CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers are on the clock for the 2023 NFL draft.
Not literally, mind you.
But after spending last week at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, they are already well into the process of deciding how far to move up from the No. 9 overall pick to select the quarterback of their dreams and how much that would cost.
They didn’t lose sleep over former Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr going to the NFC South rival New Orleans Saints because the cost -- reportedly $33.5 million per year -- was way more than they were willing to invest.
Their primary focus all along was on the top four QB prospects in the draft: Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Kentucky’s Will Levis and Florida’s Anthony Richardson.
The Panthers talked to Carr at the combine in large part because he was going to be there. That owner David Tepper was there to meet with the top quarterbacks in the draft made it more convenient.
But Carolina already was talking to teams about moving up before it was announced Carr was headed to the Saints on Monday. According to league executive sources, the No. 3 overall pick is the most likely target.
That belongs to the Arizona Cardinals, who have invested heavily in quarterback Kyler Murray, the top pick of the 2019 draft, to the tune of $230.5 million over five years.
The Chicago Bears have the top pick this year and are open to trading it, since they already have Justin Fields, who was the 11th pick of the 2021 draft. To get to No. 1, the Panthers would have to give up more than general manager Scott Fitterer likely would want, but if there’s a year to do it, this is it.
“You go get the guy that you want, you know," Fitterer said at the combine. “If you have a conviction on a guy, you go get him. It's pretty simple that way. If you don't know and you're going to give all these resources to go up and get it, you're hurting your team in the long run.’’
More on that later.
It’s unlikely the Houston Texans, also in the market for a quarterback, would trade down from the second pick. If anything, the Texans could trade up to No. 1 to assure they get their man.
So No. 3 makes sense for Carolina, particularly with the Indianapolis Colts at No. 4, Raiders at No. 7 and Atlanta Falcons at No. 8 in need of a quarterback. Even the Seattle Seahawks at No. 5 could seek a long-term solution at quarterback despite giving Geno Smith a new three-year, $105 million deal.
No. 3 also makes sense because the Panthers would have a shot at Young, Stroud or Levis.
But to trade up for any of the top quarterbacks, it’ll be costly in terms of draft picks and maybe players. That so many teams in the top 10 are looking for a quarterback has driven the price up even more than past years, according to sources in Indianapolis.
One way to get a snapshot of what it will cost Carolina is the "Draft Pick Trade Value Chart", devised by former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson during the early 1990s.
Johnson gave a numerical number to each draft position. The top pick, for example, is worth 3,000 points. The ninth pick is worth 1,350.
To make up the difference -- and because future first-rounders are discounted to the 32nd pick or even a second-round pick, depending on the team -- it takes a lot. In this case, Chicago would want the No. 9 pick, two future No. 1s and other picks to make up the 1,650-point difference.
Compensatory picks are not factored in because this system was devised before they were used. So Carolina’s extra second-round pick (No. 61), third-round pick (No. 93) and fourth-round pick (No. 132) acquired in trading running back Christian McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers during the 2022 season would not be factored in.
That’s not to say the Panthers wouldn’t consider such a trade. Should they fall in love with Young, projected by many to be the top quarterback, it’s possible.
Young’s size (5-foot-10) is his only real drawback.
“The poise, the competitiveness, the ability to process and see the field,’’ Fitterer said when asked what makes Young special. “The guy never seems stressed when he's in the pocket. And then you meet him in person and he's just like chill.’’
If the Panthers want Stroud (6-foot-3, 204 pounds), it may take the top pick to assure they get him.
The same goes for Levis, who ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has as his top-rated quarterback because of his prototypical size (6-foot-3, 231 pounds) and self-proclaimed “cannon’’ of an arm. Panthers coach Frank Reich praised the 23-year-old at the combine despite the quarterback’s subpar 2022 season plagued by injuries and poor protection.
“Super talented, and obviously he’s got the big arm, the big size, has good experience, has done a lot with unique circumstances ... changing coordinators, playing at Kentucky," Reich said.
Carolina likely could get Levis at No. 3, and if not, its choice of who is left from the top three. And for less compensation than moving up to No. 1.
The No. 3 pick is valued at 2,200 points. So to make up the 850-point difference from No. 9, Carolina would have to give up the ninth pick, a future first-rounder and possibly another pick or more.
In 2021, the 49ers traded up to No. 3 in a deal that sent to the Miami Dolphins the 12th pick, a third-round pick and first-round picks in 2022 and 2023.
The risk is if that quarterback doesn’t pan out. The Panthers were able to acquire Sam Darnold, the third pick of the 2018 draft by the New York Jets, in 2021 after Darnold went 13-25 in his first three seasons.
New York sent its first-round pick (No. 6) and two second-round picks in 2018, plus a second-round pick in 2019 to Indianapolis to move up for the former USC star.
Carolina was able to acquire Baker Mayfield, the top pick of the 2018 draft by the Cleveland Browns, for almost nothing in 2022 after Mayfield went 29-30 in his first three seasons.
According to a 2021 ESPN story leading up to that year’s draft, there had been 25 trades up for a first-round quarterback involving nothing but draft picks over the previous 20 years. According to ESPN draft pick valuations, all 25 overpaid to move up and six of the previous 12 at that time overpaid the equivalent of a first-round pick.
There also are success stories that show such moves are worth it no matter what the cost. In 2017, the Kansas City Chiefs sent their first-round pick (No. 27), a third-round pick and a 2018 first-round pick to Buffalo for the No. 10 overall pick. They chose Patrick Mahomes.
Mahomes has a record of 75-19 (including playoffs), two Super Bowl MVPs and five Pro Bowl selections.
He’s what teams hope for.
The Panthers also could hold on to all of their draft picks and stay at No. 9 to select Richardson, who has been compared to QB Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 draft by Carolina.
Putting an offer sheet on Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson isn’t an option for Carolina. Remember, the Panthers pulled out of the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes because Watson wanted all of his five-year, $230 million contract guaranteed. Jackson is seeking a similar deal guaranteed.
“You better be right,’’ Fitterer said of moving up in the draft. “You better have conviction if you do move up. When you do that, you're all in.’’