Leftwich is arguably one of the most mysterious players in the 2003 draft. Is he completely healthy? Does he have the mobility to survive in the league? Will injury concerns reappear in the future? Is he better than Kyle Boller or Carson Palmer? These questions and more have surrounded Leftwich ever since the collegiate season ended.
The Panthers own the 9th pick and are in position to grab Leftwich should he fall to them. It is not assured he would drop that far - Cincinnati, Jacksonville and Chicago are strong candidates to draft Leftwich (and to a lesser extent Arizona). However, should he be available, the Panthers' war room will have to make an interesting decision.
Why the Panthers should draft Leftwich:
Leftwich has the potential to be a franchise player for the next decade
A difference-maker at the quarterback position is something the organization has never really found throughout its young history. Should Leftwich develop into the star many predict him to be, the Panthers will have acquired a foundation to build around for quite some time. In this age of constant parity, many would argue a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback is a key to fielding a consistent winner. Leftwich has the size, arm, intelligence and intangibles to be an elite quarterback in the NFL.
The current quarterbacks on the team are either unproven or mediocre
Signing Jake Delhomme was an excellent move by the Panthers and he could become a key figure in the team's ascension. Still, no one is sure if he can lead a team over a full season. Many personnel men around the league insist Delhomme has starter qualities and he has looked confident during his limited playing time in New Orleans. Despite all this, he remains a question mark and most would conclude he is not a franchise-type player.
Rodney Peete is nearing retirement and is more of an insurance option than a future starter. Randy Fasani is a mobile kid who was more than a little overwhelmed his rookie year. He has promise and the coaches will give him an opportunity to compete for the backup spot during camp. However, it would be a stretch to expect him to develop into a dependable starter at this point. Chris Weinke is currently on the roster, but his future with the team is cloudy. Months ago it was assumed he would be released during the off-season, but there have been rumors he may yet stay. Whatever the case may be, the consensus among most is that Weinke is not a safe bet to start anytime soon.
Not to say most Panther fans need any extra motivation, but drafting a big name such as Leftwich would immediately raise the team's profile. Merchandise would most likely fly off shelves, and combined with the recent free agent additions, excitement for the upcoming season would be at an all-time high. While finding players who will field a winning team is always the first priority, the name recognition of a player such as Leftwich could go a long way towards making sure the house is full every Sunday.
Why the Panthers should not draft Leftwich:
Other personnel needs
Although a star quarterback is definitely on every team's wish-list, the Panthers have many other needs that could be properly addressed with their pick. A quality offensive tackle is one of those needs. Current left tackle Todd Steussie is not getting any younger (33 in December) and his play has declined some in recent seasons. He also commands a large salary which might force the team to move in another direction soon. The team has contemplated moving him to right tackle and finding a left tackle in the draft. One such player who could contribute at either tackle spot would be Jordan Gross. Despite being near 300 pounds, Gross has quick feet and is an excellent pass blocker. Adding Gross would solidify the offensive line for years to come and fills one of the team's greatest needs. Kwame Harris is another dominating tackle worthy of a top ten pick.
Even with the positive acquisitions of Kevin Dyson and Ricky Proehl, the receiving corps still lacks an elite playmaker. Charles Rogers, the top receiving prospect on most team's boards, will likely be long gone by the time the Panthers pick. However, receiver Andre Johnson may remain. Johnson is a big, game-breaking player who can stretch the field. A physical specimen, Johnson would be given the opportunity to play right away. Houston, Arizona, and Jacksonville have shown interest in the Miami product and it is very possible Johnson is gone by the time Carolina picks.
Leftwich's health concerns
Any player drafted in the first round will have his injury history closely scrutinized, and Leftwich is no different. His leg injury during the latter part of the 2002 season is a major concern. He had a metal rod inserted and continued to play on the leg until the season concluded. Leftwich worked out recently and most scouts praised his movement in the pocket. He definitely helped his cause by running a respectable 4.85 in the 40-yard dash, but some still doubt how strong the leg is. Leftwich injured his ankle early in his career and was forced to sit out a year to heal. These troubling injuries and concerns over his weight have led some to believe he is an injury risk.
Is Leftwich really a can't-miss prospect?
Some would say no. Kyle Boller's recent ascension in the off-season has made a lot of people rethink their quarterback ratings. Boller is arguably one of the most athletic quarterbacks in this draft class (4.59 in the 40 yard dash) and he has incredible arm strength. Several reports have scouts moving Boller ahead of Leftwich in their latest positional rankings. Leftwich's mobility is another concern for many teams. While he has excellent pocket awareness, Leftwich is an average passer on the run and is much less mobile than Boller and Carson Palmer. Compile these worries with his leg injury and it is obvious why his stock has seen a significant downgrade recently. Although once considered the number one prospect at the position, many teams now rate him as only the third best quarterback available.
It's hard to project any college player's NFL success, especially at such an unpredictable position as quarterback. Despite the negatives surrounding Leftwich's mobility and health, it's hard to justify selecting one-year wonders such as Carson Palmer and Kyle Boller ahead of him. Leftwich is still an amazing pure passer, a student of the game and one of the most accurate quarterbacks in recent memory. However, the Carolina Panthers are a team on the rise and ready to win now. In this new era of short-term windows and rampant parity, winning now has been the philosophy of many teams. Teams are dismantled and reassembled annually, and developing a young quarterback needs time most teams aren't ready to sacrifice. The Panthers are confronted with two choices: select a possible franchise quarterback and let him mature, or select an elite player that fits the here and now. The choice will be an interesting one to watch come draft day.