Andrew Luck was widely expected to go to the Carolina Panthers as the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. Luck’s announcement today that he’s planning to return for another season at Stanford derails those plans.
So where will the Panthers turn now?
If the Panthers still want to draft a quarterback first overall, they’ll need to accept the fact that there’s not a quarterback coming out this year who’s viewed as capable of stepping in immediately and excelling in a pro-style passing game, the way Sam Bradford did in St. Louis in 2010, or the way Luck would have been expected to in Carolina in 2011.
There are still a few quarterbacks likely to go in the first round, however. Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert is probably the most NFL-ready of the bunch. When Gabbert announced that he was leaving Missouri and turning pro, he hinted that the NFL draft advisory board had given him every indication that he’d be a high pick. Gabbert isn’t on the same level as Luck, but he could merit consideration for the Panthers at No. 1 overall.
The other highly rated quarterbacks all come with big question marks. Auburn’s Cam Newton has been the best player in college football this year, but that’s been in a spread attack, not a pro-style scheme. Some NFL teams may also have concerns about Newton’s character.
Ryan Mallett, the 6-foot-7 Arkansas quarterback, has an amazing arm but looks a little klutzy and doesn’t have a lot of touch on his passes. Washington’s Jake Locker is an excellent athlete, but his accuracy is abysmal: He capped a senior season in which he completed just 55.4 percent of his passes by going 5-of-16 for 56 yards in the Huskies’ Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska.
As Darin Gantt of the Charlotte Observer pointed out, Luck’s decision might have opened the door to the Panthers taking a non-quarterback, especially since they just spent a second-round pick on Jimmy Clausen last year. Various mock drafts have shown the Panthers going for Georgia receiver A.J. Green (the most talented receiver college football has seen since Calvin Johnson was at Georgia Tech) or Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers.
Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson and Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara all may be in the mix as well.
And then there’s the option of a trade. In recent years, teams picking at the top of the draft have had a hard time finding trading partners, because who wants to move up and be forced to give an unproven rookie a $50 million guarantee? But if there’s a new collective-bargaining agreement with a sensible rookie wage scale, the Panthers might find some takers if they shop the top pick.
In any event, the Panthers had better choose wisely: They have the first pick for a reason, and that reason is that they were the worst team in the league this season. Oh, and they don’t have a second-round pick because they traded what turned out to be the 33rd pick in this year’s draft to the Patriots to acquire the 89th pick in last year’s draft. They used that pick to draft Armanti Edwards, a wide receiver who played in three games and didn’t catch a single pass as a rookie.
That trade illustrates the way good teams like the Patriots use the draft to stay good, and bad teams like the Panthers use the draft to stay bad. The Panthers have 16 weeks from today to figure out how they can use the first overall pick to break that cycle.