Anyone but a quarterback. Most mock drafts across "the interwebs" have either Auburn's Cam Newton, or Missouri's Blaine Gabbert being selected by Carolina with the first overall pick. Any other year, this would be a no brainer, given the Panthers' glaring need for a quality starting quarterback. But with the league mired in a lockout with the NFLPA, this is not like any other year.
Both Newton and Gabbert have the potential to be impact NFL quarterbacks for years to come, but given the current labor situation and all of the unknowns that come along with it, selecting a QB with the first overall pick this season is a riskier proposition than it's ever been before.
Drafting a quarterback at the top of the draft is a risky endeavor at the best of times. Eight of the last ten drafts have seen a quarterback drafted with the top pick. The success stories include Michael Vick (Falcons, 2001), Carson Palmer (Bengals, 2003) and Eli Manning (Giants, 2004). The glaring failures include David Carr (Texans, 2002), Alex Smith (49ers, 2005) and JaMarcus Russell (Raiders, 2007). The often injured Matthew Stafford (Lions, 2009), and last year's first overall pick, The Rams' Sam Bradford, have yet to prove themselves. Only time will tell if they were ultimately worth their No. 1 status.
Using these players as a reference point, it's fair to say that, even without a work stoppage, using the first overall pick on a QB works out about 50 percent of time.
Another factor that needs to be considered independently of the lockout is the state of the Panthers' offensive line. Carolina's O-line was thought to be one of the bright spots on the team after a great season in 2009, but the unit showed a severe lack of depth, and ended up being one of the worst in the league in 2010. Jeff Otah, who missed all of last season with a knee injury should be back next season, but that doesn't change the fact that the the Panthers allowed 50 sacks last season (tied for second worst in the league).
Some of that can be attributed to starting a rookie quarterback for most of the season, but drafting and starting another rookie quarterback for next season isn't going to help that situation. Until the team's pass protection, or lack thereof, is addressed, drafting another QB they can't keep on his feet will be a fruitless endeavor. The team is better off addressing their lack of depth on the line, and letting Jimmy Clausen, last year's second-round pick, and starter, take the abuse, while giving him another year to develop and see what they have.
The lockout itself presents a series of unique challenges for the Panthers should they choose to draft a QB at No. 1.
First of all, even though teams are allowed to draft players, they cannot sign them until the labor stoppage is lifted. Despite the likelihood of a rookie cap or scale being part of the next CBA, no one knows what such a rookie salary structure is going to look like. Will it be a hard cap, or scale based on a yet to be determined salary cap? Will it be applied as an percentage of the average salaries of the top players at a given position, much like how the value of the previous franchise tag was determined? It's also possible, although unlikely, that nothing will change from the previous CBA as it relates to rookie salaries.
The point is, no one one knows what the economic landscape will end up looking like. This basically forces the Panthers to consider all possibilities, from a reasonable financial risk under a rookie scale, to something resembling the ludicrous $50 million in guaranteed money that the Rams now owe last year's No. 1 pick, Sam Bradford.
The financial uncertainty alone is daunting enough, but not only can teams not sign their draft picks, they also can't work with them or prepare them for the upcoming season in any way. The lockout means that teams cannot meet with their rookies, have them participate in mini camps, team camps or even give them a playbook to study until after the labor dispute is resolved.
If this lockout carries into the summer, which appears to be a distinct possibility, rookies are going to be way behind the eight ball when, and if, the season actually starts. For rookie quarterbacks, this time with their teams is essential for them to learn the system and develop chemistry with their offense. This makes the likelihood of any rookie quarterback contributing to the team this season in anyway very unlikely.
For the Panthers, it simply doesn't make sense for them to assume such a risk this season, given the laundry list of positional needs on both sides of the ball that they need to fill. They would be far better off either trading the No. 1 pick to another, more established team in a better position to assume such a risk at the quarterback position, or to draft a defensive stud like Patrick Peterson who would fill other pressing needs.
These are the more likely scenarios that will play out come draft day when the Panthers are put on the clock with the first overall pick.