CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers currently hold the fourth selection of the 2021 draft at 4-10. If they lose their final two games against Washington and New Orleans -- as the oddsmakers likely will predict -- they’ll have their highest pick since 2011.
Quarterback Cam Newton was the pick that year at No. 1, and he ultimately led Carolina to a Super Bowl appearance under Ron Rivera, who will be on the opposite sideline this week at Washington.
That begs the question: Is it time to seriously consider that Carolina should use its first pick to draft a franchise quarterback to develop behind Teddy Bridgewater?
Absolutely. And after the Panthers on Monday fired general manager Marty Hurney, it's even more likely that a new regime will want to start fresh.
“Unless you have that guy to get you to playoffs or Super Bowls, you have to keep reevaluating that. Because the only thing that matters is Super Bowls,’’ owner David Tepper said.
Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence likely will go No. 1, a pick currently held by the QB-needy Jacksonville Jaguars. Ohio State’s Justin Fields seems likely to go to the New York Jets at No. 2. Cincinnati at No. 3 drafted its franchise quarterback this past year in Joe Burrow, so even with Burrow facing a long recovery from knee surgery, the Bengals aren’t likely to pick a quarterback again.
So the Panthers will have a shot at BYU’s Zach Wilson, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance or maybe Alabama’s Mac Jones to build the offense around, as they did in 2011 with Newton. And that player won’t have to be rushed in as the starter, as Newton was, because Bridgewater can keep the team competitive.
There are other positions Carolina could address. It could pick an offensive tackle with Russell Okung likely to be re-signed. There are some doubts about Greg Little, and Trent Scott is not a franchise player at that spot. However, the Bengals also are in the market for a tackle, and Oregon’s Penei Sewell, ranked No. 2 on ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper’s latest Big Board, would be the obvious choice.
The Panthers could go with a star wide receiver, but they already have DJ Moore and Robby Anderson locked up for next season, so to take Alabama’s DeVonta Smith or LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase would be a luxury more than a necessity.
They could go with Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons and hope he’s the next Luke Kuechly. But the top five might be a little high for a linebacker, and Carolina is coming off a 2020 draft in which it used all seven picks on defense.
If coach Matt Rhule learned anything from Saturday night’s 24-16 loss at Green Bay, it’s that the defense, which sacked Aaron Rodgers five times and held the No. 1 scoring defense to three points in the second half, has enough key pieces to play at a high level.
So Rhule says Carolina’s 2021 draft will be more traditional.
“Take the best player available," he said Sunday.
Will that be a quarterback? That's what makes the most sense if there's a good match. For as often as Rhule has said the 2014 first-round pick out of Louisville “absolutely" can lead the Panthers moving forward, Bridgewater is 0-8 this season in games when he had the ball on the final drive with a chance to win or tie.
Tepper believes this season could have been much different if the Panthers had executed better in the waning moments of games.
"This team could easily have another four wins," Tepper said Monday in the team news release announcing Hurney's departure. "The eight games that we had the ball last to win or tie — seven to win, one to tie — if you win four of those games, you're in a totally different position right now with this young team. So looking at next year, I'm very hopeful where we will be and what we will do."
Bridgewater is 3-10 overall as the starter -- backup P.J. Walker went 1-0 when Bridgewater was out with a knee injury -- and has made costly mistakes. Look no further than his fumble at the goal line against Green Bay that could have cut the lead to 14-10 in the second quarter.
Bridgewater's status feels similar to Alex Smith's in Kansas City in 2016. They Chiefs picked Patrick Mahomes in 2017, and he spent most of the season observing the work ethic and leadership that made Smith such a solid quarterback, even now at Washington.
Mahomes took over in 2018 and went 12-4 en route to the NFL MVP award. He was the Super Bowl MVP in 2019.
Bridgewater, who is signed through 2022, has many of the same traits as Smith. He would be an ideal player to groom a young quarterback behind. If he takes his game to another level in 2021, then the Panthers are in even better shape for the future.
As much as Rhule likes staying focused on the next game, the future is what he will be judged on.
“I know I won’t be a 4-10 coach for long," he said. “I know our staff won’t be a 4-10 staff for long."
Securing a franchise quarterback will be key.