National Football League
Who's No. 1? Panthers say they're still figuring it out week before NFL Draft
National Football League

Who's No. 1? Panthers say they're still figuring it out week before NFL Draft

Published Apr. 18, 2023 5:56 p.m. ET

Trading up for the No. 1 pick in the draft is as big an evaluation process as the NFL has, and five weeks after moving to the top of this draft and a week before delivering the pick to the commissioner, Carolina's football braintrust is still deciding.

It will come down to head coach Frank Reich and general manager Scott Fitterer, but their process is thorough enough that they haven't had that conversation just yet.

"You know, I haven't asked him yet," Fitterer said Tuesday, talking to reporters in a pre-draft press conference. "But we were laughing the other day, because it's becoming clearer for us. Maybe a certain way that we want to go or who it may be."

The popular consensus has long been that Ohio State's C.J. Stroud and Alabama's Bryce Young are the top quarterbacks in the class, and Carolina sent a contingent of 12 coaches and front-office executives to the pro days for those two, as well as Florida's Anthony Richardson and Kentucky's Will Levis, with private visits as follow-ups.

The most recent momentum has shifted to Young, with concerns about his lack of size giving way to buzz about a stronger score on the S2 Cognition test, a newer way of testing athletes with more relevance and practical application than the Wonderlic exam. It's an interactive test that can measure reaction times to the nearest millisecond, giving NFL teams a better sense for how quickly and accurately prospects can process everything they see. Young reportedly aced the exam, just another reason to like him as a potential match for the Panthers and the top overall pick.

"Obviously we use it, so we believe in it," Fitterer said Tuesday of the S2 test. "But it's a tool, just like there's a lot of different tools we look at, with analytics and everything else. It all comes back to the tape as the most important thing that we do while we watch them. It's just another tool that we use, but it's something we believe in."

Carolina acquired the No. 1 pick on March 10 at considerable cost, sending the Chicago Bears the No. 9 pick, next year's first-rounder, second-round picks this year and in 2025, along with star receiver DJ Moore. As the Panthers looked at this year's quarterback class with their original draft spot at ninth overall, they saw a real chance of being on the outside looking in, with three or four of the top quarterbacks coming off the board before they were on the clock.

The past five weeks have validated their decision, even if that hasn't crystallized to one player as the final answer just yet.

"We feel really good about going from nine to one," Fitterer said. "I'd hate to be at nine right now, trying to figure this out."

Quarterbacks at the top of a draft are poked and prodded and measured, and every second of game tape is analyzed for strengths and weaknesses. The extensive time spent with the quarterbacks in this draft process has allowed them to evaluate the prospects as people as much as players, to see how well they prepare and study and retain information, what leadership qualities they show, knowing a No. 1 overall pick needs to be a team leader in a hurry.

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Recent passers taken with the top pick have been able to lead their teams to postseason success in a short time. The Jaguars won a division title in Trevor Lawrence's second year, and the Bengals made a Super Bowl in Joe Burrow's second season. Kyler Murray led Arizona to the playoffs in his third year, and Baker Mayfield helped Cleveland to a playoff win in his third year.

"Is this the person that can lead our franchise? Is he the one that really kind of validates why we went up to one? Is he one that's going to make the difference?" Fitterer said. "It's not like we're expecting this quarterback to come in and instantly just make everything happen and everything changes immediately. We've seen it with Jalen Hurts and Josh Allen, it takes time, and you have to surround them with the right people, the right coaching. But I think we've done that. We're not going to force this quarterback on the field or ask him to do anything they can't do."

The Panthers have an entire draft to prepare for and not just the opening pick, so they've talked extensively with coaches and will have another round with their scouts this week, finalizing their draft board and their priorities, including the biggest pick of all. That decision has been long in the making, but when Fitterer and Reich come together to choose — whether it's Young, or Stroud, or even a surprise at the top of the draft — it will be the result of an exhaustive and comprehensive draft process.

"We are consciously trying to keep all four in there, so we can ask every question and look at it from every angle to make sure we're making the right decision," Fitterer said. "This is a big decision for the organization. We don't want to lock onto something early on, just to decide that's our guy. We want to keep this process open, all the way through."

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.  

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