Panthers impressed with Derek Carr, combine QBs as they explore all options

INDIANAPOLIS -- When you haven't had a bona fide franchise quarterback since 2018 and you have the No. 9 pick of the draft with the means to move up, you’re going to get a lot of questions at the NFL combine about quarterbacks.

Such was the case for new Carolina Panthers coach Frank Reich and general manager Scott Fitterer on Wednesday.

Whether it was on the podium or off, both spent most of their time addressing the quarterback spot. That they had a meeting with former Las Vegas Raiders QB Derek Carr, who is currently a top free agent, on Tuesday night only intensified the focus on the biggest question facing this team.

“Every option is on the table," Reich said. “It has to be. This is a huge decision. It would be malpractice not to really vet through one of those decisions. What’s the impact? What’s the unintended consequences?"

Here’s what we know. The Panthers talked with Carr by phone before the combine, met with him in person on Tuesday and are scheduled to talk to him again by phone on Monday. The Panthers are serious enough about vetting Carr that owner David Tepper and his wife, Nicole, were at the meeting Tuesday.

According to Reich, Carr checked a lot of boxes. Carr is 31 and Reich believes "there’s still a good five-year window" where the former second-round pick out of Fresno State can be highly productive. So Carolina’s not looking at Carr as another short-term fix.

There’s also his salary to consider and how it impacts the rest of the roster. Carr reportedly wants at least $35 million per year, according to ESPN's Dianna Russini. The Panthers rank in the bottom half of the league in salary cap space, but have the means to clear enough room if they believe Carr is the right fit.

The Panthers also have met in Indianapolis with five of the top quarterbacks in the draft: Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Kentucky’s Will Levis, Florida’s Anthony Richardson and Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker.

Fitterer tossed in later that they'd talked with TCU’s Max Duggan.

To be assured of getting Young, Stroud or Levis, the Panthers would have to trade into the top four or five picks. The trade of Christian McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers last season gives them ammunition to do that with additional picks in the second, third and fourth rounds.

Richardson could be had at No. 9 if the Panthers choose to stay put. Interviewing Duggan at least indicates they could be willing to take a chance in the third round or later if they get a veteran like Carr.

Carr appears to be an upgrade from the likes of quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield, whom Carolina has gone through the past three seasons. Carr has been to four Pro Bowls.

The downside outside of his salary is he has led the Raiders to winning records twice -- 12-4 in 2016 and 10-7 in 2021 -- in nine seasons with the Raiders.

Still, Reich seems impressed.

“Really have a lot of respect for him as far as what he’s accomplished, the kind of player he is, the kind of person he is," he said. “Yeah, this is a good option, but we have to look it through."

Both Fitterer and Reich admitted in an “ideal world" you draft a quarterback and have the luxury of a rookie contract to build the rest of the roster around him.

Reich also noted “it’s not the ideal world."

Reich also knows if he makes the wrong choice people could get fired. He learned that with the Colts, going through seven different starters between the 2018 season and nine games into last season before getting let go.

“Derek is an excellent leader. He’s an excellent passer," said Reich, who played quarterback in the NFL for 13 seasons, including the 1995 season as Carolina’s first-ever starter. "He’s very accomplished. ... It’s a unique opportunity to talk to someone of that caliber as a player and a person, so we didn’t take that for granted."

The Panthers also aren’t taking for granted their quarterback evaluations at the combine. One reason Fitterer doesn’t plan to talk to Carr again until Monday is he wants to put all of his focus the next few days on quarterback workouts and interviews.

Both he and Reich agree this is a strong class. They understand why many of the draft analysts rank Young at the top of the class.

“Very fast processor, very poised, accurate passer," Reich said of Young, who completed 64.5% of his passes in 2022. “He checks a lot of boxes. No moment is too big for him."

The advantage of spending cap space on Carr versus moving up in the draft to get one of the top three quarterbacks, as Fitterer noted, is “you have all your draft picks."

To trade up to No. 1 -- the likely price needed to get Young -- the Panthers might have to give up the No. 9 pick as well as their 2024 first-rounder and other picks.

That’s what makes the next week or so critical for Carolina, and why a majority of the questions were about the quarterback position.

“We’re going to exhaust every option, looking at the draft and different situations, to figure out how to best fix this moving forward instead of just putting a patch on it," Fitterer said. “We’re taking this week to get all the answers we need to get."