Panthers' plan lures Adam Thielen, puts No. 1 pick in 'good position'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Adam Thielen admittedly “was trying my hardest’’ while being recruited by the Carolina Panthers to get a feel for which quarterback they planned to select with the top pick of the NFL draft.

“That was one piece of information they wouldn’t give me,’’ the former Minnesota Vikings wide receiver said with a laugh Monday on "The Pat McAfee Show."

Thielen signed a three-year, $25 million deal anyway because he liked what general manager Scott Fitterer and coach Frank Reich had done in free agency with additions such as former Philadelphia Eagles running back Miles Sanders and veteran quarterback Andy Dalton.

He liked the roster so much that he chose the Panthers because he believed they had the best chance to win a Super Bowl, even after talking to the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos.

Never mind Carolina hasn’t had a winning season since 2017. Thielen believes the roster is headed in a direction that can win now without knowing who the top pick is.

“Honestly, I wasn’t planning on going to the Panthers,’’ Thielen told McAfee. “I went on a visit there just to see what they were about. I wanted to go somewhere I felt had an opportunity to win a Super Bowl. When I sat down with Coach, sat down with the GM ... I felt like Carolina was the place to do that.’’

Nothing against the veteran Dalton -- in many ways the 35-year-old is the perfect player to mentor a young quarterback -- but he has an 0-4 record in the playoffs and hasn’t played a postseason game since 2014. So that rookie quarterback will be the key to whether Carolina is a contender or a pretender during the duration of Thielen’s three-year contract.

That process heats up Wednesday when the Panthers travel to Columbus, Ohio, for the pro day of Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, followed by Alabama’s Bryce Young on Thursday and Kentucky’s Will Levis on Friday.

Florida’s Anthony Richardson will have his pro day on March 30.

The Panthers are sending a full contingent to Ohio State to see Stroud. Among the coaches and other top administrators are owner David Tepper and his wife Nicole.

Tepper already has been part of interviews with the four quarterback candidates at the combine in Indianapolis.

It wouldn’t surprise if the same contingent is in Tuscaloosa to see Young as well.

The top pick in the draft will come from one of those four quarterbacks.

Fitterer and Reich insist they’re still early in the process, that they haven’t narrowed their focus to one or even two players. But according to a source with direct knowledge of Carolina’s trade with the Chicago Bears that moved them from No. 9 to No. 1, the deal was done to have their choice of Stroud or Young, rated by most draft experts as the top quarterbacks.

“Obviously, we have our ideas,’’ Fitterer said Monday. “You’re not going to make a move like that without having that pretty much cemented. But now we’re going through the process of talking to the players and totally getting to know them.’’

All Reich would allow was he hadn’t eliminated any of the four, including Young, despite his height. At 5-foot-10, he would be the shortest quarterback (by 5 inches) Reich has started in his 17 years as a coach.

Reich wouldn’t even indicate how much weight he puts into height, reminding he had a very high grade on Russell Wilson (5-foot-11) when the Seattle Seahawks selected him in the third round of the 2012 draft.

“That would be like giving the proprietary formula for Kentucky Fried Chicken,’’ Reich joked.

Reich also said he believes “all four of these guys will make an impact in this league.’’

ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, who was a quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts in 2011 when Reich was an assistant there, believes accuracy and leadership will be huge determining factors in Reich’s evaluation.

“The consistency and making the right play at the right time is a really big deal to Frank,’’ he said.

Orlovsky believes Stroud checks all the boxes Reich wants, including height -- Stroud is 6-3.

His only concern with Young is durability because of his size, not his ability to make plays.

“Frank’s been around long enough that [regardless of height] if [a quarterback] can play, he can play,’’ Orlovsky said. “He’s seen it doesn’t have to be a quote, unquote make and model.’’

He can see why one of those two will end up being selected by Carolina.

What Reich and Fitterer did allow was that the roster has been built via free agency so the quarterback who is selected has a chance to succeed:

Offensive line: Carolina re-signed center Bradley Bozeman, meaning the entire starting group that helped the team rank among the top in the league in rushing the second half of the 2022 season is back.

RB Miles Sanders: The Panthers added a young (25), dynamic back who rushed for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.

TE Hayden Hurst: The 2018 first-round pick will give the top pick a big target (6-4) at a position Carolina hasn’t had a real pass-catching threat since 2019 (Greg Olsen). Hurst had 52 catches last season for the Cincinnati Bengals. That’s two more than the Panthers' four tight ends combined for last season.

QB Andy Dalton: Thielen said this was a “huge piece for me’’ because Dalton provides a veteran presence that gives Carolina insurance in case the rookie isn’t ready.

Defense: A unit that on paper has the potential to be top-10 as it switches from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme.

Coaching staff: A veteran-laden group, particularly on offense, where Reich, former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell and quarterbacks coach Josh McCown are good fits for developing a young quarterback.

“I feel there is a real chance to win a Super Bowl,’’ Thielen said.

But again, the top pick of the draft will be key.

“We really feel like we’re putting this guy in a good position with some of the pieces we’ve signed,’’ Reich said. “We’re going to take every second, every hour, every day to make this decision. We’ve still got plenty of time left.’’