Even after trading for Sam Darnold, Scott Fitterer has made it clear that the Carolina Panthers would ideally like to add a quarterback in the upcoming draft, but with San Francisco trading into the third spot and the Jets having reportedly locked-in on Zach Wilson, the Panthers’ options at the position have narrowed somewhat. That being said, they certainly haven’t given up on making a major move at the position during the draft, and so it is worth looking deeper at their different options, not just with the eighth pick, but throughout the draft.
So, with that in mind, who are some names to know for Panthers fans?
Justin Fields, Ohio State (6’3 227lbs)
If the Panthers are going to select a quarterback with the eighth pick then it really should be Justin Fields. Not only does Fields seem like the most likely of the top quarterback prospects to be there with the eighth pick but, if the Panthers are impressed with how he interviews, then he is the probably the only one not named Trevor Lawrence who has more than an outside chance of developing into a top-tier quarterback.
From an arm talent perspective, Fields is right up there in the conversation as the best in the class, showing good velocity with his throws with the arm strength to the push the ball down the field effectively. He is also very accurate throwing to all levels of the field and shows the touch to drop the ball into vertical windows at different levels of the field. Playing quarterback isn’t just about throwing the ball, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that Fields is very good at throwing the ball.
A lot has been made about Fields’ ability to process reads, and there is some truth to the fact that this isn’t a huge strength of his game, but a lot of the criticism has also been heavily exaggerated. Fields isn’t the fastest at working through reads and needs to come off reads quicker to allow him to work the whole field on a consistent basis from NFL pockets.
Some of this is on Fields, but it is also worth noting that Ohio State’s offense doesn’t use much of a quick passing game and he was likely being asked to hold the ball for longer than he’ll be able to in the NFL. This doesn’t mean that Fields can’t work through progressions, because he can, but rather that he needs to do so more quickly.
He is also prone to a handful of mental blunders each play, and there are times where he appears to miss relatively simple reads, cutting down on these will also be important for him at the next level. On the plus side, he is very mobile and does a good job of creating something with his feet when plays break down and should be able to contribute as a running threat in a read-option attack if needed.
Overall, Fields has all the physical skills to succeed, but his NFL career will likely depend on his ability to process reads at speed and consistently make good decisions with the ball. This is something that can be assessed on tape, but interviews will be crucial in determining how confident the Panthers are in him making further strides in this regard.
Fields has more absolute bust potential than some others on this list, but his combination of ceiling and floor are second to only Trevor Lawrence.
Mac Jones, Alabama (6’2 217lbs)
The Panthers shouldn’t draft Mac Jones with the eighth pick, let’s get that out of the way, but should they trade down into the teens and he is still on the board then an argument could be made for considering him as an option. He might not be the player the Panthers go into the draft hoping to select, but he is worth getting to know.
One of the reasons why Jones would likely be a reach with the eighth pick is because he lacks the arm talent that most of the other top quarterbacks have. That isn’t to say that he can’t throw the ball deep or that the ball floats in the air on outside throws, but rather that he is reliant on being able to drive the ball with his full body and will struggle to work the ball down the field outside of a clean pocket, and even from a clean pocket is likely going to underthrow some deep balls.
He is, however, accurate on short and intermediate throws and has the touch to drop the ball into vertical windows of the field. His arm is no weaker than several quarterbacks who have had good NFL careers, and the likes of Peyton Manning and Drew Brees have had pretty good careers despite not having ideal arm strength, but drafting a player expecting them to develop that level of mental mastery of the game is unrealistic.
That said, Jones does make generally good decisions with the ball and shows really encouraging anticipation to fit the ball into tight windows down the field. This will certainly help to compensate his lack of elite arm talent as he won’t be able to be a see it, throw it quarterback at the NFL level.
What prevents Jones being in quite the same tier as some other arm-limited quarterbacks from recent years such as Joe Burrow is that while he made good decisions with the ball, he hasn’t always shown the speed of decision making to trust that he will be able to master the quick passing game that most arm-limited quarterbacks can fall back upon. If he can add this to his arsenal, then he has a chance of being a long-term starter in the NFL.
For the Panthers, the issue with drafting a player like Mac Jones is that while he is less likely to bust than some others, only a small percentage of his range of outcomes leads to him being a notably better NFL quarterback than what they already have on the roster. The Panthers could certainly make worse decisions than to draft Jones in the middle of the first round, but he ultimately will need to be surrounded by talent to win at the NFL level.
Kellen Mond, Texas A&M (6’3 205lbs)
If the Panthers are really going to prioritize quarterback in the upcoming draft, another option they have is to select somebody on the second day of the draft to learn behind Teddy/Sam Darnold and then either step in as the starter in 2022 or be moved on from. While this can be an easy way to throw away a third-round pick (see Grier, Will), it can also turn out exceedingly well. If the Panthers do take this approach, then the player at the top of their list should be Kellen Mond.
The projections for Mond are currently all over the place. Some have him going later in the first round while some others have him as a day three pick. Ultimately, it only takes on team to really like him for him to go in the first round, but for the Panthers he is a name that would make a lot of sense from around the third round onwards.
Mond has a somewhat strained posture which might be causing some teams to hesitate, but the same thing was said about Dak Prescott and he turned out ok. In terms of arm talent, he has the ability to push the ball down the field effectively and shows really good velocity on short and intermediate throws. He is also very accurate, though while he didn’t show actively bad touch on tape, this wasn’t something that he made consistently good usage of either.
As a decision maker, Mond is one of the better prospects in this class. He’s not perfect but he shows an ability to quickly work through reads and makes generally good decisions with the ball. Where he can come undone at times as he does have a slightly tendency to get locked into particular reads and can force throws when there are easier options available.
While Mond can certainly add some value with his feet and does a good job of scrambling when there is nothing on down the field, he is not going to be a massive boon to a rushing attack and his long strides can make him less effective in scrambling to throw than he is just taking off and running down the field.
Overall, Mond has the arm talent to be a good quarterback, and there should be fewer questions about his ability to execute an NFL offense than most of the prospects in this class. He is probably a lot better than the NFL consensus on him suggests and has a chance to make some team very happy on day two.
Shane Buechele, SMU (6’1 207lbs)
Scott Fitterer said during his introductory press conference that he believes in adding a quarterback every offseason and, should the Panthers go elsewhere earlier on in the draft, the Panthers could take a chance on somebody on day three. The argument for this is fairly simple, that all day three picks are long shots to make it in the NFL and you might as well take a chance on the position with maximum upside if they do work out.
Buechele is probably closer to Mac Jones in terms of arm talent than he is to Fields or Mond, but while he isn’t going to consistently dropping sixty-yard bombs over defenses, he has really good velocity on his short and intermediate throws and is notably better than throwing off-balance than Jones.
He is also generally accurate, and while he wasn’t consistently asked to throw the ball into tight windows in SMU’s offense, when he was, he showed an ability to do so effectively at all levels of the field. He also shows good touch to drop the ball into vertical windows of the field.
While the offense he was asked to run in SMU is much more simplified than what he will need to get to grips with in the NFL, he showed a promising ability to work through reads and to throw with good anticipation. He also did a good job when asked to work outside of structure, and while he certainly isn’t dual threat, he has the mobility and pocket movement to evade pressure and pick up easy yards when they are presented to him.
As with a lot of college quarterbacks, Buechele’s career will likely be determined by how effectively he is able to master an NFL offense, and interviews will be a more important part of the evaluation for him than for the likes of Kellen Mond and Mac Jones. With that said, he has more talent than his draft stock indicates, and if the Panthers are going to throw a dart at the board for a quarterback on day three then Buechele should be at the top of their list.
Trey Lance, North Dakota State (6’4 224lbs)
Having said that Justin Fields is the quarterback the Panthers should consider with the eighth pick, it’s worth spending a moment on why they might be less enthusiastic about Trey Lance, and why he might prove that wrong. Lance might well already be gone by the time the Panthers pick at 8, but even if he is on the board then there is more you have to talk yourself into with Lance than the other top quarterbacks in the class.
Lance has arm talent and lots of it, he can push the ball down the field effectively and shows the velocity to fire the ball into tight windows down the field, but he isn’t the most accurate of throwers at this point. In college, he has quite a pronounced arch to his throwing motion, and while he appeared to have worked on this during his pro day, it is hard to say that he is an especially accurate thrower of the ball on tape, especially throwing down the field.
The big question with Lance, however, is whether he can operate an NFL offense effectively. While he was tasked with quite a lot of responsibility at North Dakota State, his ability to actually work through reads does raise questions. While he didn’t make too many actively bad decisions, he was a little too contest to throw the ball up for jump balls down the field and did miss more open receivers in his progressions than he can afford to do at the next level.
He also will need to work on the speed and accuracy of his decision making against pressure. North Dakota State ran a lot of their passing attack off of play action, and he was often looking to push the ball down the field when he dropped back to throw, but when he was asked to drop to throw underneath, he seemed to struggle working through progressions quickly and his eyes go down a little too easily against pressure.
On a positive note, he is a very good rusher of the ball, and should be a significant part of the rushing attack wherever he ends up. The fact that he had 149 yards passing and 143 yards rushing in his one game in 2020 isn’t a mistake.
It is easy to point to players like Josh Allen, Pat Mahomes and Justin Herbert (and maybe even Cam Newton) and point out how hugely physically talented players can work out the mental side of the game in the NFL, and that is definitely true, but there are plenty of examples where that hasn’t worked out. There is no question about Trey Lance’s potential, but he is likely a multi-year project who teams will need to be very confident about in terms of interviews to take anywhere near the top ten picks.
It is still far from clear who might still be on the board when the Panthers pick at eight, let alone the second or third days of the draft, but there are a number of intriguing quarterback options who the Panthers could consider at different points of the draft.
Ultimately, however, as much as can be inferred from tape, the mental aspect of playing quarterback in the NFL is so significant that any quarterback the Panthers take early in the draft has to be somebody who they trust has the ability to continue to develop.
(Top photo via John Bazemore/Associated Press)