By Zach Goins
January 6, 2021
Photo: AP Photo/Brian Blanco
When the Panthers first signed quarterback Teddy Bridgewater last March, no one really knew what to make of it.
Was he the answer under center for the franchise moving forward, or just an interim fix until the Panthers could figure out something more permanent?
With longtime quarterback Cam Newton on his way out, signing Bridgewater to a three-year, $63 million deal didn’t exactly provide an answer in the form of a new franchise centerpiece, but at the same time, the contract signified a bigger commitment to Bridgewater than simply a one-year trial run.
Now, after a disappointing 5-11 season in head coach Matt Rhule’s first year, Carolina will once again be forced to evaluate the quarterback position this offseason. Let the speculation commence.
“Teddy’s here, I have a lot of respect,” Rhule said in his postseason press conference. “I believe in what he can do, I’ve seen glimpses and flashes of us as an offense looking really good.”
But just because he’s here, doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be the starter next year. Rhule refused to name Bridgewater the team’s starter for next season– which is understandable, considering kickoff is nearly 250 days away– but it was enough of a statement to raise eyebrows ahead of the offseason.
“We’ll have to wait and see in terms of any moves we make in the offseason and where we’re headed,” Rhule said, “both at the quarterback position and any position.”
Let’s take a look at some of the possibilities at quarterback for the Panthers heading into 2021.
The Case for Teddy
Before getting too deep into theories or predictions, it’s important to get one thing straight: Bridgewater will be on the Panthers roster next season, whether that’s as a starter or a backup.
The way his contract is structured essentially guarantees Carolina keeps him through at least two of the three years, or else they’ll suffer a $20 million cap hit. If the Panthers decided to ditch Bridgewater after two seasons ahead of 2022, they’ll only take a $5 million hit. So, with that in mind, seeing Bridgewater under center again next year is a strong possibility.
In his 15 starts this year, Bridgewater posted a 4-11 record, totaling 3,733 passing yards (17th), 15 touchdowns (24th) and 11 interceptions (T-9th). Despite finishing with the league’s fifth-best completion percentage (69.1%), the stat Panthers fans will most likely remember is his 0-8 record in games where Carolina had a chance to win on the final possession. That inability to close out close games down the stretch haunted the Panthers throughout the season, and winning just a handful could have turned a 5-11 season into something a bit more bearable.
On top of his performance on the field, Bridgewater needs to work on his durability, too. Known for suffering a devastating knee injury in 2016, this year marked the first time since 2015 he started more than five games in a season, and he needs to make sure his body can hold up.
“Part of being a quarterback in this league is being able to withstand the physical toll of the season, playing your best football at the end of the year,” Rhule said. “I don’t know that I’ve seen that from him.”
Bridgewater missed one game recovering from a knee injury, and played through both knee and ankle injuries.
While his future in Carolina may be uncertain, Bridgewater hasn’t made any changes to his mindset.
“This is my team and I’m going to continue to conduct myself that way,” Bridgewater said.
Rhule, on the other hand, sent a clear message: “Teddy has to have a tremendous offseason.”
Everyone wants their team to make a flashy pick in the NFL Draft, and this year may be the perfect chance for the Panthers to do just that. With the eighth overall pick secured, there’s a serious chance Carolina could pick a quarterback.
“With regards to the draft and players, we’ll look at every opportunity to have the best we can have at every position,” Rhule said. “That includes the quarterback position.”
Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence will be long gone by the time the Panthers are on the clock, and Ohio State’s Justin Fields will likely be drafted shortly after Lawrence. However, there are two other quarterback prospects that mock drafts and analysts are projecting to be worthy of a top-10 pick: BYU’s Zach Wilson and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance.
Wilson has a certified cannon arm, and he created nonstop highlights for the 11-1 Cougars this season. The true junior racked up 3,699 passing yards and 33 touchdown passes on the year with just three interceptions, plus he added 254 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. Some analysts even have Wilson listed ahead of Fields, and with the Falcons picking ahead of Carolina, Wilson may not be around at No. 8.
Lance, on the other hand, is likely to still be around when the Panthers pick, and a lot of that is due to the uncertainty surrounding him. Due to the pandemic, North Dakota State cancelled its 2020 season with the exception of one game, which means there’s not nearly as much tape to help evaluate Lance’s potential. Still, a young quarterback with a young head coach and offensive coordinator make sense, allowing all three to grow together– just like Cam Newton once did with Ron Rivera. Plus, that lack of experience could be covered for a year, considering Bridgewater is likely to still be around for another year and could serve as a mentor for Lance.
It may not be an ideal situation for Bridgewater, but the quarterback said on Monday that he understands “business is business.”
Finding a new quarterback in free agency– the way Carolina got Bridgewater just last year– is significantly more unlikely due to the limited salary cap space the Panthers are dealing with this year.
What makes this avenue even more unlikely is the limited availability on the market this offseason. At the quarterback position, the biggest free agent name is Dak Prescott, but he’s way too expensive for Carolina to touch. Couple that with the uncertainty surrounding Prescott’s return from a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle in Week 5, and it’s definitely a no-go.
Other potential free agents include Colts quarterback Philip Rivers, who at 39 years old is definitely not the answer for a franchise looking for a new star to build around, the Bears’ Mitchell Trubisky, an on-again, off-again franchise quarterback, and Miami’s Ryan Fitzpatrick, another 38-year-old.
It’s safe to say Carolina probably won’t find it’s long-term solution in the free agency market this offseason.
On the Depth Chart
There’s really not much to say here, because the answer for Carolina’s quarterback woes is most certainly not already on the depth chart.
Former XFL standout P.J. Walker got a chance to backup Bridgewater throughout the year, but did so with dreadful results, completing 32-of-56 passes for just one touchdown and five interceptions.
Carolina’s 2019 third-round pick Will Grier hasn’t proven himself to be the answer either. Grier lost two starts in 2019 and spent the last 12 weeks of this season inactive on game days.
Whatever route the Panthers choose to go, it’s clear that change is once again needed under center. No one expected Matt Rhule’s team to be a contender in year one, but his system has shown promise. Now the Panthers just need to find a quarterback capable of bringing home the victories. With a new general manager set to join the mix, it’s an uncertain time for Panthers fans.