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Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud throws a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Northwestern, Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Evanston, Ill. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)


No matter how the 2022 season ends for Carolina, the team’s top offseason priority will be accurately identifying its future quarterback.

Franchise quarterback is a position the Panthers have not satisfied since the team cut Cam Newton two offseasons ago. Dart-throw misses on Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold, and Baker Mayfield cost the team’s previous 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 had owner David Tepper agreed to guarantee the third and fourth year of the quarterback’s $156 million deal. Tepper — the league’s wealthiest owner with a reported net worth of $18.5 billion— could have put that much money in escrow but did not 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 thinking said “there were other considerations beyond money.”

Atlanta and New Orleans also declined to guarantee that much money to Watson considering he still had 22 active civil suits alleging sexual assault and misconduct pending at the time. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam didn’t hesitate, thus upsetting owners around the league by giving Watson the largest single contract guarantee in NFL history. Most league executives consider Watson’s deal to be absurd.

Watson joined the Browns via trade and signed a $230 million fully guaranteed extension. Carolina pivoted months later to Mayfield. Following a 13-3 loss at Baltimore where the offense was dormant, it’s clear Mayfield won’t return next season.

The team could explore veteran options again this offseason. Perhaps Aaron Rodgers will want out of Green Bay. Kyler Murray looks unhappy in Arizona. 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is always available.

But Carolina (3-8) is headed toward a top-5 pick in a rookie quarterback class most are excited about. C.J. Stroud (Ohio State), Bryce Young (Alabama), Will Levis (Kentucky), and Anthony Richardson (Florida) highlight a group that could see two quarterbacks go 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 entered the season with eyes for Levis.

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

That was before Levis played a 2022 game. A source familiar with the team’s thinking said “(Locking in) on one player is not a reflection of the team’s process. Decisions are not made on whims. There is a lot of analysis involved and one person does not drive that decision.”

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

C.J. Stroud, Ohio State (6-foot-3, 215 pounds)

First-round projection: Top 2

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

It’s early in the evaluation process but there is already a consensus surrounding Stroud and Young. Both Reid and Parson said they would not be surprised quarterbacks went first and second overall, comparable to Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson.

However, this class compares more to the 2015 class when Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota were the consensus top quarterbacks but discourse never solidified a clear first-overall pick.

Some evaluators prefer Stroud. Both Reid and Parson lean toward Young.

“Whichever teams land the first and second pick will have their choice of either quarterback,” an NFL scout, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on prospects, told The Observer. “You cannot go wrong with either. (The Panthers’) next offensive coach, scheme, and how they are developed will matter most.”

As throwers, Parson said Young is demonstrating an off-script playmaking ability that Stroud has not shown yet.

“C.J. is not a statue. He’s not somebody that cannot move. It’s almost as if he just doesn’t want to a lot of times,” Parson said. “Like he wants to sit in the pocket. He wants to throw within rhythm and play in structure.”

There is little to nitpick about Stroud. Multiple evaluators did mention his personality and demeanor as less “intense” than Young’s.

Through 10 starts this season, Stroud has 2,750 passing yards, 34 touchdown throws (most in the FBS), and only four interceptions. His Total Quarterback Rating of 90.8 is the best in the nation.

Bryce Young, Alabama (6-foot, 190 pounds)

First-round projection: Top 2

Case for Young: “He’s the top quarterback at the position right now. He’s everything that you want,” Reid said. “He just doesn’t have size. But as far as the charisma, the competence, the way the position is supposed to be played, having the belief in him no matter the period in the game, and then just the way he goes about planning the position and carrying himself. He’s the type that can be a franchise cornerstone.”

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

Size is the only universal concern surrounding Young as a prospect. Every evaluator and scout mentions it. One scout jokingly said he’s built like a bar stool, short and skinny. But evaluators agree his height does not hinder his in-pocket command or vision.

Evaluators are concerned his thin stature could lead to long-term durability issues. Young is currently enduring a shoulder injury. He sprained his AC joint during Alabama’s 49-26 road win against Arkansas in early October. The injury is not considered a long-term issue but does exemplify why teams are concerned whether he’ll hold up during a 17-game NFL season.

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

Will Levis, Kentucky (6-foot-3, 230 pounds)

First-round projection: First-round wild card

Case for Levis: Reid said he understands why the Panthers entered the season with an eye on Levis.

“Levis has all the arm strength that you want at the position. But right now mentally, he’s just really struggling as far as reading and processing. The most worrisome thing about him is just how he takes care of the football,” Reid said. “Maybe the Panthers are thinking that they have the coaching in place that can help solve some of his woes that he has right now. They may see a young Big Ben (Roethlisberger) in Will Levis.”

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

But Parson described Levis as a “wild card” who he expects to see rise up draft boards during the offseason evaluation process. Largely because he’s built like Josh Allen. Parsons also said Levis has a work ethic NFL teams will be willing to bet on despite his turnover concerns.

If the Panthers do not land a top-two pick then Levis could be an ideal selection.

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

Anthony Richardson, Florida (6-foot-3, 235 pounds)

First-round projection: First-round super wild card

Case for Richardson: “He’s my favorite quarterback in this class. I love Bryce (Young). I love C.J. (Stroud) I like Will Levis, but this kid I feel like can be a star,” Parson said. “I’ve compared him to Cam Newton. He has all the tools you want. He just needs time. … You have to be patient but if do right by this kid. You’re gonna have a star.”

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

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Several NFL evaluators said Richarson is ready for the NFL and could become a point of infatuation if he does declare for the draft.

“First, you’re gonna have an absolute star athlete. You see that,” Parson said. “But this kid is coachable. He’s teachable. He’s a student of the game.”

Richardson is impressing evaluators as both a runner and thrower as the college season unfolds. On the season, Richardson has completed 55% of his passes for 2,351 yards, 14 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. He gained 613 rushing yards and scored nine touchdowns on 66 carries.

He’s currently riding a five-game heater. During the past five weeks, Richardson has thrown nine touchdowns and one interception, including throwing for 400 yards in a 31-24 loss to Vanderbilt last Saturday.

Why the Panthers must draft a first-round quarterback

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

But it’s time the Panthers draft their franchise quarterback. Not one person interviewed for this story either suggested or advised Carolina should use its future first-round pick a different way.

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

This story was originally published November 25, 2022 5:30 AM.

Hailing from Minnesota, Ellis L. Williams joined the Observer in October 2021 to cover the Carolina Panthers. Prior, he spent two years reporting on the Browns for Plain Dealer. Having escaped cold winters, he’s thrilled to consume football, hoops, music and movies within the Queen City.

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