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The view from Trade Down Island on the Panthers’ massive trade up to No. 1

The Benevolent Dictator of Trade Down Island is very nervous.

NFL: Combine Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As the Benevolent Dictator of Trade Down Island I feel obligated to issue a proclamation to the residents of TDI about Panthers GM Scott Fitterer’s decision to trade up for the No. 1 overall pick. In the process Fitterer sent away No. 9 and No. 61 in this year’s draft, a first round pick next year, a 2025 second round pick, and wide receiver DJ Moore. Carolina just parted with a ton of draft capital and a young Pro Bowl-level talent in Moore for the right to control the 2023 draft.

I’ve been on the record for years now extolling the virtues of Trade Down Island’s constitution which states that the draft is nothing more than educated guesswork. With that in mind, teams should always consider smartly trading back a few spots in Rounds 1-2 unless it means they are passing up the opportunity to draft a near surefire Pro Bowler.

Since the Panthers trade happened I’ve received a few texts, emails, and Slack chats from concerned friends asking how I’m doing. Here’s the summary:

I’m very nervous and mostly pessimistic...but I can live with the trade provided Carolina drafts a franchise quarterback with Pro Bowl upside.

Why I can live with it

Nothing is more important for the Carolina Panthers than solving their ongoing need at quarterback. Over the past five seasons the Panthers leaders in passing yards have been an injured Cam Newton, Kyle Allen, Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold, and Baker Mayfield. That’s a recipe for disaster. Inconsistent and ineffective quarterback play is the primary reason why the Panthers have gone just 29-53 over the last five seasons. Carolina will continue to spin on the hamster wheel of mediocrity until they find Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback and build around him.

If the quarterback the Panthers draft this year ends up giving the team a decade’s worth of above average play at the game’s most important position, then the price Scott Fitterer paid is more than worth it.

Landing a veteran quarterback via free agency or a trade just doesn’t make sense for the rebuilding Panthers. This isn’t a team that’s just one or two players away from making a deep postseason run. In a free agent market where Daniel Jones got a four-year, $160 million contract and Derrick Carr got four years and $140 million, it was probably best for Carolina to keep their powder dry. Recent trades for big-salary veteran quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan are also cautionary tales.

And if the Panthers didn’t get aggressive to draft their franchise quarterback in 2023, then when would be the right time to do it?

Teams like the Panthers that are at least somewhat competitive and end up drafting somewhere around No. 10 overall rarely have franchise quarterbacks fall to them in the draft. If the Panthers didn’t do something this year, it feels like they would have just continued their frustrating pattern of kicking the can down the road for another meaningless season. With a new coaching staff and no viable starting quarterback on the roster, the trade up strategy in 2023 is at least defensible.

There’s no greater value in the NFL than a team with a productive young quarterback on a rookie-scale contract, even if he’s the No. 1 overall pick. Spotrac estimates the No. 1 pick will sign a four-year, $41 million contract with a $7.4 million cap hit in 2023. If the Panthers nail the draft and land their new franchise savior, this artificially low contract will give the team cap flexibility over the next couple of years to build a talented core around him.

The Panthers are making a huge calculated risk by trading up, and in many ways it’s completely justified.

Why I’m very nervous

However, this trade gives me an uncomfortable amount of football-related heartburn.

As stated in TDI’s glorious constitution, the draft is nothing more than educated guesswork. This is especially true for quarterbacks taken No. 1 overall.

Yes, there are recent successes with No. 1 overall guys like Trevor Lawrence and Joe Burrow, but there are also cautionary tales like Baker Mayfield and Jameis Winston. Knowing which college quarterbacks will succeed in the NFL is extremely hard to predict. Trading up in order to find out is a massive, massive risk.

I’m also nervous because of Scott Fitterer’s track record of quarterback evaluation in his brief tenure with the Panthers. This is a GM who traded for both Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield over the last two years after having game tapes with dozens of NFL starts between them. Fitterer whiffed on both of them. Now the Panthers GM and his talent evaluators will have to make a franchise-altering decision to draft a college quarterback competing against college talent and ensure he succeeds in the NFL.

That’s a big ask.

Given the massive haul the Panthers gave up to secure the No. 1 pick, the quarterback Carolina lands can’t just be good, he needs to be really good. I know that’s a pretty subjective criteria, but it’s true. There’s always enough pressure on the No. 1 pick to succeed, especially if he’s a quarterback. That pressure is amplified when a team essentially mortgages their future to trade up to draft him.

The Trade Down Island outlook

Call me a Debbie Downer, but my gut tells me that given the significant assets the Panthers sent out and the inexact science that is NFL talent evaluation, especially for quarterbacks, that we’ll probably be disappointed over the long term with this trade.

Drafting a quarterback No. 1 overall is a roll of the dice. Giving up a future first round pick, two second rounders, and an established difference maker like DJ Moore means the Panthers simply can’t afford to miss with this selection. Given Scott Fitterer’s evaluation of quarterbacks thus far and the random nature of the draft, I think there’s a higher probability that this trade up will fail than succeed.

But as the Benevolent Dictator of Trade Down Island, I hope Scott Fitterer proves me wrong. I understand why he’s making this massive gamble to finally shore up the quarterback spot. It’s a highly risky move, but it’s justified.

All we can do now is hope it pays off.