Neglecting Quarterbacks in Draft Hurting Panthers

Matt Moore, preparing to make his third consecutive start on Sunday, has avoided turnovers and kept the Panthers in games in his five career starts. But Moore rarely helps the Panthers put points on the board (they average 13 in the 4 games he started against opponent's starters) and, according to some analysts, lacks leadership skills (he has been blamed for the plethora of shifting and motion penalties last Sunday against New England).

In short, Moore has been about what you would expect from a player who was not drafted into the NFL, if not a bit better. Only three NFL teams began this season starting an undrafted free agent at quarterback - the Cardinals (Kurt Warner), Cowboys (Tony Romo) and Panthers (Jake Delhomme). That's because quarterback is considered to be the most important position in football, and it's a poor strategy to build a team around a player who was not deemed good enough to be among the 200-plus players selected in an NFL Draft.

Most modern NFL teams build through the draft and the Panthers under general manager Marty Hurney and coach John Fox have been no exception. Yet Carolina has largely ignored the quarterback position in their eight drafts together. As a result, Carolina could use two undrafted free agents to start its 16 games at quarterback this season, including the final five by a player who -- unlike Delhomme -- has never been a bona fide NFL player. In addition, the Panthers' opening day starter for 2010 is a major question mark heading into the offseason.

How did the Panthers get themselves into this situation? Let's examine:

The Panthers have drafted just two quarterbacks since the Hurney-Fox era began in 2002, none in the first three rounds. Both of those quarterbacks are now out of the NFL.

When you compare that record to how the Panthers have emphasized drafting at other positions, and to how other NFL teams have approached the quarterback position in the draft, Carolina comes up short on both accounts. The Panthers drafted 65 players between 2002-2009, including 35 on offense: Two quarterbacks, seven backs, six tight ends, 14 linemen and six receivers. In the first three rounds Carolina selected four backs, seven linemen, two receivers, one tight end and, of course, zero quarterbacks.

Independent positions such as center, guard and tackle form the foundation for a team, so I don't fault Carolina for using so many picks on offensive linemen. But six picks at the dependent position of tight end? And no quarterbacks in the first three rounds? That's questionable.

Since 2002, NFL teams have drafted 104 quarterbacks -- 43 in the first three rounds. That averages out to 3.3 quarterbacks per team and 1.3 per team in the first three rounds. The Panthers are well below both those marks.

This trend gets more damning when you look at whom the Panthers have drafted at quarterback. They used a 5th-round pick on Randy Fasani in 2002 and a No. 4 on Stefan LeFors in 2005. Fasani has been out of the NFL since his rookie season; his stat line: 15-for-44 passing for 171 yards, no touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in 4 games. LeFors has never played in the NFL.

To be fair, the Panthers drafted a quarterback in 2001, the season before Fox and Hurney arrived. They used another non-top 3 pick, this time a No. 4, on Chris Weinke. The Danny Almonte of college football (he was 28 when he won the Heisman Trophy at Florida State in 2000) played with the Panthers in 2001-2002 and 2005-2006. He has been out of the NFL since appearing in 2 games with the 49ers in 2007. His numbers: A 54 percent completion rate, 5.5 yards per attempt and a 15-26 touchdown-interception ratio in 29 career games. He started 15 games in 2001, when Carolina went 1-15.

Carolina has passed on numerous starting quarterbacks in the draft. In 2004 the Panthers used a No. 2 pick on receiver Keary Colbert; the Falcons then used a No. 3 to pick Matt Schaub, who now starts for Houston. A year later the Panthers passed on Kyle Orton four times before the Bears selected him in the 4th round. They also selected LeFors ahead of Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel, whom the Patriots selected in the 7th round.

Those moves can be excused. Few teams expected Schaub, Orton or Cassel to become NFL starters, or these quarterbacks would not have slipped so far. But the 2008 draft may haunt this franchise for a while. The Panthers passed on Joe Flacco and Chad Henne. Flacco was the Ravens' 1st-round choice, while Miami selected Henne in the 2nd round.

Carolina opted to focus on its running game, using its two 1st-rounders to select Jonathan Stewart to join 2006 No. 1 pick DeAngelo Williams at tailback, and tackle Jeff Otah to block for them. These moves paid off last season, when a stellar running game carried Carolina to an NFC South title. But then the quarterback position -- mostly Delhomme -- crushed their postseason chances last season and has held them back this year. And it could be a major problem in the near future.

To be fair, Carolina has used other methods besides the draft to bring in quarterbacks in the Hurney-Fox era. The Panthers traded for both Delhomme and Josh McCown, who began the season as Delhomme's backup. McCown is only 30, has started 31 NFL games and was a 3rd-round pick in 2002.

But Carolina's M.O. since 2002 has been to build and sustain the team through the draft. And when the draft comes, the front office has neglected the most important position on the field.

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