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The first pick of the NFL draft will be a quarterback. But which one?

Frank Reich's Carolina Panthers are on the clock. (Darron Cummings/AP)
8 min

The Carolina Panthers are undoubtedly selecting a quarterback with the NFL draft’s first pick, which they leaped up to acquire this month. But which one? That’s a little less clear.

The draft is now roughly a month away, and as usual in endeavors such as this, Carolina’s decision comes with quite a bit of intrigue. Several team executives, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t at liberty to speak freely about the workings of other organizations, maintained in conversations that Carolina owner David Tepper is highest on Alabama’s Bryce Young, who has the best body of work among the top passers despite concerns about his size and frame. If left to their own devices, however, several coaches on Carolina’s staff would prefer the more strapping C.J. Stroud from Ohio State, those executives said.

There is another name to watch in this process who will have considerable weight in determining the ultimate outcome: Jim Caldwell. The former Colts and Lions coach — who also spent years coaching in college — was hired by the Panthers as a senior assistant last month, a murky title that in this case comes with significant sway in the evaluation of these college quarterbacks. Caldwell has a lifetime of experience identifying and developing passers, and “he has a huge voice in this process in Carolina,” said one high-ranking official from another team, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity when discussing the Panthers. “In a weird way he might have even more say than the head coach in this decision.”

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No one is buying what Carolina is selling in terms of possibly moving back in the first round after making the jump from the ninth pick. Two general managers I contacted are convinced that the Arizona Cardinals will trade out of the third spot and that “quarterbacks will go one, two, three and four,” as one GM put it. Tepper has waited a long time to get to this point, exhausting countless placeholder quarterbacks to reach a position of being able to determine who hears his name called first.

The owner is, most definitely, a significant element to this selection, and he’s paying incredibly close attention. He knows the fortunes of a franchise yet to prosper under his guidance are riding on this decision. His voice will be heard, and he will settle any ties. If his gut says Young, that shouldn’t be discounted. (I’d bet Young winds up as the first pick, personally, although betting markets have Stroud as the favorite.)

“The owner is going to win that one if he falls in love with one of these kids,” said a high-ranking official with a different team. “He’s seen enough misevaluations of the position already.”

Assessing Jalen Carter

It has been a troubling pre-draft period for Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter, but it’s doubtful he slides down draft boards the way some are suggesting.

Carter had to leave the combine while facing charges of drag racing and reckless driving stemming from an incident in which a teammate and a Georgia staff member were killed, for which he was sentenced to 12 months of probation and fined. Carter put on considerable weight between then and his recent pro day, and he was out of gas and less than stellar during that workout. And the emergence of an arms race for quarterbacks at the top of the draft could push him out of the first five picks, where he was projected virtually unanimously before the combine.

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It’s hardly an ideal sequence, but in the minds of evaluators and executives who will be involved in the draft, it’s not enough to cause a serious drop. This draft is short on premier players, and some perspective on that dreaded workout is in order.

“It really wasn’t as bad as how it was reported,” said one top executive who was on hand and watching closely. “I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. [Chiefs defensive line coach] Joe Cullen was leading the drills, and he went pretty hard on the kid. I don’t know if he was trying to make a point, but he had him doing the same drills as [much smaller linebacker] Nolan Smith, and he was really trying to wear the kid out.

“Trust me: That workout wouldn’t scare anybody off who likes him. I can’t speak for everybody else, and we aren’t picking close to high enough to get him, but that’s still one of the top five players in this draft for us. How far is he really going to drop? Detroit [which picks sixth] — Dan Campbell would think his culture is just what the kid needs,” the executive said of the Lions coach. “Las Vegas wouldn’t take him at seven with that s---ty defense? Seattle would be all over him. He fits their model. There’s no way he falls out of the top 10. [Eagles GM Howie Roseman], with Fletcher Cox one year from retiring, would do backflips to put him with the tackle he drafted from Georgia last year [Jordan Davis] for the next 10 years.”

The Seahawks have the fifth selection. The Eagles pick 10th.

Whither Lamar Jackson?

No offer sheet has emerged for Lamar Jackson as he sits on a nonexclusive franchise tag, and it’s uncertain if or when one will come together. But there are four teams that rival executives continue to watch most closely in this regard: the Jets, Colts, Falcons and Patriots.

It’s baffling to the executives I’ve talked to why the Jets have not already met with Jackson to at least explore the option of signing him as they battle with the Packers over compensation in an Aaron Rodgers trade. “The Packers have no leverage,” one GM said. “There is only one team that wants anything to do with Aaron Rodgers, and that’s the Jets. If [owner Woody Johnson] pivots to Lamar, the Packers are screwed.” Another high-ranking official with a rival team said: “The idea that the Packers have any leverage at all is total bulls---. They don’t have a market for their quarterback. The Jets are the only team that wanted to talk to him.”

Alas, executing progressive, high-level personnel machinations has really been the Jets’ style.

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Should the Colts move up from the fourth spot to third, the best they would have is the third crack at the college quarterbacks, which is hardly what owner Jim Irsay intended when he gushed about Young during a news conference introducing his new coach last month. (Houston will take a quarterback with the second pick.) Irsay hasn’t spent any real money at quarterback since Andrew Luck retired, and it would be odd for him to not at least seek an audience with Jackson. The Falcons’ lack of interest is truly baffling — “That town would eat him up,” one GM said of Jackson. “Whatever they paid him, they’d make all their money back in jersey sales alone.”

And some wonder if Bill Belichick and New England are indeed waiting in the weeds as the potential disrupter of the Ravens’ future, a notion I suggested a few weeks ago that seems to be gaining steam in the industry. Should no team even venture to meet with Jackson before the draft, expect to hear much, much more from NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith about the C-word — collusion. There may be lawyers.

Notes from around the league

The Ravens have essentially sat on their hands for two weeks, with the Jackson saga handcuffing them and the pool of potential replacement quarterbacks essentially drying up. I’d expect a pursuit of Ryan Tannehill if they lose Jackson. They did make a concerted effort to get top cornerback Darius Slay — Baltimore’s new secondary coach, Dennard Wilson, is close to Slay from their time together in Philadelphia — but the Eagles persevered. … GMs I spoke with are skeptical that a real trade market will emerge for Chargers running back Austin Ekeler. They don’t see an obvious match.

There could be a record number of cornerbacks drafted in the first three rounds, although several of them will move to free safety in the professional ranks. … The Bears are getting low marks from their peers for their approach to free agency, including trading Roquan Smith to the Ravens midseason and then signing two lesser off-the-ball linebackers at the start of the league year. “Makes no sense whatsoever,” one GM said. “Better off just giving Roquan Smith his $20 million. That GM and head coach can’t get out of their own way.”