For months, the worst teams in the NFL have been "positioning themselves" at the top of the 2011 NFL Draft in order to get a shot at taking Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. The redshirt sophomore, Heisman finalist and quarterback prospect extraordinaire has had an excellent 2010 season, throwing for 3,051 yards and 28 touchdowns with just seven interceptions while leading Stanford to an 11-1 record and a BCS bowl.
Over the weekend, the 2-13 Carolina Panthers sealed their fate not only as the NFL's worst team, but as owners of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. If Sports Illustrated's Peter King is correct, however, Carolina may not have the opportunity to take Luck at all. Writes King:
I heard reliably earlier in the week that Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the unquestioned top prospect in the draft should he choose to bypass his final two years of eligibility, was thinking about staying in school rather than being this year's Sam Bradford. As I said on NBC last night, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh told me he thought Luck, a redshirt sophomore, was leaning toward staying for a fourth year.
It's not exactly a huge logical leap to reach that conclusion; there is more that Luck can accomplish at the collegiate level, even if Harbaugh leaves, and more importantly, the NFL's uncertain labor situation may preclude Luck from playing any football next year if he declares. Things aren't set in stone either way, but let's assume for the sake of discussion that King is correct, and that Luck will return for his junior season. Things would go from ironclad to super-confusing at the top of the draft.
Which players might compete to become the No. 1 overall pick should Luck stay in school? The list isn't a particularly long one, and while none of these prospects are on the same level as Luck, fret not, Panthers fans: you're going to get a good player this April. That is, unless these four underclassmen decide they're going to stay in school, too.
Cam Newton, QB, Auburn. Yes, Carolina has a young player worth developing at the quarterback position in Jimmy Clausen. Here's the catch: John Fox is on his way out as Panthers head coach, and it's far from guaranteed that whichever man takes his place will want to hitch his wagon to Clausen. It's not a given that a QB will be the first player off the board, but signal-callers have still gone first overall in three of the last four drafts, and 10 of the past 13.
No one denies Newton's star power or potential, but he's still raw as a passer, and Carolina might see Newton's lack of polish as a significant risk with the top overall pick. One thing is fairly clear, however: if a QB goes first, and it's not Luck, Newton has the inside track on Jake Locker and Ryan Mallett for the time being.
A.J. Green, WR, Georgia. Green has been on the fast track to stardom ever since hitting the gridiron at Georgia. Possessing elite size and length (6'4", 212) as well as unusual athletic ability, Green has produced no matter the quality of his quarterback play, grabbing at least 49 passes for 771 yards and six touchdowns in each of his three seasons. Most impressively, Green grabbed nine regular-season touchdowns in 2010, despite missing Georgia's first four games of the season. The Panthers have been looking for a complement to Steve Smith for years, and Green is talented enough to be the first WR taken No. 1 overall since Keyshawn Johnson.
Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson. No one was quite sure what to make of Bowers entering his junior season. He clearly had worlds of talent and great NFL measurables (6'4", 280), but he had only three sacks as a sophomore. Bowers has erased any doubts about his talent and potential with an incredible junior season, however; he's racked up 61 tackles, 16 sacks and even an interception this season - and he's really only scratched the surface of his abilities. King mentioned Bowers as a candidate to go first overall should Luck stay at Stanford, and it's not hard to see why. Bowers would look great lined up opposite Carolina's best player, end Charles Johnson, who has burst onto the scene with a 12-sack campaign.
Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU. No cornerback has ever been drafted first overall in an NFL Draft, and while that streak is probably going to chug along uninterrupted, Peterson is worth mentioning as a player that will get consideration this early. He has unusual size for the cornerback position (6'1", 222), and looks more like a safety playing out on the edge. His athleticism is outstanding, and he's got the ball skills to be a true playmaker at the NFL level. He plays the pass very well -- he set a new career high with four interceptions as a junior that opponents looked to avoid -- and is more than dependable against the run. Add in the fact that Peterson is an elite kick and punt returner, and we're talking about a blue-chip prospect that is certain to make an immediate impact as a rookie.
Other prospects that Carolina will look at include the aforementioned quarterbacks (Locker and Mallett), Auburn lineman Nick Fairley, Nebraska corner Prince Amukamara and perhaps even Alabama wideout Julio Jones. From a need perspective, Green or Bowers make a lot of sense for the Panthers -- just don't count out Peterson and especially Newton. How the Panthers re-structure their coaching staff will play a role in this decision, as well.
If Luck declares, he'll almost certainly be a Carolina Panther. If he decides he'd rather be a Cardinal for another year, Carolina's decision becomes much more difficult -- and much more interesting.