Here we stand, a month and some change away from the NFL Draft in Kansas City. It's a time of hope, of optimism, of renewal. While one team holds the Lombardi, fans of the other 31 will, on night one, stand firm in the belief that if their organization navigates rounds one-through-seven correctly, it will be *their* turn next year, decades of mediocrity be damned.
The Carolina Panthers are close. Very close. They have an exceptionally talented defense, and one of the hottest young defensive coordinators in Ejiro Evero to lead them, backed up by one of the most respected senior minds in the league, Dom Capers.
Offensively, the silver and blue return one of the most successful offensive lines of last season, standing in front of a rushing attack that looked - in spurts - to be as threatening as any other in the NFL. They've got Pro Bowl caliber DJ Moore leading a receiving corps of young players hungry to leave their mark in Charlotte.
The Panthers were - and I'll stand on this hill alone if I must - a head coach and a quarterback away from being the champions of the (dumpster fire that was) the NFC South last year.
Fortunately, David Tepper opened up the wallet and solved one of those problems, making arguably the best hire of the cycle in Frank Reich, and allowing him to build a staff that has garnered positive attention from nearly every national outlet.
That, of course, leaves the acquirement of a new field general as the highest remaining priority - and it's draft season, so of course, optimism remains very high.
There's discussions about a trade up to #1 overall. There's discussions about moving to #5 and grabbing a prospect. There's general excitement that Reich - considered by many to be a QB whisperer - will find his future guy, and turn them into the biggest factor the cats lacked last year.
And there, friends, is where I step in. Because my realism - potentially pessimism - has taken over, and I need to take you all down with me.
There exists a nightmare scenario - an improbable, but not impossible one - in which Carolina is left standing at the alter without their QB, and without the bridge free agent quarterback that could tide them over until the next draft.
Let me explain:
The first option available for Carolina is to grab a free agent quarterback. We know the guys available: Derek Carr and Jimmy G are likely the only two worth mentioning, though Carson Wentz - with whom Reich already has connections - has recently become available as well.
Possibly on the trade block are Lamar Jackson - though that's a stretch I won't believe until it's made official - and Aaron Rodgers.
Signing one is a possibility - and, in my opinion, the correct call - but Reich has sounded vague about that possibility during his interviews at the NFL Combine.
So, in the nightmare scenario, Carolina decides to pass on taking a quarterback out of the free agency/trade market, and commit to finding their guy in the draft.
It has been reported that Chicago is looking to offload the first pick, and pick up resources to trade back. That puts Carolina in the thick of it - they will certainly be (in our scenario) one of the teams working the phones. But, they won't be alone. There will be, depending on how you look at it, anywhere from 8-12 teams that are looking quarterback, and considering the lack of first round options, the price for the Bears' spot will be high.
Chicago will be looking for a treasure trove, but they also feel they're close - so staying inside of the top four or five - or making MULTIPLE trades backwards inside the top ten, would be beneficial to them.
We know that Houston is taking a quarterback at number two. We know Indianapolis wants one as well. That means Chicago can trade back to number two - guaranteeing Houston their QB of choice - or all the way back to four, giving Indy the same option. As both teams - if they're interested - will have to outbid each other, the price CHI will receive to move back one or three spots will likely be roughly what we expected Carolina would have to give up to move from #9. More importantly, it means the price the Panthers would now have to pay escalates dramatically - because Chicago could take roughly the same price, AND stay inside of the top five.
So the Bears move back to two, Houston takes Young at one. What now? Chicago can trade back AGAIN. Why? Because sitting behind them is a gaggle of teams that want a quarterback, meaning all the position players the Bears might be interested in will likely still be on the board as long as they don't drop back too far. Indy, Seattle, Atlanta, Detroit, Las Vegas, and Carolina are all inside the top nine, and all have expressed at least some interest in a QB in this draft. Chicago can drop back position by position until the four big QB names are off the board, rack up future resources, and STILL end up with one of the premier position players available.
If Indy trades up to one instead of Houston, you're guaranteed to have both big names - Bryce Young from Alabama and CJ Stroud from Ohio State - off of the board. Arizona is picking at three, and based on the ridiculous contract they gave to Kyler Murray, is not taking a QB. But why not trade back? ATL, DET, SEA, CAR ... they may all be interested here. And, considering the QB run is on, they may be willing to overpay a bit to get here. I0 any of them do, QB #3 comes off the board here - significantly earlier than anyone expected, but welcome to the NFL.
If this becomes the case, and if Carolina is convinced that either Levis or Richardson are indeed the guy, this is the best time for the Panthers to strike. The only problem? They may end up paying a price similar to what we expected them to pay for the #1 spot and Stroud/Young, and get a much less polished player.
But if they don't - or if they can't - they're left looking at the #4 spot. If Indy is still here, there's no chance they end up with whoever is left. If Indy jumped up, this spot will be occupied by Chicago, and will be up for sale as well. The question mark is what they decide to do. If Chicago wants to sell, the cost will go up again, as only one QB will be left, and there will be at least two teams still looking to grab them, and the bidding war is on.
If that ends up being the case, and Chicago weighs staying ahead of everyone who's not drafting a quarterback while hording resources, it creates a situation where the Bears prefer to trade with Detroit, Seattle, or Atlanta over Carolina, so that those teams don't grab the Andersons and Witherspoons off the board before they get their crack at them.
And if all of that happens? There sit the Panthers - drafting ninth, watching the most valued position players coming off the board and with none of the top four quarterbacks available, and only Matt Corral signed to the roster. And if they play this strategy, it likely means there's no Jackson, Rodgers, Carr, Jimmy G ... or Sam Darnold... ready to save them.
I know it's an improbable outcome. I know it's a little far fetched.
But you can't tell me it's impossible. And I'd much rather end up with something disappointing rather than nothing at all.
Make the move, Carolina. Grab your FA QB now, or spend the picks to get a top three pick.
Don't get left holding the bag with nothing to show for it.