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Four college football quarterbacks the Carolina Panthers should be keeping an eye on

Regardless of how the 2022 season ends for Carolina, the team’s top priority offseason will be to accurately identify their prospective quarterback.

Franchise quarterback is a position the Panthers have not filled since the team cut Cam Newton two offseasons ago. Darts at Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield all cost the team’s former head coach his job.

The Panthers tried and failed for veteran stars like Matt Stafford in 2021 and Deshaun Watson last year. According to a source with direct knowledge of the situation, the team could have landed Watson if owner David Tepper had agreed to guarantee the third and fourth years of the quarterback’s $156 million deal. Tepper — the league’s richest owner with a reported net worth of $18.5 billion — could have put that much money in escrow, but didn’t want to.

“(Tepper) was all-in on Deshaun (Watson) until he wanted a guaranteed contract,” a league source told The Observer. “Then he was like ‘hell no’.”

A source familiar with the team’s mindset said: “There were considerations other than money.”

Atlanta and New Orleans also declined to guarantee Watson that much money because he had 22 active civil lawsuits pending at the time alleging sexual assault and misconduct. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam didn’t hesitate, angering owners across the league by giving Watson the largest single-contract guarantee in NFL history. Most league executives think Watson’s deal is absurd.

Watson joined the Browns through a trade and signed a fully guaranteed $230 million extension. Carolina joined Mayfield months later. After a 13-3 loss in Baltimore, where the offense has been dormant, it’s clear Mayfield won’t be returning next season. He threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter against the Ravens on Sunday.

The team could look at veteran options again this offseason. Maybe Aaron Rodgers wants to leave Green Bay. Kyler Murray looks unhappy in Arizona. 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is always available.

But Carolina (3-8) is heading for a top-5 pick in a rookie quarterback class that most are looking forward to. CJ Stroud (Ohio State), Bryce Young (Alabama), Will Levis (Kentucky) and Anthony Richardson (Florida) highlight a group that could see two quarterbacks leaving with the first two picks.

If the season ended today, the Panthers would pick second in the 2023 NFL Draft. According to a source with direct knowledge of the situation, Tepper went into the season with Levis in mind.

“(Tepper) just sees football differently,” said a league source. “He will not pay for (a) Deshaun (Watson). He’ll be looking to win with a QB on a rookie contract. He wants Will Levis.”

That was before Levis played a game in 2022. A source familiar with the team’s mindset said: “(Committing to a player doesn’t reflect the team’s process. Decisions aren’t made on whim. It takes a lot of analysis and one person doesn’t make that decision .”

Here’s a look at the top four quarterback prospects through conversations with ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid, The Draft Network’s Damian Parson, and several NFL front office staffers.

CJ Stroud, Ohio State (6ft 3, 215lbs)

First round projection: top 2

Case for Stroud: “Stroud, he has a size that teams will covet,” Reid said. “He just plays the position the way it’s meant to be played. Very clean. Mechanics is very good. He is really well made and has a very good arm.”

It’s still early in the review process, but there’s already consensus on Stroud and Young. Both Reid and Parson said they weren’t surprised the quarterbacks finished first and second overall, comparable to Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson.

However, that class is more comparable to the class of 2015 when Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota were the consensus top quarterbacks, but discourse never solidified a clear first-place pick.

Some reviewers prefer Stroud. Both Reid and Parson lean towards Young.

“Whatever teams land first and second picks have a choice of one of the quarterbacks,” an NFL scout, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak publicly about potential clients, told The Observer. “You can’t go wrong with either one. (The) next offensive coach, the scheme and how they are developed will be most important.”

As a pitcher, Parson said, Young demonstrates an off-script playmaking ability that Stroud has yet to demonstrate.

“CJ is not a statue. He’s not someone who can’t move. It’s almost like a lot of times he just doesn’t want to,” Parson said. “Like he wants to sit in the pocket. He wants to throw with the rhythm and play with structure.”

There is little to complain about Stroud. Several reviewers mentioned his personality and demeanor as being less “intense” than Young’s.

In 10 starts this season, Stroud has 2,750 passing yards, 34 touchdown throws (the most in FBS) and just four interceptions. His overall quarterback rating of 90.8 is the best in the nation.

Bryce Young, Alabama (6ft, 190lbs)

First round projection: top 2

case for boy: “He’s currently the best quarterback in this position. He’s everything you want,” Reid said. “He’s just not big. But in terms of the charisma, the competence, the way the position is supposed to be played, the belief in him no matter what stage of the game and then just the way he plans the position and carries himself . He’s the guy who can be a franchise cornerstone.”

Parson said Young leads his teammates comparable to Jalen Hurts. He is stoic, confident and never afraid. He doesn’t play with a Tom Brady bark, but when he speaks, his teammates and coaches (including Nick Saban) listen.

Size is the only general concern for Yong as a potential client. Every evaluator and scout mentions it. One scout jokingly said he was built like a bar stool, short and skinny. But reviewers agree that his size doesn’t hinder his skills and eyesight.

Reviewers fear its thin stature could lead to long-term durability issues. Young is currently suffering from a shoulder injury. He sprained his AC joint in early October in Alabama’s 49-26 away win over Arkansas. The injury isn’t seen as a long-term concern, but it does show why teams are concerned if he will last in a 17-game NFL season.

Young won the Heisman as a sophomore last season. He has 2,443 passing yards, 22 touchdown passes and just four interceptions. His overall QBR of 83.0 is 10th in the nation.

Will Levis, Kentucky (6ft 3, 230lbs)

First round projection: Wild card for the first round

Case for Levi’s: Reid said he understands why the Panthers went into the season with an eye on Levis.

“Levis has all the arm strength you need in the position. But right now, mentally, he’s just really having trouble reading and processing. The most worrying thing about him is how he handles football,” Reid said. “Maybe the Panthers think they have the coaching set up that can help solve some of his problems that he’s having right now. Maybe they see Will Levis as a young Big Ben (Roethlisberger).

Levis had at least one turnover in every game except two this season. He threw for just 98 yards and threw three interceptions in a 44-6 loss to Tennessee last month.

Parson, however, described Levis as a “wild card” who he expects to rise up the draft boards during the offseason evaluation process. Mainly because he’s built like Josh Allen. Parsons also said Levis has a work ethic that NFL teams would bank on despite his revenue concerns.

If the Panthers don’t land a top 2 pick, Levis could be an ideal pick.

Levis has 2,012 passing yards, 16 touchdown passes, and completes 66.1% of his throws.

Anthony Richardson, Fla. (6ft 3, 235lbs)

First round projection: Super wild card for the first round

Case for Richardson: “He’s my favorite quarterback in this class. I love Bryce (Young). I love CJ (Stroud), I like Will Levis, but this kid can be a star,” Parson said. “I compared him to Cam Newton. He has all the tools you want. He just needs time. … You’ll have to be patient, but if you agree with this kid. You will have a star.”

Parson may have to wait a year to rate Richardson as a pro. The 21-year-old quarterback is a sophomore redshirt and could decide to return to Florida next season.

Several NFL reviewers said Richarson is ready for the NFL and could become a point of infatuation if he declares himself for the draft.

“First you will have an absolute top athlete. You see that,” Parson said. “But this kid is trainable. He is trainable. He is a student of the game.”

Richardson impresses reviewers as both a runner and pitcher over the course of the collegiate season. During the season, Richardson completed 55% of his passes for 2,351 yards, 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He gained 613 rushing yards and had nine touchdowns on 66 carries.

He currently drives a five-game heater. In the past five weeks, Richardson has thrown nine touchdowns and one interception, including a 400-yard throw in a 31-24 loss to Vanderbilt last Saturday.

Why the Panthers need to draft a first-round quarterback

Former Panthers coach Matt Rhule oversaw three NFL drafts during his tenure. Not once have the Panthers picked a first-round quarterback. Instead, Derrick Brown (2020), Jaycee Horn (2021), and Ikem Ekwonu (2022) await their next head coach, clearly identified as a cornerstone.

But it’s about time the Panthers drafted their franchise quarterback. Not one person interviewed for this story suggested or advised Carolina to use her future first-round pick differently.

“You have to take one because (Christian) McCaffrey was the face of the franchise. Right now I don’t see anyone on the offensive side of the ball that could be that guy,” Reid said. “I like DJ Moore. He’s a good player, but I think you just need that quarterback that can be the face of the franchise player. They really haven’t had that since Cam Newton.”

Profile picture of Ellis L. Williams

A Minnesota native, Ellis L. Williams joined the Observer in October 2021 to cover the Carolina Panthers. He previously covered the Browns for Cleveland.com/the Plain Dealer for two years. After escaping cold winters, he looks forward to consuming football, basketball, music and movies in the Queen City.

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