Panthers need to find out what they have in QBs Will Grier, P.J. Walker

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Teddy Bridgewater knows better than most how important it is for a backup quarterback to prove himself in something other than a mop-up role.

Had Bridgewater not made the most of his five starts -- and five wins -- last year for the New Orleans Saints, then the Carolina Panthers wouldn’t have had the complete picture needed to give him a chance to be their full-time starter this year.

“It’s definitely important," Bridgewater said on Thursday. “For yourself as a player, your confidence, it’s important for the guys around you to know that you’re not just a guy here passing time."

With Bridgewater hampered by a right knee sprain and the Panthers (3-7) embroiled in a five-game losing streak heading into Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions (1 p.m. ET, Fox), it’s time for coach Matt Rhule to give either Will Grier or P.J. Walker that opportunity.

Rhule said before the season that he had three quarterbacks he believed could win in the NFL. He still believes that.

But so far he knows for certain only that Bridgewater can win -- and he’s won only three of 10 starts.

Walker has gotten on the field for only a few plays this season in two games. Grier hasn’t left the sideline in the games he’s been active.

Knowing what they can do could be critical for the 2021 draft with three quarterbacks -- Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance -- each projected to go in the first round. Lawrence and Fields likely will go in the top five, with Lawrence the consensus No. 1.

The Panthers currently would pick ninth if the season ended today, and could wind up in the top five if the losing continues.

This is not to suggest Bridgewater shouldn’t play if he’s 100 percent. That is the plan. That also is looking less likely with two straight days of being what Rhule described as “extremely limited," unable to make the side-to-side pocket moves needed to protect himself against the rush.

“For him to play, he would have to have that," Rhule said.

Regardless, it might be more valuable long-term to find out what Grier and Walker can do.

If the Panthers were completely confident that one of them was the answer moving forward, then there would have been no reason to sign former Mississippi State and Penn State quarterback Tommy Stevens to the practice squad after New Orleans released him.

Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia understands. After starter Matthew Stafford went on injured reserve last season, he learned enough about David Blough last season to decide to keep him in 2020.

He also learned enough to sign a more experienced veteran if Stafford was hurt again, so the Lions signed veteran Chase Daniel to a three-year deal and moved on from Jeff Driskel.

“It was great to just watch those guys last year step in," said Patricia, who came from a New England system where there almost always seemed to be a capable backup when Tom Brady couldn’t play.

“You saw the leadership come through; you saw the preparation. You saw the mental work that goes into going out there and playing."

Those are things you don’t get a complete picture of in practice because the starter typically gets most of the first-team reps.

Carolina offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who spent the 2018 season with Bridgewater in New Orleans, was more certain Bridgewater was the player to replace Cam Newton as the franchise quarterback after what he saw last season.

“You saw a quarterback that was confident, executed a game plan that they presented him and he found ways to win football games," Brady said. “At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing as a quarterback, to find ways to win games. ... So that just solidified it."

Those are things the Panthers need to learn this week with Grier and Walker splitting the reps in practice. It’s what they need to see in a game.

“If Teddy can go, this will give us real clarity as to who the No. 2 should be," Rhule said. “And if he can't go, then it's pretty clear who the starter is [for Sunday]."

Grier would love a chance to prove himself after struggling last year. He understands the implications for the quarterback room moving forward if the Panthers were wind up with a top-10 pick.

“I totally get that," he said, understanding it falls under the category of something he can’t control. “This is a business. ... Would I love to play the rest of the season and show what I can do? Yes, absolutely.

“At the end of the day, that’s not up to me."

Walker, to a degree, got the chance to show what he could do at the professional level earlier this year when he led the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks to a 5-0 record before the pandemic ended the season. He was on his way to a potential MVP award with 15 touchdown passes.

He also has an advantage in that Rhule knows better what he can do, having helped the first-year NFL coach turn around Temple as a four-year starter from 2013-16.

Rhule was quick to offer a reminder that he also has a history with Grier, having played him twice at West Virginia while he was the head coach at Baylor. He also was quick to say that draft position -- Carolina used a third-round pick on Grier and Walker came in as an undrafted free agent.

“To me, where people are drafted or selected, that affecting your decision is what ruins organizations," Rhule said.

Walker has been the backup both times Bridgewater left with injuries this year, but that also isn’t a factor.

“If we could go the whole year without Will getting in a game, I would know exactly what we have because I see it day in and day out," Rhule said. “I have no doubt about what he can do."

But like Bridgewater with the Saints, Rhule can’t deny it would be affirming to see what he’s observed in practice played out in an entire game.

Neither can Bridgewater nor the players battling to replace him.

“Those guys are aware of that," said Bridgewater, who was rewarded for his play last season with a three-year, $63 million deal. “They are approaching these days with the right mindset, so it’s good to see."