CHARLOTTE — As enticing as it might be for the Carolina Panthers to think about drafting a potential franchise quarterback, they're faced with questions beyond whether Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert might be that guy.
The Panthers also have to consider whether they'd be better served trying to add multiple players instead, and using the demand for quarterbacks to make a deal when the draft begins April 28.
Trading out of the top spot could become as much of a choice as deciding which player better suits their needs, specifically with the number of teams looking for a quarterback.
Andrew Luck could have made this an easy call if he had left school early, because the Panthers had already set their sights on the Stanford quarterback. But in his absence, there are varying opinions on which quarterback is the best in this class.
What can't be argued is the need, as at least eight of the top 12 teams in the draft and perhaps more have reason to draft a passer.
"Hey, you've got to have that quarterback if you want to win in this league," said former Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos coach Dan Reeves, who twice benefited from moving up. "But you've got to be a little lucky too if you want to make one of those deals."
Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said he didn't want to comment on trading the first pick, but he doesn't really have to, as his stance on the topic is well-established.
He has presided over 13 draft-weekend trades involving picks in nine years as general manager and always refers to trades as "part of the fun" of his job.
But after trading this year's second pick to get wide receiver Armanti Edwards, the idea of amassing more picks could appeal to him as well since they're short on what he and owner Jerry Richardson refer to as "currency." The Panthers should add some compensatory picks this week (for last season's free agency losses), but at the moment, they have just five total picks. That's a far cry from the 10 they used last year, and if they want to add quantity, trading out of the first spot would do the job.
Since 1970, the No.1 pick in the draft has been traded seven times. Three of those were for quarterbacks, and the past two could reasonably be considered win-wins. But the risk of a major mistake is real.
The Cincinnati Bengals found out in 1995 when it gave the top pick to expansion Carolina for a first and a second and drafted oft-injured running back Ki-Jana Carter. Likewise, the then-Houston Oilers obtained two journeyman players from the Dallas Cowboys in 1974 while the Cowboys took defensive end Ed "Too Tall" Jones.
Bill Parcells parlayed the New York Jets' top pick into seven picks in 1997 through a series of trades, and while the Panthers may not want to buy wholesale to that extent, getting back into the second round would clearly appeal to them.
The last time the top pick was traded (2004), the San Diego Chargers ended up with two first-rounders, a third and a fifth. While the New York Giants got quarterback Eli Manning and eventually a Super Bowl ring out of the deal, the Chargers parlayed it into three Pro Bowlers (quarterback Philip Rivers, kicker Nate Kaeding and linebacker Shawne Merriman).
In 2001, San Diego bypassed a chance at Michael Vick, and ended up drafting running back LaDainian Tomlinson and quarterback Drew Brees, a draft that set the stage for a decade of consistent winning for the Chargers (88 wins and just one losing season from 2002 to 2010), even after Rivers replaced Brees in 2006
Former San Diego coach Mike Riley said he had months of preparations overturned in the days leading up to the 2001 draft, which would end up being his last as the Chargers coach.
"We had spent so much time researching, and as we went into that final week, it seemed like the owner, the GM, me, [offensive coordinator] Norv Turner, we were all on the same page," Riley said. "Everything was pointing to Michael Vick, and everybody seemed to think it was the right call.
"Then somebody had a revelation, and that somebody was above me."
The Chargers had spent the pre-draft period zooming in on three quarterbacks: Vick, Brees and Washington's Marques Tuiasosopo. While Vick was clearly the favorite, Chargers management correctly thought it could still get Brees with their own high second-rounder, and when the Falcons deal became available, they were willing to move down four spots, take Tomlinson and hope for the best.
While the decision was made above his head, Riley recalled a sense of sadness when he heard the deal went down.
"When you spent as much time with him as we had, you felt like you had really gotten to know the guy; and as much as the talent, you could see this vibrant personality," Riley said of Vick. "There were two emotions when the trade was made. One was simply surprise and shock that we were doing it. But the other was that we were all wondering about our futures, and we didn't know what it meant.
"I don't know if I'd call it depression, but we did have ourselves to the point we were excited about getting our hands on Michael Vick.
"For a time, that was obviously a huge letdown."
That's what the Panthers are weighing this year.
QB or not QB
Newton or Gabbert (both of whom the Panthers had private workouts with last week) could potentially transform a team looking for an answer at the position after finishing 2010 with the league's worst offense. But they could also bet on 2010 second-rounder Jimmy Clausen improving (or try to find a veteran upgrade) and use the assets elsewhere.
But if the pick gets traded this year, it will be because someone falls for one of the quarterbacks and is willing to make a big move to get him.
The uncertainty over the individuals complicates things, but Carolina (picking first), Buffalo Bills (third), Cincinnati (fourth), Arizona Cardinals (fifth), San Francisco 49ers (seventh), Tennessee Titans (eighth), Washington Redskins (10th) and Minnesota Vikings (12th) have serious need at the position, with Denver (second) and Cleveland Browns (sixth) potentially joining the mix.
So while there's not a clear-cut No.1 quarterback, the demand is obvious, and could trigger a move.
Elway and Vick
Reeves twice benefited from such deals. He was the Broncos coach in the 1980s when they obtained John Elway and was running the show in Atlanta when the Falcons parlayed their way into Vick. Reeves knows how fortunate he was in both cases.
Elway used his potential baseball career (he had been drafted by the New York Yankees) as a threat to strong-arm his way out of going to Baltimore to play for the then-Colts.
Once then-owner Bob Irsay realized Elway was serious, he spent months trying to work the best deal. Many, but not all of those conversations were with former Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser, as San Diego and Oakland Raiders were involved as well.
And while the football people normally conduct those talks, that wasn't the case with Elway.
"There were exactly two people making that deal happen, and that was Mr. Kaiser and Mr. Irsay," said Jim Saccomano, the longtime Broncos vice president of communications.
Reeves recalled the initial offer from the Colts being astronomical, as they were asking for two first- and two second-round picks. The eventual deal, consummated after the 1983 draft, sent quarterback Mark Hermann, and the Broncos' 1983 (which was tackle Chris Hinton) and 1984 first-rounders to the Colts.
Reeves said he was pulling up to a golf course in Denver when he got a call on his car phone from Kaiser.
"When Edgar Kaiser called me to ask what I thought about the trade, he said 'Do you have a pencil?'" Reeves said. "He said Hinton and I wrote that down, then he said Hermann and I wrote that down, then he said next year's first. I kept waiting for him to say something else, but he never did.
"When I said 'That's it?' and he said that was it, we knew we were doing that in a heartbeat."
Elway transformed the Broncos organization, and Reeves knew Vick could potentially do the same thing for Atlanta. He said the Vick deal was born out of the Chargers' mistake three years prior, when they traded up to the second pick to take Ryan Leaf. "They had lost a lot of money on the Leaf thing," Reeves said. "And you could tell they wanted out of that spot, because they didn't want to have to sign that big a deal again."
A rookie wage scale could potentially eliminate the financial risk for the Panthers, since the NFL and the NFL Players Association had seemingly agreed to make contracts for the top five picks less lucrative - allowing them to avoid the record-breaking $50million guaranteed Sam Bradford got last year from the St. Louis Rams.
But the risk is still very real, and one Hurney will have to weigh carefully over the next six weeks.