DATELINE, WHO KNOWS ANYMORE - I think I woke up in Phoenix. Or on the way back from. Maybe it was Ohio. A chair somewhere, possibly? It certainly wasn't my own bed. Alas, the life I love is making music with my friends, or something, thus ...
Wait, where was I? (This is an existential as well as geographic question.)
But as exhaustive and exhausting as the road has been for the last week-plus (and it's not over for Team Panthers and Team Panthers.com), it's also been instructive.
The visits to the quarterback pro days last week helped add to the substantial pile of data points pertaining to the first pick in the draft, and the league meetings helped cement the notion that the perception around the league of the Panthers is changing.
Talking to folks from all over the NFL, and there's an increasing realization that the Panthers have a chance to get the quarterback decision right regardless of the quarterback because of the esteem this coaching staff is held in. More than a few this week mentioned the strength of the staff that's been out on the road lately, with Frank Reich, Thomas Brown, Jim Caldwell and Josh McCown creating the opportunity for that quarterback to transition successfully into the league.
Football people can be a catty bunch (especially after a few drinks), but these coaches are the guys other coaches and league personnel respect. It's not everything. The player they draft still has to hold up his end of the bargain. But people are coming around to the idea that he might because of the support he'll get.
Of course, there's still more work to be done. Augusta Stone and the video team are heading to Gainesville today to document Anthony Richardson's workout on Thursday, which will complete the set. (You can check all the dispatches from CJ Stroud's pro day, Bryce Young's, and Will Levis' at these handy links).
But the decision on the quarterback isn't made yet, and plenty of you are wondering what it might be and what comes next. So let's get to the mail while I try to remember where I actually live.
------------------------------------------------------ Who are the Panthers picking first overall? - Nolan, Lebanon, PA
Vontae Mack, no matter what.
Nice try, and I appreciate your economy of language. For that, I'll make you this week's Friend Of The Mailbag, and get the appropriate honorarium on the way soon.
But if I told you who they were picking, you might read Panthers.com less often for the next month. And why would we do such a silly thing? We value you too much to deprive you of all the content we have planned. You're like family. I wouldn't treat family that way.
------------------------------------------------------ If the Panthers have the No. 1 pick, why do they need to "put up a smokescreen," as one reporter says? Who the heck are they faking out? - Mitchell, Clover, SC
I'm not sure who that reporter is; maybe stop listening to them. That sounds silly.
There are plenty of false prophets out there in the world because a lot of them apparently get paid by the word or maybe by the tweet.
Because if anyone tells you they know what the Panthers are doing, they're lying. I know this for sure, because the Panthers don't know yet.
They've been intentional to not decide while they're collecting evidence, and they're going to be collecting evidence for another couple of weeks. Reich said as much Tuesday back in Arizona, and they're not just going to Gainesville to add to their Marriott points balance. Though they have plenty. Once they're home, they're bringing the final four (unlike the basketball Final Four, I've heard of these guys) in for visits.
They'll talk more, and they'll eat more food, and maybe they'll find a basketball goal so Josh McCown can play a little horse with them.
(Side story: Reich is also a bit of a hooper and said he liked to take the court with potential draft picks on visits as part of his evaluation. He's not as athletic as the 43-year-old McCown, though he was quick to add: "but I can still shoot." Challenge him at your own risk.)
------------------------------------------------------ I always look at the touchdown/interception ratio to see the potential of a QB. Young and Stroud are similar in this. Stroud is bigger and was really impressive against two-time champs Georgia. He seems to be the logical choice to me with the first draft pick. Are the Panthers seriously considering anyone else? - Mark, Greensboro, NC
In the big scheme of things, Stroud's 85-12 ratio being better than Young's 80-12 might not be a big thing. (Levis is 46-25 and Richardson 24-15 in about half as many attempts as the other dudes).
And yes, Stroud is bigger. And he's talented in his own right. Listening to the scouts on the side during his workout oohing and ahhing about his accuracy confirmed what your eyes told you during the season. He throws a catchable ball. And he also had a lot of cats who were good at catching them.
But something kept bugging me about that Georgia game as a point in his favor - he was on the losing team. The Georgia defenders certainly raved about him as well (in the warm-up leg of the Panthers.com road show), but I also wonder if that's recency bias at work and whether they were just a little salty that Young was the only one to beat them (in the 2021 SEC title game).
When evaluating someone for a decision this important, you don't want any one particular result carrying too much weight, but that is stuck in the back of my mind as I compare these guys in my (admittedly) amateur capacity.
------------------------------------------------------ A couple of seasons ago, the Panthers became the first team in NFL history to select all defensive players in the draft. If the Panthers pick Bryce Young first in this year's draft, do you think they will subsequently choose DT Calijah Kancey, CB Trevius Hodges-Tomlison, WR Tank Dell, RB Deuce Vaughn, and MLB Ivan Pace, and become the first NFL team to have an all-munchkin draft? Sincerely, The Wizard - Mark, Winston-Salem, NC
Mark, that's just size-ist, and I won't stand for it. You're bigger than that (which is statistically likely, also).
Some days it feels like the only knock at all on Young is the fact he's 5-foot-10. Reich admitted it's a concern on Tuesday but also pointed out some smaller guys (he referenced a couple of pretty good ones he played with or coached in Barry Sanders and Marvin Harrison) who were proficient at avoiding or negating some of the inevitable contact that comes with playing in the NFL.
"I think he is good at being instinctive in the pocket and minimizing - if you're a quarterback, can you minimize the number of hits you're taking and the intensity of those hits?" Reich said in Phoenix. "Because you're going to get hit, we all know that. But there's a way to minimize those hits. And you feel it, and you're instinctive. I think a lot of these guys have that gift."
But minimizing players based on their size alone seems small-minded also (Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Mills or Panthers legend Steve Smith Sr., for instance).
For more on this, I consulted one of the giants of my industry, Pete Prisco of CBS Sports. Now, Pete is not what you'd refer to as a gentleman of stature (but man, can he wrestle). However, his knowledge of the game is vast. He likes Young but expressed some reservations about using the first pick in the draft on someone who is a statistical outlier based on height.
I told Pete he was like one of those crabs in the bucket, who, when one of his fellow shorts tried to escape, kept pulling them back down to keep them from getting ahead in life. This is not the first time in his life Prisco has been described as "a little crabby."
Don't be like Pete and Mark. Stand up for the vertically challenged. And let them stand on your shoulders if need be.
------------------------------------------------------ What is the projected depth chart for this coming season after all the new additions? Also, how have the win projections for the upcoming season changed? - Matt, Lebanon, OR
The combination of an active and coherent offseason and a still-iffy division has certainly raised expectations.
As for the depth chart, there are a couple of pretty significant TBD lines on there, including the starting quarterback. But they also have some questions to answer elsewhere.
The big one is at outside linebacker, opposite Brian Burns. There's not really an honest answer there.
The committee which currently includes Yetur Gross-Matos, Marquis Haynes Sr., and Amaré Barno will get looks there, but none have the natural build for what that position generally requires. And they clearly didn't have the bodies for what the new defensive staff wants up front on a 3-4 defensive line, which is why they went out and signed Shy Tuttle and DeShawn Williams so they could line up for OTAs.
But that's a spot the Panthers might try to find elsewhere, either with the remaining free agent budget or with the 39th pick in the draft (or whatever that might yield in a deal up or down).
This is far from official, just me a humble traveler kind of spit-balling, but I'd guess it might look something like this:
LT Ikem Ekwonu
LG Brady Christensen Deonte Brown
C Bradley Bozeman Justin McCray
RG Austin Corbett Cade Mays
RT Taylor Moton Larnel Coleman
TE Ian Thomas Tommy Tremble
TE Hayden Hurst Stephen Sullivan
WR Adam Thielen Laviska Shenault
WR DJ Chark Terrace Marshall Jr.
RB Miles Sanders Chuba Hubbard
QB __________ Andy Dalton
DE Derrick Brown Bravvion Roy
NT Shy Tuttle Marquan McCall
DE DeShawn Williams Henry Anderson
OLB Brian Burns Amare Barno
ILB Shaq Thompson Chandler Wooten
ILB Frankie Luvu Brandon Smith
OLB Yetur Gross-Matos Marquis Haynes
CB Donte Jackson Keith Taylor
CB Jaycee Horn C.J. Henderson
SS Vonn Bell Jeremy Chinn
FS Xavier Woods Sam Franklin
------------------------------------------------------ All the talk is about who we take at No. 1. Quarterback is the obvious answer there. Do you see us adding any linebackers through the draft or is the plan to definitely move Jeremy Chinn back to linebacker? - Jody, Hickory, NC
Yeah, Chinn is kind of hard to slot into a depth chart, because he's going to do a lot of things. Along with the previous question, there are a couple of guys on defense that aren't prototypical in this system - specifically Frankie Luvu and Chinn. But they're also guys who are versatile enough to use in a lot of different ways. Luvu can play outside, and has shown he knows how to rush the passer. To begin with, Chinn's the big nickel, but he can move around and do some different stuff.
But they brought Vonn Bell here for a reason, and he and Xavier Woods are the base safeties, and give them two trusted coverage players back there.
------------------------------------------------------ Why didn't you try to sign or trade for more defensive help? - Cam, Wagener, SC
The short answer is you can't do everything everywhere all at once (though I am a big Jamie Lee Curtis fan and have a sudden craving for hot dogs).
The did fill out the lineup by signing some actual defensive linemen for this system (and a key backup in Henry Anderson), but linebacker is a place they're still thin. Having Shaq Thompson back is huge for that reason. There's something to be said about having that adult in the room, and Shaq has arguably played some of his best football in the last couple of years.
He wanted to stick around for the next chapter, and they're better off for it.
------------------------------------------------------ Hey Darin, been a minute. I've had a busy few months with my first kid on the way and work never seeming to slow down (or the two hours of commute each day which can, at times, help me speak to the quality of drivers in the Charlotte area that you recently tweeted about). But I have a moment to breathe this weekend and finally want to get around to asking something since we've made so many free-agent signings. The one thing we haven't seemed to address yet is our pass rush. Now, it may happen before the next Mailbag, and we'll see. That being said, pressure on the quarterback can come from a lot of places, but Burns being the only proven pass rusher on the defense can't be something Scott Fitterer is ignoring, right? Good to be back. - John, Matthews, NC
He's not ignoring it; those guys are just hard to come by.
There are some veterans out there in the market, but the funny thing about capitalism is scarce commodities become expensive. So while there are hypothetical names you could throw at the position (like Leonard Floyd), you have to agree with them on a price.
That's complicated when the obvious priority was making sure the new quarterback is well-insulated.
But there's still time, and prices sometimes change after an item has been on the shelf for a minute. Stay tuned because that position figures to remain in flux.
------------------------------------------------------ Hi Darin, I've been waiting for the next Ask The Old Guy. Lots happened in the last few weeks! Okay, so I gotta know, the team has quietly managed to build some cap flexibility even after all these FA acquisitions, so what's the plan with that? Get some depth on the defense or O-line to go into the draft without needs? Brian Burns extension? Save it for the draft class?
Also, for fun, what's been your favorite city, based on food, on your QB/NFL Winter meeting tour? - Dan, Venetia, PA
A Burns extension is a different beast because that one will create even more short-term cap room. But it will cost a lot of cash, too. So that's a not-today thing.
They still need to fill in some blanks and could use another backup tackle, for sure. But by and large, I think some of that will come closer to the draft, or after it, when they know what's being added.
As for the road trip I'm still processing, there were so many memories I don't know where to begin.
I was surprised by that that cold Kentucky rain (thanks, Elvis), which nearly drowned me while indoors. A leaky roof in a Lexington airport restaurant soaked my luggage, and just missed my laptop while I was writing about Will Levis. But mostly, it was full of delights.
While I wasn't able to finish the burger at Thurman's in Columbus, Ohio (no healthy person should), the ceviche at Corto Lima in Lexington was sublime. At the league meetings, the media room catering transitions from the disappointing sandwiches of the combine to disappointing finger sandwiches because high-end resorts like the Biltmore in Arizona roll like that.
But mostly, it feels like everything was eaten on the run, which isn't always great for digestion. I could use a day and a few normal meals to get right with myself. So naturally, I'm going to Bojangles later today, hoping to get another Bojangler (on a dark biscuit instead of a bun) before they're gone for another year.
------------------------------------------------------ While the focus of the first week of pro days was the quarterbacks, did any other players from the schools hosting the pro days catch the Panthers' eyes? - Rich, Mount Olive, NC
Well, the thing about Ohio State and Alabama is there are always players there. And there are a number of prospects that might interest the Panthers in both places. (I'm partial to offensive linemen, and guys such as Paris Johnson and Tyler Steen are intriguing, even if those aren't the biggest needs, or guys who sync up with where they're picking since Johnson will be gone way before their second one comes around.) There were fewer at Kentucky.
But the most impressive single player I've seen with my own two eyes (and that includes Odell Beckham wandering through the lobby in Arizona) in the last two weeks was a guy who isn't even eligible for the draft.
Marvin Harrison Jr. must have been created in a lab. He is not normal. I stood watching him run routes like Steve Smith, while being the size of Randy Moss. He is different than the other kids. And after Stroud's workout at Ohio State, I passed by Smith himself (doing his day job at NFL Network), and the look on his face when I asked about Harrison said it all. Steve is rarely speechless.
If Junior was in this draft, he'd probably be a top-five pick and maybe the first non-quarterback taken. He appears to be that good.
------------------------------------------------------ Let's go lightning round, brought to you by the patron saint of the lightning round Jeff from Fuquay-Varina, to close it out this week.
I just read the answer to my earlier question - There is just a little bit of wagering on who is going to be No. 1 huh? That's why the smokescreen? - Mitchell, Clover, SC
Gambling is illegal at Bushwood. And I never slice.
Hi Darin, just wondering what's the problem with picking up Eric Ebron? He obviously wants to "come home!," his words. Everyone keeps talking about we need someone to stretch the field. Why not Damiere Byrd? He's still fast, a proven pass catcher, and very reasonably priced. Love your column and "Love Them Panthers!" - Don, Trinity, NC
A powerful drug, nostalgia. Names we know bring us a certain comfort.
But the last time we saw Ebron was in 2021 in Pittsburgh, when he played less than half a season and caught 12 passes for 84 yards and a touchdown. That's not a lot. And as years (29) and injuries stack up, players seldom get more productive over time.
Byrd's still hanging around, but I was afraid if you kept going, you were going to get to Jerricho Cotchery, or Ricky Proehl, or Willie Green.
How old do you have to be to be old? - Dennis, Thomasville, NC
It's not a number. It's a state of mind. Willie Nelson's 89 and he seems young to me, based on the last time I saw him at Farm Aid.
I was visiting with my old friend Mike Sando of The Athletic this week at the league meetings, and we recalled when we were the young ones at these events. Now, all the guys we used to look up to are either gone or retired. Speaking of, got to see my BFF Kent Somers while I was in Arizona. He's happily retired, and frankly, he's never looked younger.
Maybe because he's been sleeping in his own bed the last two weeks. The jerk.
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