I've been covering the NFL Draft on this Web site since 2000, and I can't ever remember there being so many prospects in contention for the No. 1 pick this late into the draft season.
In fact, we usually know who the No. 1 pick will be by now. In 2006 (Mario Williams-Reggie Bush) and 2005 (Alex Smith-Aaron Rodgers) there were two prospects battling for the right to be selected first overall, but there are at least half-a-dozen candidates for Carolina to choose from. Just look at the 2011 NFL Mock Draft Database - in the past four days, eight different players have been slated No. 1: Cam Newton, Marcell Dareus, Blaine Gabbert, Da'Quan Bowers, A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson, Nick Fairley and Robert Quinn.
It's just not a good year to have the top selection. Unfortunately for new head coach Ron Rivera, he has to pick from one of these eight prospects. If he chooses incorrectly, the Panthers will likely suck, and he'll consequently be out of a job by 2014.
So, whom should Rivera pick? I would go with Gabbert, but it's by no means a guaranteed slam-dunk pick.
But since we don't have a say, let's figure out whom Rivera will select this April. Below are the eight candidates, the odds I believe that each will be picked first overall, and reasons why Rivera will either go with or avoid each prospect.
Blaine Gabbert had an outstanding Pro Day. He completed 47-of-50 passes with two drops. He showed great deep accuracy, prompting many - including Mike Mayock and Michael Lombardi - to declare that Gabbert will be the first quarterback off the board. Mayock likened Gabbert's Pro Day to Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford's. Lombardi, meanwhile, said he'd draft Gabbert if he were the general manager of the Panthers.
I was down on Gabbert early in the draft process, but after watching more of him and observing how he handles himself, I've really warmed up to him. He's more talented than I thought he was, and he seems like he'll be a great leader. He also has the cerebral part of football down, so that gives him a big edge over Cam Newton.
March 15 Update:
As I wrote in Cam Newton's March 15 update, Carolina will probably go with a quarterback with the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
I also mentioned some rumors regarding Gabbert. Well, according to Sports Illustrated's Don Banks, the Panthers don't "really love" Gabbert enough to use the top selection on him. Meanwhile, Fox Sports' Adam Caplan said that several sources told him that Gabbert would be a reach as a top-five pick.
However, like I said, this could all change if Gabbert has a Sam Bradford-like Pro Day and establishes himself as the clear-cut top quarterback in this class.
If the Panthers don't take Cam Newton, it'll probably be because they'll fall in love with Blaine Gabbert at his Pro Day. Gabbert, like Newton, has incredible physical talent. Talking heads like Trent Dilfer and Matt Millen have praised Gabbert ad nauseum recently.
The National Football Post is reporting that Gabbert really stood out in the interviews at the Combine:
"He took over the interview room and was the best interview among all the quarterbacks. Gabbert seemed like a natural leader."
Gabbert's accuracy is an issue. However, Carolina doesn't run a West Coast system, so Gabbert's inaccuracy won't be as prevalent if he were playing for say, the 49ers.
Newton is the No. 1 quarterback right now. However, Gabbert can pass him with a great Pro Day on March 17.
Cam Newton, QB, Auburn - 27%
March 18 Update:
Blaine Gabbert has jumped ahead of Cam Newton - at least theoretically. The Panthers are still rumored to love Newton, but that may change in the wake of Gabbert's brilliant Pro Day.
Even if Gabbert is picked first, it shouldn't be a big deal for Newton, who will probably be the third pick in the 2011 NFL Draft because he fits into Chan Gailey's offense.
March 15 Update:
It's looking more and more like the Panthers will be going with a quarterback.
The big news since my May 7 update is the implementation of a rookie salary scale. Now that owner Jerry Richardson won't have to shell out $50 million guaranteed for an unproven quarterback, there's a greater chance that he'll take a shot with either Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert.
I'd still give the edge to Newton. Ron Rivera met with Newton multiple times. He attended his Pro Day and scheduled a private workout with him. Plus, there are some rumors regarding Carolina's lack of interest in Gabbert, but that could change if Gabbert has an amazing Pro Day.
Cam Newton is a great leader. He has "it" - something that Jimmy Clausen lacks. Carolina is currently a lost team with no sense of direction. Drafting Newton could fix that.
Never doubt the great Adam Schefter. Following the Combine, Schefter said on SportsCenter: "It would not surprise me one bit if in the end, ultimately, Carolina decides to go quarterback. We've seen this movie before. I have a sense of where this is going."
Panthers beat writer Darin Gantt believes Newton will be the No. 1 pick:
"I think they were so set on Andrew Luck coming out, they're not going to wait. They need a quarterback."
Gil Brandt believes the Panthers should draft Newton.
"It would shock me if he?s not the first player picked," Brandt said. "If I was drafting and I had Carolina's pick, I'd feel really good about who I was getting as far as ability."
Cam Newton has the physical talent. But does he have the mental ability to learn how to diagnose defenses and make multiple reads? Vince Young could never evolve into a consistent NFL quarterback because he's a moron. Newton's not as dumb as Young, but he's not very bright either. After all, he told the NFL Network crew that he wants "to be consistency."
If Rivera doesn't think Newton is smart enough to progress, he can't take him with the top pick.
Marcell Dareus had an outstanding Combine. At 6-3, 319, Dareus had a quicker 10-yard split than 291-pound Nick Fairley.
Dareus would fill Carolina's greatest need outside of the quarterback position. The team has nothing at defensive tackle.
Despite Dareus' great showing in Indianapolis, he's not first on any 2011 NFL Draft Big Board. McShay has him second. Mel Kiper seeds him fourth. How can the Panthers take someone who's not the best non-quarterback available?
Dareus has only started one full year at Alabama, and never dominated the line of scrimmage like Fairley or Ndamukong Suh.
No cornerback has ever been selected No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft. During the Combine, Mike Mayock and even Deion Sanders suggested that spending the top selection on a cornerback would be foolish. Mayock and Sanders argued that opposing quarterbacks can just throw away from a corner, making the position far less valuable than quarterback, left tackle and defensive line.
Cornerback is not a position of need for Carolina.
If Ron Rivera likes Blaine Gabbert or Cam Newton, that quarterback will be chosen over Peterson. No question. You don't pass on a potential franchise quarterback for any corner.
Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson - 2.5%
March 15 Update:
If you didn't see today's updated 2011 NFL Mock Draft, I thought about dropping Da'Quan Bowers out of the top 10. There are serious concerns that he has knee issues. There is no way the Panthers are going to spend the top pick in the draft on a guy whose knee is in question.
The Panthers did not franchise or re-sign Charles Johnson, so they need a left end. They had major pass-rushing issues in 2009, and Da'Quan Bowers would help in that department (at least theoretically).
Bowers is a one-year wonder. He had playing time at Clemson prior to the 2010 season, but didn't produce. Bowers attributed his great 2010 campaign to the death of Gaines Adams, citing that Adams' passing made him focus on football. This could be true, but what if Adams' motivations were more monetarily influenced?
Bowers has an enigmatic knee injury that kept him out of the Combine. McShay reported that his knee isn't recovering as quickly as expected, though that has been refuted by Bowers' people. I guess we'll find out at Clemson's Pro Day on April 1.
The Panthers reportedly don't want to take a defensive lineman with the No. 1 overall pick. The Charlotte Observer writes, "Health issues surrounding a couple of the top defensive linemen have called into question how much of an impact they might make."
Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn - 2.1%
March 15 Update:
The odds of Nick Fairley being chosen No. 1 are slightly higher than they were last week, thanks to an incredible Pro Day workout. However, the Panthers need to take a quarterback, and Marcell Dareus remains the top defensive tackle on the board.
Nick Fairley dominated the line of scrimmage in the SEC this past season, easily tossing aside opposing offensive linemen. He was phenomenal in the co-national championship against Oregon.
Fairley won't be the No. 1 overall pick; I'm simply listing him here because he's still the top choices in many 2011 NFL Mock Drafts in our massive mock draft database.
Panthers beat writer Darin Gantt tweeted that Fairley is not one of Carolina's targets. Meanwhile, Comcast's Matt Maiocco wrote, "One person said he thought Fairley would go in the top 10, but thought he was really in the 15-to-20 range. The drawbacks on Fairley are his body, speed and technique."
CBS' Rob Rang reported that some NFL personnel were turned off by Fairley at the Combine. One source said that Fairley "looked soft." Fairley measured in at just 291, which is a concern.
Like Bowers, Fairley is a one-year wonder. Was he motivated by money?
Once again, the Charlotte Observer's report that the Panthers are turned off by the thought of taking a defensive lineman No. 1 overall comes to mind. Carolina is apparently concerned with Fairley's sprained AC joint in his right shoulder.
A.J. Green, WR, Georgia - 0.39%
March 15 Update:
No real update for A.J. Green. It'll be a huge surprise if he's the No. 1 pick.
Wide receiver is a position of need. Steve Smith is a declining player. A.J. Green would be Carolina's new No. 1 wide receiver and could help salvage Clausen's career.
Green is the top prospect on some draft boards. He's the No. 1 player according to Scott Wright (Draft Countdown), Wes Bunting (National Football Post) and Tony Pauline (Sports Illustrated).
There's no buzz about Green being the top pick. No major media outlet has even mentioned the possibility.
Julio Jones outperformed Green at the Combine. While Green should still be the superior prospect, there's a chance that Jones passed him on some teams' draft boards.
Peterson is the consensus top prospect; not Green. So, if the Panthers are going to eschew taking a quarterback or a defensive lineman, why would they pick Green over Peterson? If Carolina truly wants to go best player available, Peterson will be the choice.
Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina - 0.01%
March 15 Update:
Robert Quinn needs to make angels sing and Todd McShay cry on camera during his Pro Day to enter the conversation.
Mike Mayock loves Robert Quinn. Yeah, I'm reaching.
There are many reasons why Robert Quinn won't be the No. 1 pick. He's not in the top five of many big boards. He didn't play last year. He didn't show great athleticism or explosion at the Combine. He has some character concerns. He's not the top defensive end available. I can go on, but my fingers are tired.
Barring a disastrous Pro Day, Cam Newton will still be the No. 1 pick in my updated 2011 NFL Mock Draft on Wednesday, but Blaine Gabbert has a chance to take over the top spot depending on what happens at his Pro Day.