Huge draft day decision on horizon for Panthers: QB or OT?

December 13, 2021 GMT
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton celebrates after scoring against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton celebrates after scoring against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton celebrates after scoring against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton celebrates after scoring against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton celebrates after scoring against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Barring an unforeseen turnaround, the Carolina Panthers appear destined to have a top 10 pick in next year’s NFL draft.

That means the Panthers have a potentially franchise-altering decision on the horizon: Do they try to find a young franchise quarterback with their first-round pick next April or take an offensive lineman to solidify the left tackle spot for the next decade?

Those are unequivocally the team’s two biggest positions of need.

The Panthers (5-8) have been playing musical chairs at quarterback since Matt Rhule’s arrival as head coach in 2020. Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold and (the return of) Cam Newton haven’t panned out.

Carolina is on the hook with Darnold for $18 million next season after making an ill-advised decision to pick up the fifth year of his rookie contract before he ever played a down for the Panthers. Newton is only under contract through this season and has done little to prove he can lead this franchise after going 0-3 since taking over as a starter. Newton’s backup P.J. Walker, who is 2-0 as an NFL starter, doesn’t appear to be the long-term answer either. If he was, Rhule likely would have stuck with Walker instead of signing Newton after Darnold went down with an injury.

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Mississippi’s Matt Corral and Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett are considered potential top 10 draft QBs in what is not viewed as a strong quarterback class overall.

As for the offensive line, the Panthers likely only have two players who could be considered legit starters moving forward — right tackle Taylor Moton and guard Michael Jordan. Carolina has had a pressing need at left tackle for years, and hasn’t invested a first-round draft pick in an offensive tackle since taking Jeff Otah in 2008.

Some potential top 10 picks on the offensive line in the next year’s draft include North Carolina State’s Ikem Ekwonu, Alabama’s Evan Neal, Mississippi State’s Charles Cross, and Iowa’s Tyler Linderbaum.

Much of what the Panthers do at quarterback and on the offensive line will be predicated on what they do in free agency. If there’s a top quarterback that becomes available via free agency (or trade) such as Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson, Panthers owner David Tepper certainly would be willing to pay the bill to land one.

If the Panthers can land a veteran quarterback, they could turn their resources to pursuing an offensive lineman in the draft. Regardless of which way the Panthers go, they need to hit a home run on that first-round pick.

As of right now, Carolina doesn’t have another selection until the fifth round. The Panthers traded their second- and fourth-round picks to the Jets for Darnold and their third-round pick to Jacksonville for cornerback C.J. Henderson.

WHAT’S WORKING

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Jeremy Chinn. The second-year safety continues to be a force on defense and had 13 tackles against the Falcons. Chinn has excelled in the adjustment from linebacker to safety, and now has at least 11 tackles in each of his last four games after leading all rookies in tackles last season. Chinn leads the Panthers with 91 tackles.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Turnovers. The Panthers have now turned over the ball 23 times, including 18 in their eight losses. Rhule has repeatedly stressed that his team needs to take care of the football better if they are to have a chance to win games.

“It’s real simple, you look at the games when we win the turnover battle or tie it, we usually win,” Rhule said. “When we don’t win the turnover battle, we lose. That’s where we are. That’s where most teams are, to be quite honest, but that is definitely where we are.”

STOCK UP

Robby Anderson. The wide receiver had seven catches for 84 yards and a touchdown against the Falcons, one of his best games of the season. Anderson has had an extremely disappointing year after signing a three-year contract extension, but he could be more involved in the offense with Jeff Nixon taking over play calling from Joe Brady, who was fired last week as offensive coordinator.

STOCK DOWN

Newton. The quarterback had what Rhule called two “catastrophic” turnovers against the Falcons, including a pick-6 by linebacker Mykal Walker. He also fumbled a handoff near midfield, and the Falcons cashed in with a touchdown. Newton has now turned over the ball five times in the last two games.

INJURED

Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore will be listed as day to day this week after he pulled his hamstring Sunday. Moore was able to return to the game.

KEY NUMBER

11 — consecutive losses for Newton as the Panthers starting quarterback, a streak dating back to the 2018 season.

NEXT STEPS

The Panthers have a brutal closing schedule, beginning this week at Buffalo. They also play the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers twice and New Orleans once. Three of those games are on the road.

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