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The Panthers’ jump to No. 1 was expensive, but brilliant

The Panthers finally have a real plan.

Carolina Panthers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Moving up in the NFL Draft is never cheap. Jumping from No. 9 to No. 1 overall costs a ton, and the Panthers paid it. The team sent the No. 9 overall pick, a first round pick in 2024, WR D.J. Moore, and a second round pick in 2025 to the Bears and jumped up to the top selection.

The football world is still digesting the mammoth trade that happened in a Friday evening news dump, but while everyone is adjusting their boards and trying to determine who “won” the deal it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that both teams will get monumentally better as a result — and what Carolina did was brilliant considering their situation.

It wasn’t long ago that the Panthers seemed like a lock for the No. 1 pick in the draft. Carolina started the season 1-4, they’d just fired Matt Rhule. Christian McCaffrey, the team’s best offensive weapon was traded away, and rumors swirled about D.J. Moore and DE Brian Burns being on the block too. This was a team that seemed destined to blow it all up, tank their way to the bottom, and rebuild everything.

Instead, interim head coach Steve Wilks showed the talent the Panthers had, but Rhule was too inept to harness. Despite inheriting one of the worst quarterback rooms in the NFL and lacking any weapons on offense outside of Moore, Wilks dragged Carolina to a 6-6 record that flipped the script on the season, turning it from a race to the bottom, to a potentially hilarious playoff run against in the odds in the hapless NFC South.

The reason that playoff run didn’t materialize: Quarterback play. Controlling their own destiny for the final five weeks of the season, the Panthers struggled to score through the air, and in two critical games against the Steelers and Buccaneers, both of which would have sent Carolina to the playoffs, the team had to settle for a combined four 4th quarter field goals that sealed their fate.

Were the Panthers good? No. Were they a quarterback away from winning the NFC South? Probably.

Aspiring to be the best of the worst isn’t the ideal, but if there’s one thing the short-lived Wilks era showed it was that this team was too good to blow up entirely. D.J. Moore, while brilliant, couldn’t throw the ball to himself, and his 1,000+ yard seasons couldn’t translate into enough wins. Playing their way into the 9th overall pick put Carolina in a lurch.

They really had three options, and none of them were ideal:

  1. Spend the little cap space they had on a starting free agent quarterback like Derek Carr.
  2. Punt on 2023 and try to suck their way to the bottom again with Sam Darnold
  3. Trade up in the draft

The third option was always the one which made the most sense for the Panthers. New head coach Frank Reich assembled a staff custom built to support a rookie quarterback. Quarterback is Reich’s thing, it’s also why they brought in Josh McCown to be QB coach, Parks Frazier as passing game coordinator, and Jim Caldwell as an offensive advisor. These are were the pillows to make any rookie’s landing in the NFL as soft as possible.

There was a problem: That 9th overall pick. At one point, sure, there was a reasonable chance at least one of the QBs would be available. However when Anthony Richardson lit up the combine it became clear he wasn’t going to be the value 1st rounder many projected in the teens or 20s. It was widely assumed quarterbacks would be selected at No. 1 and No. 2, with only Will Levis being a consensus for who might fall out of those picks, and even then tumbling to 9th wasn’t seen as a possibility.

Having no agency if you’re a team in dire need of a quarterback and it’s your biggest concern sucks. Even worse is needing to take the leftover QB in the class and hoping they pan out, while having to trade the future to make it happen.

So, instead of paying a hefty price to move up on draft night to the 3rd or 5th pick, for instance, Carolina paid a mammoth price to lock up No. 1 overall and get their choice of quarterbacks.

Losing Moore SUCKS, but it’s not the end of the world for the Panthers

D.J. Moore is a truly fantastic receiver. He’s a rare talent who makes a quarterback’s life easier and can excel at all three levels as a speedy YAC receiver, a precision route runner in intermediate downs, or as a deep threat.

Chicago got an incredible player, and more importantly they have the cap space to restructure his contract down the line. Make no mistake, that’s coming, because when Moore signed his extension a year ago he inked for MUCH less than his market value. $16M a year is a STEAL in a world where Christian Kirk is making $24M. That’s no big deal for the Bears, who have room to make it happen — but it was much tougher for the Panthers to swing it with their other extensions on the books.

In terms of where Carolina goes offensively it’s not nearly as dire as it looks on paper right now.

The Panthers will take their chosen quarterback, with all signs pointing to Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, and they managed to keep their top pick in the second round at No. 39. They could find a decent receiver there, but the real boon with this pick is the incredible depth at tight end in the 2023 draft. This is one of the best tight end classes in NFL history, and being a slightly more deemphasized position should allow the Panthers to easily get the 2nd or 3rd best tight end in the class. These top three players are so close in skill that either Luke Musgrave, Dalton Kincaid or Michael Mayer would immediately be a huge upgrade to Carolina’s passing game and lock up a key position.

Can a good quarterback excel almost exclusively with a tight end? Ask Patrick Mahomes. Sure, that’s taken to the absolute extreme — but we’ve seen teams do just fine with a TE as their primary weapon, at least in the short term.

When it comes to receivers there’s a little promise here too. Trading away Moore puts a lot of responsibility on Terrace Marshall Jr., who the Panthers took in the second round of the 2021 draft. The former LSU receiver, and Joe Burrow’s third target behind Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase showed a lot of promise when he became a starter after the team traded away Robbie Chosen Anderson mid-season.

Marshall Jr. finished with 490 yards and a touchdown in nine starts. It’s foolish to say the position is “fine,” but it’s not like the cupboard is completely bare. Carolina should be able to add a mid-tier free agent receiver and potentially have enough in the receiving game to get by in 2023, with boatloads of cap space opening up in 2024 to be major players in free agency.

What is the Panthers ceiling in 2023?

That’s a weird question. It’s even more bizarre to think of any team having the No. 1 overall pick and being the second best team in their division. If we assume the Derek Carr-led Saints are the favorites to win the NFC South right now, everything else is wide open.

Sure, the Falcons could pull off a surprise move, sign Lamar Jackson and immediately catapult themselves to the top — but if they continue to see what they have in Desmond Ridder it’s tough to see them making noise. Meanwhile Tampa Bay is destined to be in the cellar while they rebuild from Tom Brady’s retirement.

If Carolina find a good quarterback, and with the first pick in this class they should, there’s every chance they’re back where they were in 2022 immediately, potentially pushing for a playoff spot. The difference this time is the team’s receivers are worse, but the QB position will be far better than relying on Sam Darnold or Baker Mayfield.

Most importantly: This is the move that establishes this team’s future and solidifies it under Frank Reich. The Panthers are not in a bad spot, and they feel a lot closer to the 2020 Bengals who went 4-11-1 in Joe Burrow’s rookie season before becoming a juggernaut, than they do being stuck in mediocrity.

If that’s the price the team paid to make this move, it will go down being one of the best in franchise history.