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What the Panthers’ Trade to No. 1 Means for the Rest of the NFL Draft

We now know which team will make the first selection in April. But that’s about all we know.

AP/Ringer illustration

Every year, the first overall pick starts the NFL draft—this year, the trading of that pick was always going to herald draft season. And that day came Friday, when the Chicago Bears traded the first overall pick to the Carolina Panthers for a haul.

The deck has been reshuffled in the Top 10, and that new order is reflected in Danny Kelly’s most recent mock draft on the Ringer NFL draft guide. But one mock draft alone can’t capture all of the repercussions of the top overall pick exchanging hands. To look at all of the ripples, we’ll start with the stone that was dropped in the pond: the Panthers trading up.

The Panthers’ motive for securing the top pick is clear: They’re desperate for a viable franchise quarterback. It’s something owner David Tepper has never had. Since buying the team in 2018, Tepper has watched his Panthers start a super banged-up Cam Newton, Taylor Heinicke, Kyle Allen, Newton again, Will Grier, Teddy Bridgewater, Newton again again, Baker Mayfield, P.J. Walker, and Sam Darnold. There were even some Garrett Grayson and Jacob Eason snaps in there somewhere. That’s harrowing stuff. That’ll scar a man.

The traumatized owner has a traumatized head coach to boot. Frank Reich, a remarkably solid head coach, was only available because the Colts needed to disembark from a quarterback carousel that saw Reich coach five separate starting quarterbacks over five seasons in Indianapolis. Reich, much like Tepper, is understandably desperate to get his hands on a young, cost-controlled quarterback he can build into a franchise cornerstone.

The why is easy. The who is not so simple. It’s a thick quarterback class at the top, including Alabama’s Bryce Young, Kentucky’s Will Levis, and Florida’s Anthony Richardson. But in the hours since the Panthers secured the top pick, a leader has emerged in the clubhouse: Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud.

When betting markets on the first overall pick opened at sportsbooks following the trade, Stroud was a slight favorite—in the minutes that followed, he became a heavy favorite. For perspective: An odds of minus-320 gives Stroud an implied probability of over 75 percent to be the first overall pick.

It’s worth remembering that betting markets are often wrong, and we shouldn’t assume that Stroud is locked in as the no. 1 pick just yet. In the middle of March last year, first overall pick odds swung away from the favorite in Alabama OT Evan Neal to … edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson. Neither ended up the first overall pick. In 2018, Darnold was the favorite—and Josh Allen the clear second—on the week of the NFL Draft. Mayfield, the distant third, went first overall.

But Stroud makes plenty of sense for the Panthers. Among the four top quarterbacks, he is arguably the best—on Kelly’s Draft Guide, he is the fourth overall prospect, behind only Young (third overall) among quarterbacks. And unlike Young, who is one of the smallest quarterbacks to ever enter the NFL, Stroud does not have a glaring red flag on his evaluation. In fact, for Reich, he fits a prototype.

Stroud, who measured at 6-foot-3 at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, doesn’t just have the height Reich seems to prefer in a starting QB—he also has the play style. Stroud is a dominant pocket passer cut from the cloth of Jared Goff or Dak Prescott. He is accurate, processes well pre- and post-snap, can hit every throw, and knows how to buy time in the pocket. The fit makes sense, and the talent is worth the first overall pick. As Panthers reporter Joe Person shared on Friday evening, “The sense around the league is that they’re going up for C.J. Stroud.”

So we all agree that Stroud can and should go to the Panthers. That’s nice and tidy.

Only, it never is. Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer also said this on Friday night:

And that reporting was echoed by Person as well.

Now, it’s rare to see a team make a huge jump in the draft without complete certainty on whom they plan to select. But there are mitigating circumstances for this particular trade. The Panthers were in a tight competition to get the first overall pick from the Bears—Peter King’s reporting on Ryan Poles’s haggling at the NFL Combine highlighted at least three suitors for the top pick. And the Bears were motivated to trade the first overall pick before free agency, to get clarity on what they need to prioritize when the new league year begins on March 15.

Because the Bears’ pick may not have been available later down the road, it is intuitive that the Panthers could have traded up and secured the first overall pick knowing that they’re happy taking Stroud there—but not yet decided on taking Stroud there. There’s a lot of time between now and the first day of the NFL draft—47 days in fact.

It’d be nice to know who exactly QB1 is right now. And we are a step closer—we know the team who will be picking first overall. But we won’t know who the pick is. Not just yet.

There’s a second half to those reports—one that’s a little less feasible. That the Panthers could trade back down after trading up for 1 overall.

Here’s the logic: The Panthers like more than one quarterback in this class. Let’s say they know the Texans at 2 and Colts at 4 don’t like one of their favored quarterbacks. They can trade back, safely get a quarterback they would have been happy taking with the first pick, and get some bonus draft capital for their shrewdness.

But this is a pipe dream. They’d have to know whom both the Texans and the Colts like—stone cold, for a fact, dead to rights, et cetera. Manipulating the draft is not that easy, and once you have the security blanket that is first overall pick, it’s hard to give it away.

As such, there are still many dominos left to fall. Houston holds the second overall pick, and now must wonder if the Panthers will take the quarterback atop its board. The Texans, though, always knew the Bears were going to give this pick to another QB-needy team. They should’ve been prepared for this—if they have only one QB they like, they should’ve been trying to make a deal to move up.

After Houston is where things get fun. The Cardinals, who don’t need a quarterback, have the third overall pick; the Colts, who really, really, really need a quarterback, are behind them at four. The Colts were known to be another team aggressively investigating a trade up to the Bears’ first overall selection—but now they find themselves vulnerable.

Arizona is willing to trade down from its draft position. Another team looking to tap into the quarterback class—the Lions at 6, the Raiders at 7, and the Falcons at 8 all fit the bill—could leapfrog the Colts and leave them with the last of the four quarterbacks at their pick. The Colts could try to trade up with the Cardinals now, to protect their position—but what incentive is there for the Cardinals to take a small trade, when they could get far more in return with a slightly larger step back?

And that third pick is extremely valuable. In a class like this, with four quarterbacks all graded close to one another, each team will have different rankings of the top four passers. Even if the expected picks happen at first overall (Stroud) and second overall (Young), that leaves combine phenom and high-ceiling project Richardson available for the team selecting third. This trade just made the Cardinals’ position all the more valuable.

A run on quarterback strengthens the positions for almost every pick after the Colts, who drew the unquestioned short straw when they missed out on the trade with the Bears for the top slot. With the fifth overall pick, the Seattle Seahawks may be able to take one of the best defensive players in the class—Alabama’s Will Anderson or Georgia’s Jalen Carter—and leave their offense in the capable hands of newly minted $100 million quarterback Geno Smith. The Lions could take the remaining blue-chipper and solve the issues along their defensive line as well. If the Raiders and Falcons don’t move up, they can still select from many of this draft’s talented non-quarterbacks. Both teams certainly have holes to fill.

These ripples bring us back to the Bears, who now hold the ninth overall pick that was originally the Panthers’—a pick that is surprisingly strong. Beyond Anderson and Carter are Texas Tech pass rusher Tyree Wilson and a pair of top-flight cornerback prospects in Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez and Illinois’s Devon Witherspoon. So long as four quarterbacks go before the Bears pick at nine, one of those five defenders is guaranteed to be available. That grouping does not even consider the top running back, Texas’s Bijan Robinson—who is widely considered the best prospect at the position since Saquon Barkley—or the entire wide receiver class, if the Bears desire more help for Justin Fields.

The Bears trading out of the first overall pick was always going to be the first domino to fall this draft season. What comes next is harder to see. The Cardinals’ pick now becomes the hottest commodity on the market; Chris Ballard and the Colts become the league’s most desperate team (if they weren’t already). Somewhere in this mess is the Lamar Jackson domino—for all of those teams who may need a quarterback and are worried about missing out, a 26-year-old ex-MVP is on the market for the low cost of two first-round picks and something like a quarter of a billion dollars, maybe fully guaranteed.

Those dominos are tough to see because smoke-screen season has officially begun. From the uncertainty of the Panthers’ quarterback rankings to the uncertainty of … well, everyone else’s quarterback rankings, we’ve got seven weeks of subterfuge on our calendar to look forward to.

Welcome to draft season, folks.