C.J. Stroud

NFC South Notes: Panthers, Saints, Matthews

Panthers GM Scott Fitterer provided rare transparency about his team’s first-round decision ahead of last year’s draft, indicating the team was likely down to quarterback or left tackle at No. 6 overall. The pick became Ikem Ekwonu, and the non-Kenny Pickett QB contingent tumbled into the third round. Carolina scooped up one of those arms, Matt Corral, but he missed the season due to injury. With Sam Darnold ticketed for free agency, the Panthers face another offseason of QB questions.

Both Fitterer and assistant GM Dan Morgan spent much of the fall scouting the top four quarterbacks in the 2023 class in person, according Joe Person of The Athletic (subscription required). Some of these passers will be gone by the time the Panthers pick at No. 9. Mel Kiper Jr.’s first 2023 mock draft has Carolina, however, taking the fourth quarterback in this year’s class — Florida’s Anthony Richardson — in Round 1. The scouting missions to see Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud and Will Levis and the team’s long-running need at the position will connect it to a potential trade-up maneuver. The Bears, who traded up for Justin Fields after the Panthers passed on Stroud’s Ohio State predecessor two years ago, are open for business at No. 1. It remains to be seen which non-QB-needy teams from Nos. 2-8 will join them.

Here is the latest from the NFC South:

  • The Saints are retaining offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael for what will be his 14th season in the role, but Jeff Duncan of NOLA.com notes they moved on from their second-longest-tenured offensive staffer. The Saints parted ways with Dan Roushar after 10 seasons. Roushar, 62, had held a number of key roles on New Orleans’ staff since 2013 — offensive line coach and running backs coach among them — but was working as the team’s run-game coordinator and tight ends coach over the past two seasons. The Saints ranked 18th and 19th on the ground, respectively, over the past two years. A former college OC, Roushar has only coached for the Saints at the NFL level.
  • As more details surface on Michael Thomasrecent restructure, the likelier it appears the Saints will release him. The former All-Pro’s reworked deal includes a $31MM roster bonus due on Day 3 of the 2023 league year, and Nick Underhill of NewOrleans.football adds Thomas would collect a whopping $30MM if he is active for four games next season (Twitter link). So, if Thomas is on the Saints’ roster absent another restructure, he would collect a cool $61MM. That reality seems … unlikely to commence. If Thomas is designated as a post-June 1 cut, the Saints would only be tagged with $11MM-plus in dead money this year.
  • In more Saints restructure news, the team pushed back the void-year vesting dates for David Onyemata and Marcus Davenport. Both D-linemen’s contracts are now set to void March 14, as opposed to February 17, Field Yates of ESPN.com tweets. That gives the team more time to negotiate extensions with each free agent-to-be, and GM Mickey Loomis said recently (via Underhill) the team is interested in re-signing both. Due to restructuring Davenport’s fifth-year option, the Saints would be tagged with $7.6MM in dead money absent an extension before March 14 — the final day of the 2022 league year. A $10.2MM bill would come if Onyemata is not extended by that date.
  • The Falcons created $4.2MM in 2023 cap space by doing another Jake Matthews restructure. The team accelerated $7MM of the left tackle’s 2023 roster bonus onto its 2022 payroll, Yates tweets. After eating considerable dead money over the past two years — much of it from the Julio Jones, Matt Ryan and Deion Jones trades — the Falcons are set to hold the second-most cap space in the NFL — more than $56MM.

Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud, T Paris Johnson Jr. Declare For Draft

In anticipation of today’s deadline for college underclassmen to declare their NFL intentions, one of this year’s top quarterbacks announced that he is turning pro. Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud announced (on Twitter) that he is forgoing his senior year and entering the 2023 draft.

The decision comes as little surprise given his production with the Buckeyes, though it was not taken lightly. Mike Garafolo of NFL Network tweets that Stroud “strongly considered” remaining at Ohio State for the 2023 campaign. Instead, the Heisman finalist will turn his attention to the upcoming draft, where he will be a highly sought-after prospect.

Stroud took over for Justin Fields under center for the Buckeyes in 2021, and immediately showcased his potential. The 6-3, 215-pound passer racked up 4,435 passing yards and 44 touchdowns as a sophomore, allowing the team’s offense to continue its efficiency under head coach Ryan Day. His performance earned Stroud Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors, and he finished fourth in Heisman voting that year.

Entering the 2022 campaign, Stroud was set to compete with Alabama’s Bryce Young for the title of top QB prospect in the upcoming class. The former put together another strong season, though his yardage, touchdowns and completion percentage totals each dipped compared to 2021. Stroud helped lead the Buckeyes to the CFP semifinals, where they nearly pulled off a major upset against the eventual-champion Georgia Bulldogs. He was once again named the conference’s top offensive player, and finished third in Heisman voting to solidify his status as one of the top prospects at any position this spring.

Young is generally regarded as the top passer, but a number of teams in need of a new quarterback will have the opportunity to draft Stroud inside the top 10. Much will depend on the Bears’ plans with the No. 1 pick, and the jockeying which will take place to trade for it should they decide to move down the board. Whichever teams are unable to land Young will be acutely aware of Stroud’s pre-draft process, as he and Kentucky’s Will Levis represent the other first-round locks at the position.

Stroud’s decision comes not long after his teammate, left tackle Paris Johnson Jr., declared for the draft (Twitter link). The 6-6, 315-pounder enjoyed a stellar campaign this season, his first as a blindside blocker. Johnson was charged with only two sacks allowed en route to a career-high PFF grade of 83. A consensus All-American, he is also considered a surefire first-rounder and is in contention alongside Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski to be the first tackle off the board.

With Stroud, Johnson and wideout Jaxon Smith-Njigba all having turned pro, the Buckeyes figure to have at least three players hear their names called on Day 1 of the draft. The former two in particular are likely to feature heavily in the evaluation process leading up to the spring.

Latest On 2023 QB Draft Class

As the regular season continues to wind down for the teams near the bottom of the standings in the NFL, attention will turn increasingly to the upcoming draft class. This year’s crop of prospects was thought at the beginning of the year to include far superior options at the quarterback position relative to 2022, but that may not be the case in the eyes of some evaluators.

As detailed by Jason La Canfora of the Washington Post, the 2023 class of passers is not viewed by some around the league in the same light as their pre- and in-season buzz would suggest. Alabama’s Bryce Young is seen as the clear-cut top signal-caller, which puts him in a good position to be drafted first overall. With the Texans looking increasingly likely to finish with the worst record in the league, they are expected to hold the No. 1 pick in the spring.

Young’s numbers are down this season compared to his Heisman-winning campaign of last year, but that has not been seen as a regression so much as a reflection of an underwhelming Crimson Tide offense around him. Nevertheless, one source expressed concern to La Canfora about the six-foot, 194-pounder’s upside at the pro level. Similar questions could be asked of C.J. Stroud, the Buckeyes passer whose stock may have taken a hit given his and Ohio State’s performances down the stretch this season. He and the team still have the CFP semifinal available to generate momentum for the spring, of course.

Other highly-regarded QBs in this class include Kentucky’s Will Levis and Florida’s Anthony Richardson. The latter – who officially declared for the draft last week – is perceived to have perhaps the highest ceiling in the group from an athletic standpoint. Both have been named as first-round candidates, but significant holes in their games have led to doubts about their NFL readiness in 2023 in particular.

Evaluation of these and other passers comes against the backdrop of few teams near the top of the board being locks to pursue upgrades at the position during the offseason. Another factor greatly influencing the college environment is NIL money. As Jim Nagy, executive director of the Senior Bowl notes (on Twitter), the spike in players using the transfer portal in de-facto free agency has – among other things – “considerably” shrunk the list of signal-callers entering this year’s draft.

Plenty is still to be determined between now and Day 1 of the draft, including further examination of the top QBs. While a repeat of last spring – where Kenny Pickett was the only first-rounder – is still highly unlikely, though, the position may not dominate the top of the board as some predicted not long ago.