While fans and media may have been stunned with Andrew Luck's announcement that he'll be returning to Stanford for at least the 2011 season, league insiders and scouts had quietly been acknowledging this possibility for weeks.
It is, some scouts have told me, the primary reason many in the NFL believe that Carolina Panthers' owner Jerry Richardson announced that if Luck would be his team's first pick had he entered the draft. Richardson was hoping, scouts suggest, that by publicly touting Luck he might convince the Cardinal redshirt sophomore quarterback into declaring early.
Now that the consensus No. 1 pick has announced his decision, however, the Panthers won't waste time worrying about their bad Luck (sorry, couldn't resist). They'll focus on the next best available players - of which there are plenty of qualified options.
The option that I (and scouts) do not expect the Panthers to strongly consider are the other quarterbacks. Missouri's Blaine Gabbert is the only junior who has announced his plans to enter the draft early, but there is a league-wide belief that Arkansas' Ryan Mallett and Auburn's Cam Newton will be joining him. These three, along with Washington's Jake Locker, comprise the four QBs scouts believe will be taken in the first round. None, however, rate nearly as highly as Luck and therefore wouldn't be a big enough improvement to consider adding to a Carolina team that spent last year's 2nd round pick on former Notre Dame standout Jimmy Clausen.
Carolina's recent draft picks serves as at least one strong reason why the team may look past Georgia wideout A.J. Green, widely considered to be the elite offensive prospect potentially available, now that Luck is returning.
The Panthers have invested heavily at wide receiver in recent years, including drafting three last year -- Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards with Top 100 picks (78 and 89, respectively) and David Gettis -- who led the team with three touchdowns receptions -- in the sixth round.
Carolina does have significant concerns at defensive line -- expected to be the strongest positions in this year's draft once all of the underclassmen make their intentions known.
Three defensive linemen - Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers, Alabama's Marcell Dareus and Auburn's Nick Fairley -- each possess the size, experience and upside to warrant consideration.
LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, another junior who has yet to declare his intentions, also should be in the mix. Carolina is as strong at cornerback as any position on their entire roster, but could lose veteran Richard Marshall, who is scheduled to be a free agent after this season.
With questions about the consistency and schematic fit for the defensive linemen, Peterson may be the safest - and perhaps, therefore, best - fit for Carolina with the first pick. It would be the first time in league history in which a cornerback was drafted higher than 3rd overall (as Shawn Springs was for the Seahawks in 1997), but if ever there was a corner worthy of this high of a pick it is Peterson -- who won the Thorpe and Bednarik Awards, as well as the SEC Defensive and Special Teams Player of the Year.