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Are the Panthers really unsure of what they’re doing at No. 1, or is it all theatrics?

The Carolina Panthers’ brass are on a multi-stop quarterback tour, like a happy family band piling into a tour bus. On Tuesday no fewer than 11 different coaches, scouts, and advisors from the team were in attendance to see CJ Stroud at Ohio State’s pro day, including team owner David Tepper and his wife Nicole. Now they’re in Tuscaloosa to do the same with Bryce Young — then onto Kentucky for Will Levis, and finishing up with Anthony Richardson in Florida.

Externally the Panthers are selling the league on the idea that they could draft any of the top quarterbacks with the No. 1 overall pick — but is that really true? Did Carolina truly trade up to first in the draft without a specific player in mind? Here’s everything we know about how this team is approaching the first pick in the draft.

Everything about CJ Stroud SCREAMS “this is who the Panthers want”

Try as they might to hide their intentions, all signs point to CJ Stroud being the guy. The timing of the Panthers’ decision to trade up tips their hand as much as anything else. They didn’t wait until just before the draft, after they had a chance to bring in all the quarterbacks for visits — but executed the deal just after the combine.

This is notable because we only saw two of the quarterbacks really shine when it comes to combine performances: Stroud and Richardson.

Young decided not to participate in any drills, electing to just be measured and meet with teams instead, while Levis was functionally fine, but didn’t do anything eye-popping enough to justify a team betting the farm on him. Meanwhile Stroud and Richardson put on two very different clinics, with Stroud blowing away attendees with his mechanics and ability to throw the ball to all three levels, while Richardson was a combine phenom who put up some of the best athletic scores we’ve ever seen at the position.

Based purely on Indianapolis we had a very clear delineation on who looked the “best.” If you’re a team wanting a more traditional pocket passer with above-average mobility then Stroud was your guy. If you’re a team looking for a potential game-changing dual-threat superstar, then Richardson might be worth rolling the dice on.

In looking at when the Panthers made the trade, and more importantly who they have in their coaching staff it seems like CJ Stroud is the no-brainer here. In the past head coach Frank Reich has openly made comments about the need for size at the quarterback position, like this about Carson Wentz as a rookie in 2016 when he was offensive coordinator of the Eagles:

“I mean, a lot — He’s 6-5, 240 pounds, and he’s got very, very good athletic ability for the position. I mean, for any position. But this is a big man’s game; this is a physical game. So when you have that kind of athleticism and that kind of size, and then you work that along with what I would say [are] very high grades in processing speed and intelligence, and then leadership, and you know, play-making ability, and all those other x-factors, I just think those are a lot of good things to check off.”

This all sounds a lot like Stroud, and decidedly less like a smaller QB in Young. Then there’s quarterback coach Josh McCown, who was hired by Reich to mentor the incoming rookie. McCown is highly regarded around the NFL, and he was absolutely gushing about Stroud back in January (before he joined the Panthers) during a video breakdown with Josh Norris of Underdog Fantasy Football.

McCown compared Stroud to Joe Burrow, and kept hammering home how much he loved his decision making and mechanics in the play breakdown.

But the Panthers are still trying to tell the world it could be anyone

You’ll hear a lot about the team wanting to have the freedom to take anyone with the No. 1 overall pick. There’s no doubt that part of this is true, but it’s clear the team are also really trying to sell the NFL on this idea.

Send that many representatives, including the team owner to pro days isn’t normal. They get to meet players during a Top 30 visit, so it normally doesn’t require flying the majority of the organization from site to site.

This week Reich tried to walk back his sized-based comments from 2016 and tell everyone that the pick might be Bryce Young, as he said:

“It’s Scott Fitterer, it’s the GM, and he’s talking about Russell Wilson — who, by the way, I had a very high grade on. You don’t have to read anything into that, but I don’t mind telling you that I had a high grade on Russell Wilson. But don’t read anything into that, because I’m just saying that all these people putting this label on me that I only work with big quarterbacks. Don’t read anything into that.”

Reich really, really doesn’t want anyone reading into that, I guess.

The point remains that Carolina are holding their cards close to their chests when it comes to the No. 1 pick, even if all signs are pointing to a clear choice behind the scenes.

So, why are Carolina trying so hard?

The Alabama pro day might be the key to all of this. It’s clear the Panthers are hoping to bait a trade. They gave up a lot to move up from No. 9 to No. 1, so if they’re able to recoup some draft capital, even a small amount, while still walking away with CJ Stroud — they’ll be over the moon.

This seems like a stretch. Their only real hope is if they believe the Texans might have an extraordinarily high grade on Young, with a significant drop down to Stroud. At which point they’ll then need to sell Houston on the idea that they might take their favored quarterback enough to get them feeling uneasy enough to move up and lock in their guy.

Let’s be real, it’s not going to happen — but it’s worth a shot for Carolina.

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