Scott Fowler: With KFC quips and QB options galore, the Panthers are taking a break from irrelevance

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For the past five years, the Carolina Panthers have never had a chance to sit in the NFL’s catbird seat.

For the next 38 days, though, that’s exactly where they are perched, holding the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL draft after a monumental trade with Chicago.

And you better believe that the Panthers are enjoying this temporary respite from irrelevance.

“When you’ve got the No. 1 pick, you don’t have to play games, right?” Panthers coach Frank Reich said Monday at a press conference. “I mean, it’s not like we’re trying to fool anybody.”

Maybe not, but the Panthers aren’t in any hurry to say which of this draft’s top four quarterbacks they will pick at No. 1. Reich demurred when asked to talk about what characteristics in a QB he values most, saying: “That would be like giving the proprietary formula for Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

That question came up in particular due to the vertically challenged former Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, who measured 5-foot-10 at the scouting combine. The other three contenders for the No. 1 pick — Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Florida’s Anthony Richardson and Kentucky’s Will Levis — all measured at least 6-3.

Reich’s previous history shows that he has preferred taller QBs in general. But then again, Reich said of 5-foot-11 former N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson that he “had a very high grade on him” when Wilson was drafted in 2012 in the third round.

“All these people putting this label on me that I only work with big quarterbacks,” Reich said, smiling. “Don’t read anything into that. … I’m trying to play reverse psychology.”

With that said, I still think the Panthers — who traded up from No. 9 to No. 1 — will end up choosing Stroud. But they’re not saying, and they’re not about to say, even though they conceivably could do so, given the “not like we’re trying to fool anybody” mindset.

That’s the NFL by nature, though. There’s a streak of paranoia that runs through every team official and coach, a close-to-the-vest mentality that has always been there but grew worse given the success of Bill “Don’t ever tell ‘em anything” Belichick and the New England Patriots. Although I believe the Panthers already have a strong idea who they are going to take at No. 1, they aren’t going to admit anything for sure.

What we do know, however, is that the Panthers are trying to get things ready for the new rookie QB like he’s a millionaire guest checking into a luxury hotel.

Trade DJ Moore to Chicago? No problem, here comes Adam Thielen. Trade Christian McCaffrey to San Francisco? Here comes Miles Sanders. Haven’t had a good pass-catcher at tight end since the Greg Olsen era ended? Here comes Hayden Hurst.

As for the offensive line, all five Carolina starters return now that Bradley Bozeman is back in the fold. And then there’s backup/bridge quarterback Andy Dalton. He’s there to explain things to the new guy (and Matt Corral, lest we forget) and also quarterback the first few games (as Reich did for Kerry Collins, way back in the 1995 expansion season) if needed.

“We’ve added receivers, tight ends, running backs — all these positions to put whoever that is at quarterback to give them the best opportunity of success,” Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said.

As to when that first start comes for No. 1, it won’t be clear until preseason. No. 5 overall pick Kerry Collins started from the fourth game onward in 1995 (replacing Reich in a move the coach wryly admitted was both correct and franchise-changing). No. 1 pick Cam Newton started from Week 1 in 2011.

“We’ll rely on Frank and our coaches to know when is the right time,” Fitterer said. “So we’re not going to put it like a benchmark out that we’re going to start him Week 1 or he’s not going to play at all this year. When the time is right, when he’s ready, when he’s grasped the offense and we can put him out there and have success: that’s when he’ll go out.”

After Reich’s KFC quip Monday, another reporter tried again, asking he coach how many of the top four quarterbacks “are you comfortable with that could be the guy.”

Reich broke into laughter.

“Like, really?” he said.

So no, the Panthers aren’t going to admit to anything they don’t have to until they have to, and for the next 38 days they get to be very relevant in the NFL conversation.

They meanwhile should be lauded for feathering the nest nicely for the new QB.

All of that won’t matter, though, unless they get this pick right. But, at least, they have bought themselves a chance.