The Carolina Panthers were in prime position to select a quarterback high in last year's draft but chose not to. They're in even better position this year, and are even more interested in adding one, but again might pass.
Such is timing for Carolina, which holds the No. 6 overall pick in a draft with lower-ceiling prospects at the top of the QB board.
"It's going to be best available," general manager Scott Fitterer said Wednesday of the impending draft decision, per the team website. "We went into this offseason with an emphasis on the offensive line. We see a lot of different options through free agency and through the draft, how we can address the offensive line, as well as quarterback.
"The biggest thing we want to do is have options at pick six. Do we move back? Do we stay there and pick a franchise-type player? Is it the quarterback? Is it the offensive lineman? That'll come into focus. We feel like there'll be a really good player there."
Last April, the Panthers believed they had a really good option in Sam Darnold, whom they traded for shortly before the draft and doubled down on by exercising his fifth-year option while taking cornerback Jaycee Horn at No. 8 overall. Carolina is not committed to Darnold as its 2022 starter following a lackluster 2021, but there's no getting out of the $18.9 million he's owed for the upcoming season. That contract could complicate how much it invests in a new starter.
"We need stability at the quarterback position, whether that is Sam or somebody else," Fitterer said. "Somebody needs to take hold of that position and own that. Right now, it's open. If Sam does it, that'd be great. But it's open."
Fitterer said he is scheduled to meet with Cam Newton before free agency begins March 16, though that would likely be depth-related. Newton returned to Carolina midway through the 2021 campaign and, after initially providing a jolt, struggled over five starts before giving way to Darnold.
"We're still open to Cam," Fitterer said.
What the club is most open to, obviously, is an upgrade. The supply on the open market, however, is much less than the demand. More than a handful of teams are openly seeking a better option, much less a franchise QB. With the trade market looking limited, the Panthers might be left to pull from an unremarkable free-agent class if they don't fall in love with a prospect.
Fitterer, who's beginning his second year with the team, assured that there's "urgency" to win amid a four-year playoff drought. But the front office knows firsthand how detrimental acting in haste with its QB1 can be given recent acquisitions of Darnold and Teddy Bridgewater.
"You don't ever want to force a quarterback decision," Fitterer said. "But we're going to be aggressive about it and look at every single option out there. You can't just sit to the back and let things happen. We're going to explore every option, and if it makes sense, we're going to do it, and we're going to be aggressive about it."