NFL Draft 2011: With the First Pick, the Carolina Panthers Select...

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NFL Draft 2011: With the First Pick, the Carolina Panthers Select...
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
If Andrew Luck had turned pro, Carolina would have had an easy decision to make

No matter whose name gets called first next Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall, one thing is for sure: The future of the Panthers franchise is hanging in the balance.

Back in mid-January, just days before Andrew Luck announced he was staying at Stanford, the excitement was palpable in Charlotte, as fans and the team alike were chomping at the bit for the chance to select what seemed like a once in a generation player. The collective wind was not just taken out of the sails of the fanbase with Luck's announcement; to a lot of fans, it was even worse than going 2-14. 

Over the course of the last three months, draft experts have gone through several names that could be the potential No. 1 overall pick. First it was Nick Fairley, then Da'Quan Bowers and then Patrick Peterson, and now the consensus seems to be Cam Newton.

At the end of the day, all the speculating and prognosticating is just that—and the only opinions that will matter will be those in the Panthers war room just a few days from now. 

It is amazing how the future of one franchise can shift so quickly from excitement to uncertainty. This is the position the Panthers find themselves in because of one decision made by a redshirt sophomore quarterback in Palo Alto, California. 

If Andrew Luck had decided to enter the NFL draft this year, it would have been the easiest pick in Panthers history to take the Stanford superstar. But in a year that has given us the most off-the-field drama in recent history, the Panthers have an even bigger problem: who to take with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. 

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Could the Panthers trade down and still get Cam Newton?

What will happen if the Panthers pass on Newton and he becomes a superstar? What happens if they take Newton and he doesn't pan out? The worst scenario for the Panthers would be the latter. If they pass on Newton and take another player who turns into a good player, they can live with that scenario. However, the franchise would be set back five years in he turns into JaMarcus Russell.

I am not comparing Newton to Russell; I am just saying that if the worst happens and he doesn't pan out, it could spell the end of general manager Marty Hurney's tenure with the team. 

If all of this posturing for Newton is a smokescreen and the Panthers have their sights set on someone else and are able to trade down, it would be a major win for a franchise that has fallen on hard times of late. By trading down, they could net some much-needed picks and still get a very solid player.

Most experts agree that this is likely the deepest group of first-round talent at the defensive line position ever. Defensive tackle is a huge need for Carolina, and it could trade down to any spot in the first round and still get a very good player at that position.

But what if the phone doesn't ring Thursday night? What if none of the other 31 teams are willing to trade away multiple picks for the chance to move into the top spot in the draft order? If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell takes the podium and the clocks starts for the Panthers and no suitors come calling, Hurney's entire career in Carolina could be defined by the name that ends up on that little three-by-five card.

It could be Cam Newton, it could be Patrick Peterson, it could be a handful of names, but one thing is for sure: Whoever that player is, he will be the most talked about and highly scrutinized player in Panthers history.

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