INDIANAPOLIS — Count the Carolina Panthers as another team searching for a quarterback in 2023.
They’re already quite familiar with combing through the bargain bin in the hopes of unearthing a gem, cycling through Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold and P.J. Walker last season alone. Carolina drafted Matt Corral, too, but lost him to a season-ending injury before the regular season started.
Corral is the only quarterback under contract for 2023 as of now. Reich and general manager Scott Fitterer have work to do to change that fact, starting with a visit from veteran quarterback Derek Carr. Reich came away from their meeting impressed by the four-time Pro Bowler, who enters free agency for the first time ahead of the new league year after being released by the Raiders.
“Derek is an excellent leader. He’s an excellent passer,” Reich said Wednesday at the NFL Scouting Combine. “He’s very accomplished. You look at the fit, how does he fit with our team and our locker room? He checks a lot of boxes, no question. That’s why he is where he is at this point in his career and the opportunity, it’s a unique opportunity to talk to someone of that caliber as a player and a person. So we didn’t take that for granted.”
At the center of Carolina’s quarterback conundrum are two competing schools of thought: Spend a high draft pick on a rookie passer, surround him with a quality supporting cast and hope he develops into a long-term solution, or sign a proven veteran who will allow the team to compete immediately, but won’t be around forever.
Theoretically, the Panthers could do both, although as Fitterer said Wednesday, it wouldn’t be financially prudent to both spend on a veteran and use valuable capital on a rookie in the same offseason. Essentially, it’s one or the other for Carolina.
This isn’t Reich’s first trip on the quarterback carousel. The former NFL signal-caller cycled through a number of quarterbacks in Indianapolis following the abrupt retirement of Andrew Luck, turning to Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan during his five years with the Colts. The results ranged from surprisingly productive (Rivers in 2020) to incredibly disappointing (Wentz in 2021 and Ryan in 2022). The last go-around cost Reich his job midway through the 2022 season, and he said Wednesday he feels fortunate to receive another head-coaching opportunity in the NFL.
This time around, he’ll take the lessons learned from Indianapolis and apply them as best possible to avoid another disastrous outcome. And it certainly sounds as if Carr might be Reich’s choice.
“Whatever decision we make is what is best, not just for this year, but you’re looking on the horizon,” Reich said. “Obviously, if you draft a guy, you’re looking on a very long-term horizon. If you go free agent, if you go Derek Carr, the nice thing with Derek, he’s going to be 32 years old. It’s kind of prime quarterback years. There’s still a good five-year window there.
“Sure, we’re like every team: We want to win the division next year. But you really have to look beyond that as well.”
Carr is coming off his worst season since 2017, completing 60.8 percent of his passes for 3,522 yards and a 24-14 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His total production wasn’t good enough to propel the Raiders to the playoffs in the AFC West, and by the time the final month of the regular season arrived, Josh McDaniels had seen enough, benching Carr in favor of Jarrett Stidham and effectively signaling it was time for Carr to stock up on moving supplies.
That doesn’t mean Carr can’t rediscover the magic that made him a Pro Bowler. Reich has enjoyed success with a veteran in the past, watching Rivers lead his Colts to a playoff appearance in 2020 before riding off into the sunset of retirement. But as Reich learned in the years that followed, it’s not as simple as plugging and playing a veteran at the position, especially one who was available only because his former team cast him aside.
Carr doesn’t quite fall in the same bin as Wentz and Ryan. He’s younger than Ryan and played at a more consistent level than Wentz did prior to Wentz’s move to Indianapolis. And naturally, it’s about more than quarterback, but the Panthers can’t proceed without first addressing the position.
The days and weeks ahead will provide us with an answer on Carolina’s future. Whether it impacts the immediate or long-term outlook remains to be seen.