No Wide Receivers and a Closer NFC South

The Carolina Panthers traded a bevy of picks to the Chicago Bears for the first overall selection, earning the right to pick whichever quarterback in the draft they feel the most confident about. But more than the bare fact that they can and will pick a quarterback, there are a number of takeaways to sort out.

The Panthers traded away the No. 9 pick, No. 61, a first-round selection next year, along with a second-round pick in 2025. Not only that, they sent receiver DJ Moore, one of the best players on their roster, to Chicago as well.

That will result in significant fallout for Carolina as they attempt to rebuild the roster.

The Panthers Will Have To Support Their New Quarterback — But They Don’t Have Assets

Without a first- or second-round pick — or the ability to trade up into the second round –, the Panthers will find it difficult to put a receiving corps around their new quarterback. They already had a need at the position and now they find themselves multiplying the problem — they added to the need and subtracted from their resources at the same time.

When the Minnesota Vikings traded away Stefon Diggs for a first-round pick, their needs/assets profile didn’t really change. They used that pick on a wide receiver, meaning their plans throughout the rest of the draft and free agency were essentially untouched.

MORE: 2023 NFL Free Agents by Position

Imagine if the Vikings traded away Diggs and lost a first-round pick at the same time. They would have had to work overtime to fill the need at the position and sacrificed a player somewhere else in order to do it.

The Panthers still take on a $14 million dead cap hit from Moore, meaning they have about $23 million in cap space, per OverTheCap. That’s more than most teams, but it’s also a weak free agency class at receiver.

The Panthers Will Overpay a Wide Receiver in Free Agency

There’s not really a way to get around the fact that the receiver class is underwhelming. The Panthers have multiple needs at receiver, available cap space, and not that many picks in the draft. They will be the top bidder for any receiver that they desire, whether that’s Jakobi Meyers or Odell Beckham Jr.

Terrace Marshall Jr. has turned out to be a nice surprise for Carolina, but it’s probably better for them to keep him as a second or even third receiver than hope he can take up the mantle of a No. 1.

Meyers is projected by Pro Football Focus to earn a deal averaging $16 million a year in free agency, or 7.1 percent of the available cap. Historical equivalents to those deals include Roddy White in 2009, Larry Fitzgerald in 2016, Brandon Marshall’s deals in 2010 and 2014, Jordy Nelson in 2013, Doug Baldwin in 2016, and Andre Johnson’s deals in 2007 and 2010.

More recent analogs would include Corey Davis’ deal with the Jets in 2021, Allen Robinson’s deal with the Rams last year, and Hunter Renfrow’s deal with the Raiders in 2022.

Meyers is an underrated receiver and has a lot to offer but is not in the same realm as those players, even after adjusting for the fact that WR contracts have climbed in expense over the last several years. Cooper Kupp’s deal in 2020 was worth $15.75 million a year — 7.9 percent of 2020’s salary cap.

It could be the case that the Panthers pay even more than projected for someone like Meyers or Beckham because they don’t have much recourse to get a receiver in another way. Failing that, the receivers available in free agency include JuJu Smith-Schuster, DJ Chark, Allen Lazard, and Michael Thomas.

All of these agents know how desperate the Panthers could be to find support for their quarterback and would be willing to take Carolina to task to secure the best possible deal for their clients.

The Panthers could get lucky and hope that the Denver Broncos release Courtland Sutton, but if the Broncos hold out and decide that Sutton is a trade asset rather than a release candidate … well, the Panthers don’t have the goods.

There’s One Less Player in the Lamar Jackson Race

The Panthers already signaled that they wouldn’t be in the running for Lamar Jackson but the possibility remained. After all, the signal was not carried through an official source but a leak — they could always have plausible deniability.

Given that the Panthers have been willing to shell out picks for a veteran quarterback for some time — they were in on Deshaun Watson and Matthew Stafford — and hosted Derek Carr before the NFL Combine, Jackson could have been an interesting fit with the organization. And they would have been able to keep Moore for at least another year.

MORE: Lamar Jackson Has Not Drummed Up Any Interest and That’s Suspicious

Moore was likely on his way out of the organization, but adding a player like Jackson could have been a way to get him to change his mind and keep him in Carolina. Now, that possibility doesn’t exist.

With one fewer player in the market, the possibility that Jackson gets the deal he’s looking for drops. With other teams signaling their lack of interest, it’s difficult to find a suitor — a strange thing to think about a talented player at a highly coveted position.

The Carolina Panthers Are Betting on Coaching

The Panthers have made no secret of the fact that they think they have a quarterback development advantage with their current coaching staff. At the NFL Combine, general manager Scott Fitterer said, “You have a head coach that’s a former quarterback that knows not only how to coach the position but how to play it. He sees it through the quarterback’s eyes. He’s a play-caller,” referring to head coach Frank Reich.

He added, “Then you add Parks Frazier to the mix, you add Josh McCown to the mix. And then really underrated one was Jim Caldwell, getting a guy of his caliber on the staff. So there’s a lot of new, bright ideas. And it’s with the idea of, ‘hey, whoever the quarterback is we’re going to support him. We’re going to put him in a position to be successful. We’ll give him all the resources,’ and that’s why it’s so exciting.”

That coaching group is going to go all in on a rookie quarterback that may be more upside than talent, and that player will have to learn how to play football without a great receiving corps and some questions at running back. Even the tight end position is a question mark.

But Reich has made his way through the league on his reputation as a quarterbacks coach. That reputation took some bruising in Indianapolis after Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan failed to work out. But it remains his calling card and probably a big part of the reason that they went all in on a rookie passer.

As Reich said at the Combine, that was one of the reasons he signed with the Panthers — because they agreed with his vision to fill the team with quarterbacks coaches.

“That was one of the things sitting down with Mr. Tepper early on that we just were committed to do,” said Reich. “You know, we were going to commit to doing whatever it took to hire the best staff that we could. And he stood behind me on that and gave us the money we needed to sign some of the coaches that we needed to sign.”

Carolina Might Not Be Done Moving Around

The Panthers don’t have many assets, but they might be able to recoup them if they trade again — this time down from the first overall pick.

It’s possible that they dangle the first overall pick to the Houston Texans or Indianapolis Colts to trade just enough spots to get a quarterback they’re comfortable with, get a pick back in this year’s draft, and find that receiver that seems so important.

That could give them a shot at some of the complementary guys that could fall in the draft, like Zay Flowers, Jalin Hyatt, Josh Downs, or Rashee Rice. The Panthers might be of the mind that C.J. Stroud is the better quarterback but that Bryce Young and Downs are the better package.

Carolina is a pivot point in the draft, and they can control how the rest of the draft plays out if they feel Machiavellian enough to do so.

The NFC South Remains in Flux

The early leaders for the division title in the NFC South are the New Orleans Saints, purely by virtue of having a quarterback. Both the Panthers and the Saints hosted Carr, but it was New Orleans that ended up with him, meaning they became the first team to look like they could separate from the pack.

But the games are played in the fall, not the spring, and the Panthers finding a way to secure a quarterback — even with holes throughout the rest of the roster and some important defensive signings to consider — helps propel them in this competition.

MORE: 2023 QB Power Rankings

The Falcons have some ammunition — less than the Panthers did — to move up for a quarterback, but the Buccaneers are a little bit out of it. Not only that, the Bucs don’t have the cap space that the Panthers do, so brute-forcing their way into the competition is much harder.

Either way, there are now only two competitors for the title spot in the NFC South instead of four, which is where they were a week ago.

This Was the Right Move, Even if They Get Worse

The Panthers could be worse ate every skill position this year compared to Week 1 of last year, with movement from the running back and receiver positions depleting those spots and the tight end position being a bit of a wash regardless. If the Panthers don’t find any capable WRs in free agency or the draft this year, that would be regrettable but not alarming.

They will have a better receiver free agency class to work with in 2024 and a second-round pick to find an impact player.

Making sure that they have a quarterback is the right move and that position is paramount in the NFL. We’ve seen what happens when quarterbacks don’t have a complete roster around them, especially young ones, but Carolina does not have to resolve all of that in one year.

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