Panthers Feeling a Draft
Carolina is on the clock and the stakes are high
Good afternoon, all.
It’s time for the NFL Draft and, once the opening whistle blows tonight, Carolina will be on everyone’s mind as they prepare to make the top selection. The decision is huge for Panthers owner David Tepper, general manager Scott Fitterer and new head coach Frank Reich as the choice could set the team up - or hold it back - for a generation.
Reich, the former NFL quarterback turned offensive coordinator (Eagles) and head coach (Colts), understands the importance of getting the right guy in the first round. He backed up Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly - Buffalo’s top selection (#14) in 1985 - for nine years and four Super Bowls, developed #2 overall choice Carson Wentz in Philadelphia (2016-17), and saw Indy’s fortunes sink when Andrew Luck - #1 overall in 2012 - hung up his cleats after the duo spent just one season together.
The word is that Carolina is targeting Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, an excellent thrower who went 23-4 with a passing touchdown-to-interception ratio of 80:12 for Nick Saban. Pretty darn good. He’s a mobile guy but, behind that excellent Crimson Tide offensive line, he didn’t often use his legs to run for yards. If the Panthers o-line performs well in 2023 — Pro Football Focus ranked the unit 15th last season — Young may be able to sit in the pocket and make his patented big throws.
As Reich and the Panthers prepare to make their pick, every NFL team can speak to the importance of finding a star at - or near - the top of the draft. The dozens of success stories include Carolina striking gold with Cam Newton in 2011, the Eagles hitting big with linebacker Chuck Bednarik in 1949, and the Bills getting legendary defensive end in Bruce Smith in 1985. But, while many high picks leave a positive mark, there are plenty of guys like Aundray Bruce (Falcons, 1988), Steve Emtman (Colts, 1992), and Sam Bradford (Rams, 2010), who didn’t fulfill their vast potential, for one reason or another.
One team that understands the importance of the #1 overall selection is the New York Giants, owners of the top spot in 1951 and 1965. The former choice worked out quite well while the latter, not so much.
In 1951, the team used the top pick on Kyle Rote, a multidimensional offensive threat by way of Southern Methodist University and he lived up to his potential. In 11 years with the franchise, he was team captain for eight seasons, earned four Pro Bowl selections, and was a key player for the 1956 NFL champions. He also retired as the team’s career receiving leader in three categories: catches (300), yards (4,805) and touchdowns (48), all huge numbers at the time.
The Giants were cream of the NFL crop in those days and, from 1956-63, they reached the NFL Championship game six times, winning that title in 1956. Yet, in the midst of that great run, they made two mistakes that would doom the team for a generation.
First, after the 1958 season, they let offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi depart for the head coaching position in Green Bay. In nine seasons at Lambeau Field, he won five NFL championships, appearing in the title game six times. Adding great insult to injury, Lombardi was 5-1 against the Giants, beating them twice to win the championship, in 1961 and 1962.
A year after Lombardi left New York, Giants defensive coordinator Tom Landry took the top job for the expansion Cowboys. Dallas improved slowly over Landry’s first six seasons and then registered perhaps the most impressive two-decade stretch in NFL history. From 1966-85, a span of 20 consecutive winning seasons, Landry & Co. won 13 division titles, advanced to the conference championship game - or better - 14 times, and went 28-8 against the Giants. (Note: this even tops Bill Belichick’s 2001-20 stretch, when he took the Patriots to the conference title game - or better - 13 times.)
So, the Giants let Lombardi and Landry go and instead kept head coach Jim Lee Howell, who had won the NFL title after the 1956 season and advanced to the championship game in 1958 and 1959. Alas, Howell retired from coaching after the 1960 season and New York hired Allie Sherman to replace him.
Sherman took the team to three straight championship games from 1961-63 - all losses - and then the club made two fateful decisions. The first error - the trade of legendary linebacker Sam Huff to division rival Washington - removed a New York legend and doomed the team’s 1964 season as the squad finished 2-10-2, last in the league.
The next error was the aforementioned first selection in the 1965 NFL Draft. And it turned out to be one for the ages.
On the heels of their disappointing 1964 campaign, the Giants were eager to get back to the top of the NFL heap and there were plenty of outstanding college players ready to be picked by New York. Fortunately, by virtue of their league-worst won-loss mark, the franchise owned the draft’s first choice.
The talent was strong in the ‘65 draft, and five future Pro Football Hall of Famers were available. Still, the Giants chose none of them, instead drafting star Auburn running back Tucker Frederickson, a consensus All-America who was a defensive stalwart in the SEC as well.
Frederickson was a beast at a time when running backs were often considered more glamourous than quarterbacks but here’s the thing: by taking him, they bypassed Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers and Joe Namath. In order, that’s one of the best linebackers in NFL history, perhaps the greatest open-field runner that ever lived, and the man who became the most important quarterback in New York football annals.
That said, Frederickson had a solid rookie year for the Giants with 659 yards rushing and six combined touchdowns while earning a Pro Bowl berth as the team improved markedly to 7-7. Alas, he was no Sayers, who captured Rookie of the Year honors in a rout while scoring 22 touchdowns: 14 rushing scores, six receiving TDs, and two more via kick returns. Can you imagine the “Kansas Comet” running roughshod at Yankee Stadium instead of Wrigley Field?
Yet, as good as Sayers was, our 20-20 vision says Namath would’ve probably been the best selection for the Giants. The man was made to be a New Yorker and, as much as he owned the city while QB of the Jets, how good would he have been in Giants blue? Broadway Joe might’ve made Frank Gifford look like a piker.
Of course, rather than choose the former Alabama star to lead their franchise, owner Wellington Mara & Co. brought in Earl Morrall, the QB who would eventually land in Baltimore and lose to Namath and the Jets in one of football’s most important games, Super Bowl III.
As for Tucker, he suffered knee injuries in 1966 and 1967, derailing a once-promising career. An effective player to the end, he retired after the 1971 campaign with 3,220 total yards and 19 touchdowns.
It wasn’t young Frederickson’s fault but, from the day they picked him, the New York Giants wandered in the NFL desert for 16 years, failing to taste the playoffs until Ray Perkins led them there in 1981. In the interim, they suffered through 14 non-winning seasons, finished in last place eight times and gave us moments like “The Miracle at the Meadowlands.”
That’s how important making the right draft pick can be.
No pressure, Carolina. No pressure.