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Panthers would be wise to address biggest hole with Gabbert

With labor talks continuing, the draft is center stage when it comes to personnel matters. This year's crop is filled with talent, but there is not a unanimous No. 1 pick at this point. With the Panthers holding the top slot, there has been much talk around the league that they will take a defensive lineman -- in large part because their new coach, Ron Rivera, was formerly a defensive coordinator.

That philosophy never made sense to me. Any new head coach must do what is best for the team, not for one side of the ball. And for Rivera, he must fix his quarterback position -- right now. It has been reliably told to me that Jimmy Clausen is not the short- or long-term answer for the Panthers. His play during games was bad, but it was even worse in practice, according to my source, which makes the Panthers feel like they blew a second-round pick last year.

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The Panthers are a team without many areas of strength, with the largest void coming at quarterback. They cannot continue to think they can beat the Saints, Buccaneers or Falcons unless they add a talented signal-caller. So does lack of talent mean quarterback Blaine Gabbert should be the first overall pick? I am beginning to think so.

Gabbert is talented and has been productive on every level. He has an above average arm and can make every throw with accuracy. While he can move around the pocket, he always has his eye level down the field to make throws. Gabbert is accurate, appears to show the toughness needed to play the position and appears to be a leader. His off-the-field behavior is flawless and he has demonstrated the willingness to work hard to improve. So what is wrong with Gabbert? From my viewpoint, not much.

Where can the Panthers get a quarterback who can make all the throws with accuracy, move around the pocket and lead the team if they don't take Gabbert? This has nothing to do with them not having a second round pick, figuring they might be able to get a cheaper option at that point. This has everything to do with rebuilding the franchise with a franchise quarterback. As my old friend and former Houston Oilers assistant coach Frank Novak would say, "If not now, when?" And if the Panthers don't take Gabbert now, when do they solve their quarterback issue?

The "if not now, when" theory is one that many teams avoid. When I was with the Raiders, we avoided it, thinking Rich Gannon could play one more year and passing on Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers in 2004. The Dolphins also decided to wait when they passed on Matt Ryan in 2008 to take Pro Bowler Jake Long as their left tackle, figuring they would get a quarterback later. But second-round pick Chad Henne has not proved to be the player they hoped and now the Dolphins are desperately seeking a quarterback.

Had the Raiders taken Big Ben or Rivers, there would have never been the JaMarcus Russell debacle. Had the Dolphins went with Ryan, they might have a hole at left tackle but the most important position would be filled. A team with many needs cannot solve them all in one draft, so they must look to solve the most important one first -- assuming there is a player worthy of the pick.

From my perspective, Gabbert is the real deal. If the Panthers' evaluations of Gabbert are the same as mine, they might have found a clear-cut top pick.

Draft chatter

» Pro days for Ryan Mallett and Cam Newton will be held this week, and it will be interesting to see how many head coaches and general managers attend both workouts.

Any team that drafts Newton will have to have the head coach on board with the pick because, like Tim Tebow last year, the Auburn product is not for every team. He will need to prove to teams he has the work ethic to be a player. If he can accomplish that, he will be a top 10 pick. Newton has too much overall talent to ignore, he just has to show he is willing to commit.

As for Mallett, he will have to prove he can handle all the off-the-field questions he will face.

» The key to a great 2011 draft will be the teams that accurately evaluate the defensive linemen. Five years from now, when teams look back on the draft, the order of the linemen taken won't be how they actually perform on the field.

» I know everyone feels Alabama running back Mark Ingram is a first-round talent, but I am not as confident. I feel he is a good player, not a great one. I wonder if Ingram has such unique talent that he is worth drafting in the first round when so many other backs are successful as later picks.

» I am strongly hearing that many teams are still interested in UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers even after he had a subpar workout at the combine. If Ayers improves, he might be a top 15 pick.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.

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