In case you hadn’t noticed, the Carolina Panthers are still trying to figure out their quarterback situation. Ever since they parted ways with Cam Newton, the team has tried veteran after veteran, hoping to find their long-awaited franchise quarterback. However, back in 2021, the Panthers decided to pass on Ohio State’s Justin Fields and instead select cornerback Jaycee Horn with their first-round pick. Now, almost two years later, was this the right decision?
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Were the Panthers Right to Draft Jaycee Horn Over Justin Fields?
The Case For Jaycee Horn
In today’s NFL, you need to throw the ball if you want to win football games. Conversely, it makes sense that, if you want to win on defense, you first need to find a way to stop your opponents from effectively throwing the ball. From that vantage point, you can see why the Panthers decided to select Jaycee Horn.
At 6′-1″ and 208 pounds, Horn was a freak of nature that had the ideal build, instincts, and brain for the position. He had the size to match up with bigger receivers and the speed to keep up with faster guys, and when you share a division with guys like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and (at the time) Calvin Ridley, that versatility is key.
While Horn hasn’t quite lived up to his All-Pro potential, there is no denying that he is a good football player. Through 10 weeks of NFL action, the former first-round pick has the 38th-best PFF grade among qualifying players at his position, while his 1.1 yards of target separation is fourth-best in the league. Again, nobody is saying he’s prime Darrelle Revis, but he is an above-average player at one of the league’s most important positions.
Additionally, building a good NFL team is all about risk management, and there is no denying that Horn was a much safer pick than Fields. Even the most ardent Fields supporters acknowledged that there was some risk that his game wouldn’t translate to the professional level. That risk wasn’t there with Horn. While there is no such thing as a can’t-miss prospect, most believed that Horn had a safe floor with a sky-high ceiling.
The Case For Justin Fields
You can have the greatest team ever assembled, but if you don’t have a franchise quarterback, you don’t have a chance at competing. Justin Fields was far from a safe bet in the 2021 NFL Draft, and there is still a chance he doesn’t pan out in the long term. However, even at the time, Fields was one of the most physically gifted quarterback prospects to ever hit the NFL and one of the few players that actually had a legitimate shot at turning into a true game-changing dual threat. Put simply, it doesn’t matter how much you like a cornerback, you can’t afford to pass on a player with this type of ceiling if you don’t have a quarterback.
Technically speaking, the Panthers may have believed they already had a franchise quarterback in Sam Darnold. Prior to the 2021 NFL Draft, the team acquired Darnold in exchange for a second-round pick and additional late-round selections. This obviously didn’t pan out, and it’s easy to see why. By just about every metric, Darnold was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league during his time with the Jets, and nobody should be surprised that a change of scenery didn’t fix him.
This isn’t a hindsight take either. Yes, the Jets didn’t make life easy on Darnold, but the quarterback is still the most important part of the offense. Put simply, it’s hard for an offense to put up those dreadful numbers if the quarterback isn’t pretty bad in his own right. Carolina should have known he wasn’t the long-term answer and should have kept looking for a better alternative.
The Art of the Draft
Perhaps the Panthers passed on Fields not because they were in love with Darnold, but because they didn’t believe he had what it took to be a franchise quarterback. While this is a little more understandable, it’s still not a good excuse.
The NFL Draft is a total crapshoot, and no individual person should be too confident with their evaluations. Trying to see into the future is hard, and professional scouts are wrong all the time. Heck, you could even argue the Horn pick was incorrect, as Patrick Surtain went off the board later and is a better cornerback.
Instead of treating their own evaluations like gospel, the Panthers organization needs to be more open to the idea that they could be wrong. This obviously isn’t to say that they shouldn’t scout players, but instead that they should find a way to balance their own evaluations with positional value. Someone with a 40% chance of turning into a franchise quarterback is more valuable than someone with a 70% chance of becoming an All-Pro cornerback, after all.
Ultimately, the Panthers landed a great young player in Jaycee Horn, but they should have selected Justin Fields. These takes are not mutually exclusive, and it’s a mistake the Panthers will have to live with until they eventually find a true quarterback.