CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The biggest news out of the NFL combine for the Carolina Panthers was the statement by coach Ron Rivera that the team won’t be in the market for a veteran quarterback to back up Cam Newton when free agency begins next week.
That means they’re confident the 2015 NFL MVP will recover in time to start the season after undergoing surgery on his right shoulder for the second time in three offseasons.
The emphasis on finding a backup quarterback outside of Kyle Allen (under contract) and Taylor Heinicke (a restricted free agent) will be in the draft. The Panthers haven’t drafted a quarterback since selecting Newton with the top pick in 2011.
“Quarterback is not as deep as it’s been in the past, but the guys that they do have are quality guys,” Rivera said when asked about the talent in this year’s class.
Quality is key here.
The Panthers won’t be in the market for the top three quarterbacks -- Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins and Missouri’s Drew Lock -- because that would mean using a first-round pick. There are too many needs, particularly for an edge rusher, to look at a backup quarterback at No. 16.
But there’s a good chance the Panthers will draft a quarterback on the second or third day. With two third-round picks, that might be an option.
Here’s a look at potential candidates to join Allen and Heinicke in the competition to back up Newton:
Will Grier, West Virginia
Grier (6-2, 217) met with the Panthers at the combine, an encounter that had to be somewhat surreal for the Charlotte native and longtime Carolina fan. While his performance in drills was inconsistent, his confidence was what you were looking for, as he called himself the “best quarterback in this draft.” His inconsistency could cause him to fall to a lower round, where Carolina might be willing to pull the trigger. He definitely fits the bill of a player the Panthers could groom as a future replacement for the 29-year-old Newton.
Did you know? He’s married with a daughter, who was born in 2016. Like Newton, he began his college career at the University of Florida before an off-the-field issue (in Grier's case, suspended for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug) led to a transfer.
On where he could be selected: “I’m very confident. I feel like I’m the best quarterback in this draft. I would have felt that way if I came out last year. I’m very confident in my abilities. It’s not just about my tape, which is really good, and I think it’s the best tape that there is. But it’s also everything else that goes into playing quarterback that I take pride in.”
Ryan Finley, NC State
An ankle injury as a redshirt freshman in 2014 while playing for Boise State eventually led Finley (6-4, 213) to transfer to NC State, where he became a legitimate second-tier quarterback for this draft. His accuracy, consistency and solid decision-making make him a solid candidate to grow under Carolina offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who ranks those qualities high. He won’t catch many defenses by surprise with his running ability, but he’s athletic enough to make plays off the zone-read that makes Newton special.
Did you know? While in college, he began wearing special glasses to shield his eyes from certain types of light to ensure he was asleep by 10 p.m. and got at least eight hours of sleep.
Finley's message to teams at the combine: “I think I'm smart, I'm accurate, I play with good anticipation, I'm experienced from starting 43 games in my college career. The ability to transfer to another team and start on two different teams is important, especially when you measure a guy's ability to go from college to the pros. I feel like I've done something similar to that.”
Daniel Jones, Duke
Like Grier, he grew up in the Charlotte area, playing at Charlotte Latin. He could go late in the first round after a solid performance at the combine. At 6-5 and 221 pounds, he has the build of an NFL quarterback, and teams love his big hands (bigger than those of Dwayne Haskins) and sneaky athletic ability as a runner. Potential is the big word with Jones, and the Panthers are looking for long-term potential. The big question is how high he will go in the draft.
Did you know? Thanks to Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who worked with Peyton Manning and Eli Manning in college, Jones has built a bond with the Pro Bowl quarterbacks, who have helped him grow as a player.
On what separates him from other top QBs in the draft: “My toughness is my biggest strength. Through my career at Duke, I've dealt with whatever it was, but physically I've proven my toughness, I believe. I think my intelligence, my ability to process information is a strength of mine as well. I think I've been prepared well from Coach Cut, from Coach [Zac] Roper at Duke. My will to compete separates me as well. Those three things will make me successful in the NFL.”
Tyree Jackson, Buffalo
If you thought Newton (6-5, 245) was big, check out Jackson at 6-7, 249. Jackson impressed teams with his accuracy and ball velocity at the combine. His 4.59-second time in the 40-yard dash, second among quarterbacks who ran in Indianapolis, also turned heads. Only Penn State’s Trace McSorley (4.57) was faster. While some think Jackson eventually might be an NFL tight end, he could be worth a later-round pick as a project at quarterback. The Panthers thought enough of him to schedule a meeting at the combine. Accuracy was Jackson’s biggest issue this past season, as he completed only 55.3 percent of his attempts.
Did you know? Jackson was 5-foot-9 during his freshman year of high school before a growth spurt that now has him compared to Bills quarterback Josh Allen (6-5).
On being labeled raw: “For me, you know, I'm excited. I feel like my best play is ahead. I've kind of gotten to this point without a quarterback coach. Now I have someone with Jordan Palmer, really helping me with my mechanics, my lower-body mechanics and helping me improve. So I've already seen a lot of progress in six weeks.”
Brett Rypien, Boise State
The 6-2, 210-pound Rypien doesn’t have the big arm and other measurables to make him a high draft pick, but neither did Carolina backups Allen and Heinicke last season, and the Panthers were pleased with them. Turner seems more interested in intangibles, and Rypien has plenty of those with his football intelligence and accuracy. He might not grow into a future starter, but he could be a serviceable backup.
Did you know? His uncle is Mark Rypien, the first Canadian-born quarterback to start in the NFL and win the Super Bowl MVP (1991 with Washington). Brett played center and left wing in hockey before settling on football.
On how his uncle helped his career: “He’s been an awesome help for me. He’s a guy who has been through it all. The recruiting process, getting into college, coming to the NFL combine coming out of college and he played at the highest level, and he played in Super Bowls. He’s definitely a guy I talk to often and I can always ask for advice. He’s always been there for me and he’s been a great support system for me.”
Clayton Thorson, Northwestern
Perhaps this line of questioning at the combine will give you insight into Thorson (6-4, 222): Did you meet with the Giants? “That’s between me and the Giants.” ... He's got an edge to him. Thorson could be a Day 3 selection, but has the smarts and tools to develop into a capable NFL quarterback. He wasn't the most accurate thrower in college, completing only 58.4 percent of his career attempts. He started every game at Northwestern the past four seasons, so experience is a plus. He also is sneaky versatile as a runner with 27 career rushing touchdowns.
Did you know? In 2017, Thorson announced his engagement to longtime girlfriend Audrey Gross on social media, complete with a picture of him on one knee while popping the question.
On why he stands out in this QB class: “My experience is one, but we've got a couple guys with some experience. I think some of my strengths are with my offense. We're taught to do from an early age at Northwestern is throw with anticipation in some tight windows. Another thing is my ability to escape the pocket and keep plays alive. That's been a strength of mine and that's allowed us to win a lot of games with me rushing for 27 touchdowns in my career and throwing for another 61. That part of my game is huge. Another thing is just realizing different passes have different ball speeds and different routes, so I think my understanding of the game is at a really high level.”
Jarrett Stidham, Auburn
Imagine the conversations in the Carolina quarterback meeting room with two Auburn quarterbacks. Newton, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner for the national champion Tigers, doesn’t hesitate to flash his school pride. At 6-3 and 216 pounds, Stidham is a dual-threat quarterback like Newton, even though he didn’t rack up as many rushing yards as Newton in college. But he is accurate and makes good decisions out of the run-pass option that the Panthers teach.
Did you know? Stidham transferred from Baylor to Auburn after coach Art Briles was fired amid scandal.
On how Auburn’s system translates to the NFL: “Obviously, I think there’s a lot of differences between college and pro. That’s for anybody. But at the same time, there are a lot of things at Auburn that we did that translates to the NFL too. I think it goes hand in hand.”