Before now, it was just an idea. Now it should be the plan.
With the 2020 regular season in the books, more than half the teams in the NFL are getting a head start on the rest of the playoff teams when it comes to offseason planning.
The Carolina Panthers finished their first season under head coach Matt Rhule with a respectable 5-11 record. It was a number that honestly was on the higher end of season predictions from back in August. Carolina proved that they could hang tough with a lot of good teams, even with less than ideal circumstances. However, losing their best offensive player, running back Christian McCaffrey, didn’t help when it came to being the underdog and upsetting a few of the favorites.
The Panthers’ roster fell short in a handful of areas this season. At linebacker, even with hybrid player Jeremy Chinn having a fantastic season, they just did not get the play out of the middle of that group (beyond Shaq Thompson) that they needed. On the boundary, the cornerback room surely felt the body blows of missing James Bradberry, who was signed by the New York Giants last offseason. The offensive line, while they had their moments, was not up to league par—and anytime you’re losing more than you’re winning up front, it’s tough to take and sustain leads no matter the opponent.
Then there was the quarterback position.
The Panthers’ split with their franchise quarterback Cam Newton last offseason was messy. There was clearly a desire to wipe the roster slate pretty much clean when Rhule stepped in the building, and that included some franchise legends like Newton, tight end Greg Olsen, and to a different extent Luke Kuechly when he announced his shocking retirement. They knew they wanted to move on from Newton, but they didn’t want to be void of a quarterback option going into 2020. That’s when Teddy Bridgewater was signed.
Bridgewater signed a three-year, $63 million deal this past offseason in the wake of some very nice showings as QB2 in New Orleans the previous two seasons (particularly in 2019). Bridgewater was selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft and was getting better as his career went on with the Minnesota Vikings until a devastating leg injury almost cost him his career. He worked hard to get back to the point where he could be counted on and showed some of his best stuff with the Saints.
This version of Bridgewater has been fine. He amassed career highs in completions, passing yards, completion percentage, and passing touchdowns. I would tell you that he isn’t the biggest weakness, talent-wise, that the Panthers have on their roster. But as the season has gone on, Bridgewater has unfortunately strengthened the argument that, while he can be serviceable, he likely just isn’t a franchise guy who can elevate when situations go awry. What I mean by that is: I believe you can make a postseason team around Bridgewater. If you surround him with numerous playmakers on offense, a top-10 offensive line, a steady running game, and a top-10 defense behind him, Bridgewater can manage games to get you to double-digit wins and into the postseason.
But do you know how hard it is to assemble that kind of ideal roster? And even then, you’ll likely always be looking for a potential upgrade at quarterback as you build the team (look at where the San Francisco 49ers are right now with Jimmy Garoppolo).
The Panthers will likely have the chance to make that upgrade this draft cycle, and if they do, they would be wise to take it.
The Panthers have the eighth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. With such a high pick will likely come the chance to get one of four quarterbacks: Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, or Trey Lance. We assume Lawrence will go No. 1, and the New York Jets could very well be taking a quarterback at No. 2. After that, though, it gets fun. The Panthers will be in range to pick or potentially move up (and not too far) to go get a guy they want based on whoever is left at quarterback after the top two picks. I would also urge Panthers fans to not look at that in the way of “why would we settle or trade up for the third-best quarterback in the class?” Every class is different, and in this draft, there could very well be four potential franchise changers at that position.
Bridgewater saved his worst for last in 2020, going an abysmal 13-for-23 with just 176 passing yards and two interceptions before a switch was made for P.J. Walker, who proceeded to throw three interceptions himself. After the game, it was noted that Bridgewater was pulled because of a shot he took to his knee and that inserting Walker might give the team a spark. That was likely the crack in the door—or perhaps the kicking of it wide open—for the Panthers to dip into the upcoming quarterback class.
There are some who would argue that the timing for the Panthers to draft a quarterback isn’t perfect. They have Bridgewater under contract with a good chunk of his money being guaranteed for at least another year. Since they’re paying him anyway, there are draft plans where they ride with Bridgewater, add a very needed prospect at cornerback, linebacker, or along the offensive line with their first-round pick this year, and go all-in on a franchise quarterback next year.
I’m here to tell you it’s not that easy.
They won five games with a first-year head coach and no McCaffrey this season. Wouldn’t you expect that number to rise, even one or two games the following season? I’m sure they would. If that’s the case, coupled with that fact that you figure the NFL won’t be historically bad record-wise around the league, and the Panthers might not even be picking in the top 10 next season. If that’s the case, they likely won’t have the chance to get a franchise quarterback.
The timing may not be “perfect,” but it is now, here, with a top-10 pick in hand. Carolina should do all the research they can for this upcoming quarterback class. I think they’ll like what they find.