Don't assume Panthers will use draft's top choice on QB

Maybe it's going too far to call this a dilemma for the Carolina Panthers.

After all, the Panthers do own the top overall pick in the draft, and that -- at least in theory -- puts them in position to select the very best that the 2011 college crop has to offer.

But it's equally fair to say that circumstances have also set the Panthers up to make a colossal blunder when they start off the draft on April 28.

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The problem is figuring out the extent to which the Panthers should allow what they already have to influence what they really need.

No one would argue that the Panthers have every reason to think that the best way to go is quarterback. Yet none of the players at the position in this draft are widely regarded as being worthy of the No. 1 choice. Some NFL talent evaluators with whom I've spoken question whether the quarterbacks in the conversation are even first-round material at all.

The presumptive top two, Auburn's Cam Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, have enough drawbacks to be comfortably avoided -- Newton with his raw skills and character questions and Gabbert's major adjustment from working mostly in the shotgun formation to being under center. Are the Panthers truly going to make themselves significantly better with either -- or any, for that matter -- quarterback, or will they merely create the foundation for a long-term development project and continued frustration for a fan base that had to endure last year's 2-14 finish?

The Panthers will have to accept the consequences that their conclusions bring.

They could always stick with Jimmy Clausen, the 2010 second-round pick who was supposed to eventually become their franchise quarterback, but whose promise was compromised by nine losses and mostly poor showings in 10 rookie starts. Committing to Clausen would allow the Panthers to use the first pick on a player more universally regarded as being worthy of the draft's top choice -- someone like Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus -- at a position where they clearly could use help. Plus, it wouldn't prevent them from selecting a quarterback later in the draft.

The catch, of course, is selling the idea of more Clausen to the fans. That won't be easy.

Ten starts hardly represent a substantial body of work, but they're enough to provide the foundation for evaluating what sort of quarterback Clausen can become. His critics point to a delivery that is too slow and deliberate, giving pass rushers time to get to him and defensive backs an advantage getting to his passes. The same critics also cite the general lack of awareness Clausen shows in the pocket.

However, it could be argued that most of Clausen's struggles stemmed from a poor supporting cast. It's easy to look like a sitting duck for pass rushers and that you don't have a clue when you aren't getting much in the way of pass protection.

Interestingly, new Panthers coach Ron Rivera went out of his way to come to Clausen's defense while speaking with reporters at the NFL Annual Meeting.

"I think he got too much of the blame," Rivera said. "I think he shouldered too much of the responsibility."

Rivera has no obvious agenda to make those remarks. He wasn't part of the decision to draft Clausen, so he certainly isn't motivated by any sense of loyalty. Rivera also doesn't have any obligation to defend the man who did have a major role in drafting Clausen, general manager Marty Hurney. Rivera is a fresh face of hope, a highly respected former defensive coordinator who is only months into the process of trying to lead the Panthers back into contention. Hurney is part of the "old regime," and continued floundering will simply be attached to his résumé and viewed as more of the same. Rivera will get more of the credit for a turnaround.

So it makes no sense for Rivera, after studying videotape of Clausen's rookie season, to say that he was unfairly targeted for the Panthers' woes if he actually believed the young quarterback was a train wreck. Using the first pick on a quarterback would ultimately spell the end to Clausen's time in Carolina, and Rivera would then be judged by both the performance of his new signal-caller and by how well Clausen performs for his eventual new employer. The latter won't be quite that big a problem if the Panthers were to end up in the same position the Chargers did after drafting Philip Rivers and dumping Drew Brees.

Not that Rivera is giving off vibes that the Panthers are set with Clausen as their quarterback. You certainly can't conclude as much when you hear him say: "We have to continue to evaluate the process and see if there is somewhere that (Clausen) fits for us."

If anything is certain during these most uncertain of times in the NFL, it is that there is a process for the Panthers to evaluate. Assuming that they will use the No. 1 choice on Newton, Gabbert or any quarterback is assuming way too much.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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