Like many other teams in this age of NFL parity, the Carolina Panthers are seemingly only a few key players away from serious contention. Coach John Fox sparked a team riding a 15-game losing streak and used limited personnel to win 7 games last year. For the organization to take the next step and possibly advance to the playoffs, an efficient quarterback must be found.
Rodney Peete made an admirable comeback in 2002 and gave the oft-maligned quarterback position some stability. However, Peete is already 39 and obviously not the future leader of the franchise. Peete has had numerous injury concerns during his career, which continued last season. Apparently the front office is aware and cautious of these issues, considering the fact he remains unsigned.
There are several appealing free agents available, some of which have many years ahead of them in their careers.
One of the more intriguing free agents on the market is Jake Plummer. A starter at Arizona the past five years, Plummer has been an enigma. After a magical 1998 season where he led several improbable comebacks and won the franchise's first playoff game in nearly half a decade, Plummer was inked to a high-priced extension. Since then Plummer's play has stayed relatively mediocre, as he's thrown more interceptions than touchdowns over the last 3 years.
Plummer's supporters would argue his numbers with the Cardinals are skewed by juggled offensive lines, a lack of receiving options and a shaky running game. His critics view him as an unrefined gunslinger that makes poor decisions with the ball. While both sides offer up valid points, most agree the potential for success is there.
Denver is a team that seems to be most interested in acquiring Plummer, and have a very enticing offense for him to step in to. It would be hard for the Panthers to compete with Coach Mike Shanahan's known offensive prowess and the bidding war that may ensue should they make an offer. Although Plummer is a young player who has shown ability, signing with Carolina would most likely end up as a lateral move for him. Personnel wise, the Panther offense is similar to the one he failed with at Arizona (average offensive line, inconsistent wide receivers and an unstable running game). It's hard to envision him being significantly better learning a new system with average talent at the skill positions.
Kordell Stewart (Steelers) is another quarterback who might need a change in scenery. A strong MVP candidate two years ago, Stewart's sub par performance in the AFC championship game seemed to carry into 2002. After the offense continued to sputter under Stewart, Tommy Maddox took his spot and never looked back.
Stewart brings athleticism and experience to the table, but questions remain about his decision-making. A strong running game is something he really needs to succeed, as he is more of a complementary player. Unfortunately, running back is yet another offensive position that remains unsolved for Carolina. Stewart does have more upside than Peete, as he is younger and more talented. If Stewart can cut down on turnovers he could hold down the starting spot and let a younger quarterback develop. Signing him to a short-term deal would be a low-risk proposition and would most likely give the Panthers an upgrade at the position.
Jeff Blake (Ravens) is a crafty veteran who replaced an injured Chris Redman last year. Blake knows the game and put up decent stats in relief, but his impact on the team might be somewhat limited. The Panthers need a quarterback who can manage the game and avoid turnovers, which negates some of Blake's long-ball and scrambling abilities. Considering his starting experience, Blake could be a decent addition to the roster despite questions about his age and declining skills.
Tony Banks (Texans) has started for several teams throughout his career, with little sustained success. While a comeback is never out of the question for a player with his skill, he has never been an efficient passer during his tenure in the NFL and the team has little to gain from signing an interception-prone quarterback.
Charlie Batch (Steelers) and Shaun King (Buccaneers) are former starters who have shown flashes of potential, but inconsistencies pushed them to the bench. There is some speculation that Chicago GM Jerry Angelo is interested in both, but most signs point to the Bears drafting either Byron Leftwich or Carson Palmer with the fourth pick. However, the Bears have many needs on the defensive side of the ball and it is entirely possible for them to go in another direction (Terrell Suggs? Jimmy Kennedy?) on draft day.
Should the Bears not take Leftwich, there is a chance he could slip down to Carolina at #9. This would be an ideal scenario, but it is not out of the question Arizona (#6) or the Cowboys (#5) would draft Leftwich if he was still on the board. After Palmer and Leftwich there is no other quarterback worth taking in the top ten. A player like Rex Grossman or Kyle Boller may impress during workouts and upgrade his stock, but in that case the Panthers would be best served trading down if they really desired him.
While free agents such as Plummer and Stewart are mildly enticing, they are both not worth a large investment at this point. Most of the quarterbacks available would only be temporary starters, holding the spot for a younger quarterback acquired through the draft. Someone with experience should be brought onto the team, whether that means bringing back Peete or signing a veteran. This would ease the transition of any young quarterback taken in the draft.
Many candidates are being considered for the vital spot, but time will tell who John Fox wants to lead the team in 2003.