Panthers' future rides on their decision with No. 1 overall pick

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It started with quarterback Jake Delhomme's playoff meltdown in January 2009 and picked up steam through questionable personnel and coaching decisions, decimating injuries, an ill-timed labor dispute and plain bad luck.

Now after the swift fall from division winner to the NFL's worst team, the Carolina Panthers have a chance to end a brutal two-year stretch.

All general manager Marty Hurney has to do is be perfect with perhaps the most important selection in franchise history: the No. 1 overall pick in Thursday's NFL draft.

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"You just want to make the right selection," Hurney said.

Thanks to the Panthers' 28-month stretch of bad fortune, this isn't an easy choice.

The top highlights for Carolina last season didn't come on often touchdown-less Sundays, but late on Saturday nights when Stanford's Andrew Luck dazzled out West and dreams hatched of a franchise quarterback coming to Charlotte.

But not long after the Panthers locked up the No. 1 pick with a 2-14 season of punts, turnovers and general incompetence under lame-duck coach John Fox, Luck stunned the Panthers by staying in school.

So now what?

There's another potentially dominant quarterback who owns a BCS national championship and a Heisman Trophy. Only Auburn's Cam Newton carries enough off-the-field baggage to make him one of the riskiest picks of recent times. Because of a 2008 arrest, allegations that his father solicited money during his college recruitment and a resume that includes just 14 college starts, Newton is a giant question mark.

But the 6-foot-5 athlete with a rocket arm and elusive running ability also has drawn comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick as potential game-changing quarterbacks. Few are saying that about Jimmy Clausen, the NFL's lowest-rated passer in 2010 who went 1-9 as a rookie starter with Carolina.

"I think he's a very talented player that is extremely competitive," Hurney said of Newton. "I think being successful in the NFL is very important to him."

Still, the Panthers have shied away from players with character issues in the past. And they have numerous other holes, most specifically in the area most pundits believe has the most depth in this year's draft, the defensive line.

Alabama's Marcell Dareus would help fill the hole at defensive tackle. While a cornerback has never gone No. 1 overall, scouts have raved about LSU's Patrick Peterson, who could replace starter Richard Marshall if he leaves in free agency. The Panthers haven't had an effective No. 2 receiver in years, and Georgia's A.J. Green could finally give them a deep threat opposite the aging Steve Smith.

And then there's another highly rated quarterback in Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, who drew praise from new Panthers coach Ron Rivera at last month's owners meetings.

Rivera has stressed the need for a stable signal-caller, something the Panthers haven't had since Delhomme never recovered from his six-turnover nightmare against the Arizona Cardinals in Carolina's last playoff game at the end of the 2008 season.

Yet this isn't a normal draft or offseason.

Rivera hasn't been able to hold a minicamp or meet with his new players because of the lockout. Carolina has 28 free agents who are in limbo until a new deal is reached.

The Panthers also haven't been able to negotiate with agents of potential top picks. They don't even know if there will be a rookie wage scale or what a potential salary-cap figure will be.

"It's something that teams have had the option to do in the past," Hurney said of negotiating with agents of potential top picks. "We don't this year, but you just move ahead and keep focusing on making the right selection."

The best move might be to make a selection later. Hurney, who said he has yet to receive a trade offer for the top pick, said he would listen if calls come next week.

With so many needs, the Panthers might want to trade down in the first round where they could take a defensive lineman and collect a second-round pick. They're without their own after last year's questionable trade with the New England Patriots that netted Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards in the third round.

"We've always said it's good to keep your options open," Hurney said. "Obviously, if you get calls, you listen to what people say. But right now we're just solidifying our thought process as far as what we're going to do at the top of the draft."

Hurney has resisted tipping his hand, insisting he, Rivera and his scouts won't officially decide on their choice until early in draft week.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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