Thursday Night Football: Only losing for C.J. Stroud or Bryce Young can save Panthers

NFL teams don't tank, not the way you think it happens anyway.

Players don't care about improving draft pick position. That's just another new guy looking to take their job. Coaches don't have the job security to lose games. Tanking can't be uttered from the top down or teams will get in trouble. (Well, kind of.)

But there's little doubt that the best path for the Carolina Panthers and plenty of other teams the rest of this season is to lose. The Panthers play the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night in a game streamed by Amazon Prime Video and they'll be trying their best to win, even though the direction of the franchise might look brighter if they don't.

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The Panthers have a problem that a lot of other teams suddenly have: They need a quarterback. The best way to fix that problem is through the draft.

Panthers in line for a top pick

In the latest NFL mock draft by Yahoo Sports' Charles McDonald, he had quarterbacks C.J. Stroud of Ohio State, Bryce Young of Alabama and Will Levis of Kentucky going in the top six. Levis is a tick behind the other two. But we've seen quarterbacks rise in the pre-draft process after the season is done. It's possible, given how many teams need quarterbacks, those QBs could end up going 1-2-3. Others could get into the first round, but there's clearly a top tier.

The higher you go in the draft, the better prospect you get. The NFL draft has plenty of mistakes, but teams' rankings are also a lot more accurate than anyone wants to admit.

Right now the Panthers would have the second overall pick of the draft. They're 2-7, in part because their quarterback play has been bad. Baker Mayfield didn't play well to start the season, then he got hurt, and P.J. Walker has had some stunningly bad games. The Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh Steelers and Las Vegas Raiders also have just two wins, but they have one fewer loss due to byes. There are nine teams with three wins (the Indianapolis Colts have a tie to go with their three wins).

Every win by the Panthers could cost them a few spots in the draft order. Instead of Stroud, Young or Levis leading a new era, they could be stuck trying to find a gem out of the next tier, or trading a costly amount of picks to move up.

Not that Stroud, Young or Levis are sure things, but you'd rather take your chances on them than any other viable QB option for 2023 and beyond. The Panthers have tried hitting on bargain veterans like Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold and Mayfield and nothing has worked. They're stuck until they get a viable QB.

The truth is, most of the above applies to the Falcons too.

P.J. Walker has not been the answer at quarterback for the Panthers, who may be quietly hoping they get a chance to draft one of the top QB prospects next spring. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
P.J. Walker has not been the answer at quarterback for the Panthers, who may be quietly hoping they get a chance to draft one of the top QB prospects next spring. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) (Kevin C. Cox via Getty Images)

Falcons and Panthers struggle at QB

Atlanta's quarterback is Marcus Mariota, and they want him to throw as infrequently as possible. The Falcons have 201 pass attempts. Only the Tennessee Titans and Chicago Bears have fewer attempts. Even in a 35-17 Week 7 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in which the Falcons trailed by double digits for about the final 50 minutes of the game, they attempted only 13 passes. Maybe rookie Desmond Ridder is the QB of the future, but that's no sure thing. You can fairly put them on the list of teams that will be in the first-round quarterback mix next April.

The Falcons are currently slotted to draft 15th overall and it will be challenging to get a quarterback from that spot. Atlanta is also tied for first place in a putrid NFC South, so they're not worried about where they're picking in the draft.

The Panthers should be. They've already fired head coach Matt Rhule and assuming interim coach Steve Wilks doesn't get the full-time job, one of the big selling points for the Panthers to top candidates this offseason will be a restart with an exciting top quarterback prospect. It's harder to sell that if the Panthers aren't drafting in the top five or 10.

Carolina will be trying to win on Thursday night. Players still have pride and want to do the best for their careers. But the truth is, for the Panthers' future, a loss wouldn't be the worst outcome, even if nobody will say it.