KANSAS CITY, Mo. (WGHP) — The Carolina Panthers will select a quarterback with the first pick in the 2023 NFL Draft on Thursday. The only question that remains is who that quarterback will be.
The last time the Panthers were in this position was during the 2011 NFL Draft where the Panthers selected Cam Newton with the No. 1 pick. Newton would lead the Panthers to a Super Bowl appearance, win an MVP award and go down as the greatest quarterback in franchise history.
This time around there are four candidates for the Panthers to choose from. The likeliest choices of the group are Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s CJ Stroud. Kentucky’s Will Levis and Florida’s Anthony Richardson are also names who have voices of support surrounding them and could still be in the mix.
Let’s take a look at each candidate and why they could or could not be the Panthers’ choice at the top of the draft.
The Favorite: Bryce Young, Alabama
Bryce Young currently is the runaway favorite to be selected with the first pick by the Panthers. As of 4 p.m. on Wednesday, DraftKings Sportsbook currently has the odds of Young being taken first at -1600, racing far ahead of Will Levis who has +800 odds of being taken first.
Young was transcendent during his two seasons as Alabama’s starting quarterback. He won the Heisman Trophy and a number of other awards in his first season as a starter in 2021 as he led the Crimson Tide to the National Championship Game.
For his career, Young threw for 79 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions in 27 starts while completing 66% of his passes and throwing for 8,200 yards.
Young played in a pro-style offense during his time at Alabama. His offensive coordinator was Bill O’Brien who coached in the NFL as head coach of the Houston Texans and was Tom Brady’s offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots. O’Brien recently returned to that role with the Patriots in January.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban raves about Young’s calm demeanor on the field and leadership abilities.
“One of the things we admire about Bryce is that he is very bright. He does a great job of preparing. He’s always on top of exactly what we want to do, how we want to execute and the thing we try to emphasize with him, because he has a calm demeanor, is your presence is important to the rest of the players. So he’s made huge strides in affecting other people on offense in a positive way.
“Quarterback’s a hard position to play if the people around you don’t play well so I think that’s something that has actually helped him continue to grow and develop as a player at his position and he’s obviously played it very well last year.”Nick Saban to On3.com
The downside for Young is his stature. He was measured at 5-feet-10 during the NFL Combine and weighed in at 204 pounds. That weight does come with a caveat as many scouts believe that Young packed on that weight hastily and likely will not play at that weight. He was listed as weighing 194 pounds at Alabama.
With his slight frame, durability is often cited as the main concern with taking Young with the first pick. The only notable injury Young suffered during his time at Alabama was a sprained AC joint in his shoulder during the 2022 season which caused him to miss one game.
Young’s head coach isn’t worried about the size concerns:
“We’ve all seen the 6-foot-4, 225-pound guy that can throw it like a bazooka, but he can’t make the choices and decisions; he can’t distribute the ball, he can’t throw it accurately. So who’s the better bet? I’m going on history, production, performance, and Bryce Young’s done it about as well as anybody.”Nick Saban on Know Mercy with Stephen A. Smith
Young’s size rarely appears to be a limiting factor on the field, as he was excellent at throwing the ball in the middle of the field, 10-19 yards down the field, an area that many smaller quarterbacks struggle to target.
According to Pro Football Focus, Young completed 66% of passes for 1,192 yards and 13 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions in the middle of the field. His 130 quarterback rating in the middle of the field would be the highest quarterback rating among NFL quarterbacks.
For what it’s worth, Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer dismissed concerns about Young’s size in a press conference on Tuesday.
“When Russell Wilson came out, he had three balls batted down his senior year; Bryce had two. It doesn’t seem to be an issue. When you grow up a shorter quarterback, you learn how to evolve your game and adapt and see the field, and he’s done that.
“Nutritionally we can do some things to educate him, get him in the weight room. When you look at his lower body, it has gotten bigger. He’s put on a lot of mass down there. A lot of times quarterbacks don’t want to lift on the upper body because you get a little bound up [up top]. But he’s going to naturally put on size as he ages as well.”Scott Fitterer to AP’s Steve Reed on Tuesday
Panthers assistant general manager Dan Morgan shared similar sentiments to Fitterer and Saban on what he values in the quarterback evaluation process.
“You have to have those pocket instincts, the ability to slide, find passing lanes. So you have to look at other things like that and then obviously how smart and how well a quarterback sees the field is also important.”Dan Morgan
It is for these reasons that Young is the favorite to be the number one overall pick despite his size concerns.
NFL Analyst Lance Zierlein compares Young to another great short quarterback in Drew Brees.
The “Safe” Choice: CJ Stroud, Ohio State
In the immediate aftermath of the Panthers’ blockbuster trade for the number one overall pick, CJ Stroud was considered by most to be the favorite to be selected by the Panthers as the “safe choice.”
Numerous reports came out in March that the Panthers were seemingly targeting Stroud with the number one selection, citing newly-hired head coach Frank Reich’s preference for taller quarterbacks.
Stroud now sits at +1200 odds to be Panthers’ top pick, according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
Stroud himself confirmed the doubts that he would be the Panthers’ pick on Wednesday, one day ahead of the moment of truth.
“To be honest, I don’t know. If you asked me a couple months ago, I probably would’ve had a different answer for you. But I have no idea.”CJ Stroud
Another piece of data fans often used to cite Stroud being the likely selection is a video featuring then-analyst Josh McCown scouting Stroud and praising his abilities on the field.
Reich’s history does include a number of tall quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning during his time as the Indianapolis Colts’ quarterbacks coach, Philip Rivers during his time as the San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator, and Carson Wentz/Nick Foles when he won a Super Bowl as the Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator.
After being hired as Colts’ head coach in 2018, Reich continued to work with tall quarterbacks such as Andrew Luck. Luck’s sudden retirement sent the Colts into a quarterback carousel where Reich reunited with Rivers and Luck each for a season.
Despite that history, Reich made comments disputing the notion that he only would work with a tall passer in a March 20 press conference.
“Don’t read anything into the fact. I had a high grade on Russell Wilson too.”Frank Reich to Darin Gantt of Panthers.com
Wilson infamously fell into the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft due to his height of 5-foot-11-inches before going on to become a Super Bowl winner and nine-time Pro Bowler.
At Ohio State, Stroud flashed his arm strength and accuracy over the course of two productive seasons as the starting quarterback. For his career, he completed 69.3% of his passes for 7,775 yards, 81 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions.
Stroud has the size edge over Young as he measured at 6 feet-3 and 214 pounds.
Stroud’s downside is his unwillingness to use his legs and extend plays. He often leaves “meat on the bones” in terms of potential plays due to standing in the pocket for too long which often leads to some forced passes and interceptions. He also isn’t as natural of a thrower outside of the pocket as Young.
Stroud particularly struggled while throwing under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus. He only completed 41% of his pressured passes and had a quarterback rating of 76 when pressured.
Stroud did flash more playmaking abilities in the Rose Bowl against Georgia in the College Football Playoff Semifinal last season, however, he did not consistently display that ability on tape.
NFL Analyst Lance Zierlein compares Stroud to Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff.
The Gamble: Anthony Richardson, Florida
While most experts consider it unlikely that the Panthers select Florida’s Anthony Richardson as their top selection. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a faction of people obsessed about Richardson’s tantalizing upside.
To put it simply, Richardson is what someone would imagine a lab-engineered human to be.
After measuring at 6-feet-4-inches and 244 pounds, Richardson ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash, recorded a 40.5-inch vertical jump and a 10-feet-9-inch broad jump. Truly a generational performance at the combine.
Richardson’s combination of size and speed drew comparisons to the physical profile of Cam Newton, the Panthers’ last No. 1 pick. However, physical traits are where those comparisons end based on the college tape.
In 24 career games and 13 starts at Florida, Richardson had a 6-7 record and completed a measly 54.7% of his passes. He threw for 3,105 yards, 24 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Richardson ran for 1,116 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Similarly to Stroud, Richardson struggled when pressured and completed only 38% of his passes, according to Pro Football Focus. He also bizarrely struggled with short passes of 0-9 yards, the easiest and least risky throwing range only completing 58% of his passes and throwing 5 interceptions compared to 4 touchdowns.
In comparison, Stroud and Young each completed over 75% of those passes on a combined 22 touchdowns and only 1 interception.
While Richardson flashes elite physical tools, a strong arm and occasional flashes of greatness, he struggles with consistency and basics such as mechanics, footwork and throwing with touch.
“The accuracy is a little scary. On tape, he just oozes a confidence about him. He’s got good athleticism and a strong arm. I think he can make plays off schedule, which is kind of what this league has turned into. There’s a lot to like there.”Anoymous NFL executive to The Athletic
Many analysts consider Richardson to be a project who may need to sit behind a veteran quarterback and learn before having success on the field.
Richardson has the fourth-highest odds of being the No. 1 pick currently sitting at+5000, according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
The Wild Card: Will Levis, Kentucky
Kentucky’s Will Levis is much like Anthony Richardson when it comes to polarizing NFL draft prospects.
Measuring in at 6-feet-4-inches tall and 229 pounds, Levis checks the boxes of the prototypical size many scouts consider for a franchise quarterback. Levis also is fairly athletic at the size but not at the same level of generational physical talent as Anthony Richardson.
Levis spent the first two years of his college eligibility as the backup quarterback for Penn State before transferring to Kentucky for his junior and senior seasons.
In two years and 24 games as Kentucky’s starter, Levis completed 65.7% of his passes, threw for 5,232 yards, 43 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. He also ran for 11 touchdowns and went 17-7 in those starts.
Some scouts ooze over Levis’ size and arm strength, including Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning.
“I think this guy might have been genetically engineered to be an NFL quarterback. It’s easy to see why scouts like him. Tough, durable. Makes tight throws in tight windows.”Peyton Manning
Like Richardson, Levis often shows inconsistent footwork. Levis also struggles to throw to his wide receivers on time and with anticipation which is a red flag for many scouts.
His decision-making and proclivity to throw interceptions are also frequently cited by his detractors.
“I’d be scared to draft that guy in the first round. He’s thrown 23 interceptions in the last two years. That’s pretty scary.”Anonymous NFL executive to The Athletic
Levis has fallen out of public favor to some due to his eccentric nature. He puts mayonnaise in his coffee as if it is milk or creamer and has been filmed eating bananas with the peel.
Some scouts, however, feel like the national narrative has been too harsh on Levis.
“People are being too hard on him from what I’m seeing in the media. He was hurt for most of the year and gutted it out. He’s a good teammate, he’s big and he has arm talent. I like the pro potential a lot. He just needs to get healthy and keep working at it.Anonymous NFL executive to NFL.com
Thanks to an unsubstantiated rumor on Reddit causing a flood of bets, Levis’ odds of being the No. 1 pick skyrocketed from +4000 to the +800 they currently reside at, according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
Regardless of who the Panthers select with the No. 1 pick, their young passer will be set up to succeed thanks to the great surrounding situation the team has constructed.
From the coaching staff full of NFL experience, a young defense, a blossoming offensive line and now a potential future franchise quarterback, it is a good time to be a Panthers fan.
Be sure to stay tuned with FOX8 through your TV provider or watch on our website for all of the Panthers draft coverage ahead of the first selection.