But I can assure you of this much: Carolina is beyond smitten with Watson and owner David Tepper is fairly consumed by the prospect of landing him and no matter what happens with this transcendent young quarterback (and I still believe he is dealt at some point), the Panthers are going to play some role in the process. They might not be able to secure him, ultimately, and others clearly possess higher draft capital, but when it comes to Watson, Tepper's aim is true and their desire is real.
Tepper, a billionaire's billionaire, has been more patient with this franchise to this point than many had anticipated. But that by no means should fool one into thinking he is a particularly patient man by nature, and the team's front office shake-up last year is certainly indicative of that. The Panthers are entering their second year under coach Matt Rhule, and Tepper is ready and eager to spend to try to have his bottom-10 club (5-11) make significant gains after mostly just tinkering and tweaking and trying to rebuild through the draft to this point.
Most to the point, I'm told that Tepper is over the idea of a "game-manager" at the quarterback position, and ready to pounce on the best proven, young, elite passer that potentially could be available, and that has him fixed on Watson for a multitude of reasons. Tepper, sources said, is over having to watch his team operate with Cam Newton navigating through injuries, or Kyle Allen trying to display he is more than a lower-tier backup, or Teddy Bridgewater dink-and-dunk and protect the football, with clear limitations as to how bold and adventurous a downfield attack would be.
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Now, entering his fourth season at the helm, and having spent the majority of his time as a Steelers minority investor watching Ben Roethlisberger play the position with abandon and cunning on his way to a Hall of Fame career, Tepper is done with the caretaker, band-aid, we'll see model of quarterback. He's made it clear to those in the organization, and to his confidants around the NFL, that he wants desperately to upgrade into the penthouse of quarterbacks, believing it to be the most critical element to elevating the team to the heights – both in the standings and financially – that he seeks to soar.
And Watson, sources said, is far and away his guy.
Never underestimate the nexus of business and sport, and Tepper purchased this club -- basically in cash -- due in no small degree to his vision of the Panthers as a true regional anchor. He saw them as a team that, if managed properly, could draw fans from multiple states and their name "Carolina," and not "Charlotte," or "North Carolina," already spoke to that model. This should be the team for all of the Carolinas and beyond, filling a void between Atlanta and Washington, and Tepper quickly began making immediate infrastructure allowances to that end.
Announcing he would be moving the team's practice facility across the border, into South Carolina, where it already had been holding training camp, was a strong nod in that direction. Giving Rhule the kind of money and term on his contract unlike what most first-time NFL coaches garner (even accomplished college coaches), was another (this is SEC country, after all, and college fandom runs deeper than the pro ties by and large in that region). Securing face-of-the-franchise Christian McCaffrey to a record deal for a running back was another, and landing Watson would be the crown jewel.
One need only recall where Watson played his college ball – just down the road in South Carolina at Clemson – to see why he would have a particular appeal for this franchise. How better for Tepper to further build his brand as the team for all of the Carolinas and beyond, than by luring the most accomplished NFL quarterback in franchise history, still not yet even in his prime, already secured to a long-term contract which the Texans did the work of negotiating for you?
Makes sense, right?
Short of having the first overall pick and being able to select Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with it, this trade would be the absolute best move Tepper could execute to that end. And after sitting through the laborious process of draft-and-develop, those who know Tepper well believe future first-round picks are merely burning a hole in his pocket when it comes to the opportunity to pry Watson out of Texas. That won't hold the Panthers back in the least, with the eighth-overall selection this spring merely an appetizer.
And while I don't believe the Panthers have in fact offered three first-round picks, plus McCaffrey, for Watson ... I absolutely believe they would make that transaction in an instant. Don't expect the Texans to seriously entertain moving Watson until much closer to the draft – all the better to keep trying to drive the price up – but if/when they do, the Panthers will be motivated to make it happen. Yes, the Jets and Dolphins, for starters, may have more additional draft capital, but I suspect the Panthers will be willing to get quite creative (including emerging pass rushing force Brian Burns in any package may be even more attractive than McCaffrey, though that dual-threat running back could certainly kick start an offensive resurgence for any young QB should the Texans prefer to draft a passer in the event Watson is in fact dealt).
Tepper is over being middling at best (7-9 is his best result, with a team and staff he inherited), and the fact that the team's record is 17-31 under his ownership is lost on no one in that organization. Another year of Bridgewater at the helm is beyond unlikely at this point, even with $10M of his $17M in salary already guaranteed, and if he is there it will be because the Panthers are unable to land Watson, and the quarterback they select eighth overall is not ready to debut (this will another pandemic-compromised offseason, remember, with players unlikely to be in camp until the start of training camps, which could be truncated and/or delayed as well).
The owner is consumed with landing a true franchise quarterback, who could transform the fortunes of the team on field and off, and make Panthers games more alluring to fans and sponsors alike. Making a surge in the standings could only aid his hopes of one day securing a true state-of-the-art sports and entertainment complex – ideally with a retractable roof – worthy of hosting Super Bowls and NCAA championships, something Tepper covets.
He's already well into a $1B project for the new team headquarters, set to open in 2023, and the issue of funding for significant improvements to Bank of America Stadium has been lingering since well before Jerry Richardson was shamed into selling the franchise in the first place. A $50M project is already underway to gussy up the stadium in preparation for the arrival of an MLS franchise in 2022, and it is no secret that Tepper is eyeing a huge parcel of land near Bank of America Stadium to eventually construct the stadium of his dreams.
This is not someone accustomed to being told no, or not getting what he wants. Tepper may be the wealthiest of all NFL owners – with a net worth well around $12B, industry publications project – and when he becomes fixated on something those around him tend to notice. These construction projects take time, and public support, landing a top quarterback does not, and is far more immediate. Another necessary step in the process, one that the owner wants to begin bearing more victorious fruit.
It's been a long time since Newton was playing at an MVP level in Carolina; well before Tepper took over the franchise. Tepper wants his guy. He wants him now. Or at least, ASAP. Watson fits the description in every way possible.
So prepare to hear much more about the Panthers and the Texans quarterback as the weeks go by. Some of it might seem outlandish. Some of it not. But I'd anticipate Carolina being willing to meet quite a steep price to land Watson, and Watson's resolve to never play again for Houston cannot be discounted.