top 19, it still could get one of the three quarterbacks or a tackle in a deep class. The Falcons (No. 8), Seahawks (No. 9), Washington Commanders (No. 11), Philadelphia Eagles (Nos. 15, 16, 19) and Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 20) all are looking for long-term solutions at quarterback.

But if the Panthers are sold on Willis, Pickett or Corral and one of them is available at No. 6, Reid says Fitterer has to take a chance, even if one of the top tackles is available.

“You want to get one of those [quarterback] guys in the building,’’ he said. “There’s no clear-cut solution on the roster.’’