CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — No pressure, Carolina Panthers. All you're about to do is make a decision that could immediately turn around a troubled franchise or lead it further into the abyss.
Add in never-before-seen uncertainty involving the bizarre labor dispute and you don't have to remind the team's brass of the pressure in holding the No. 1 pick in Thursday's NFL draft.
"It does kind of put a face on the beginning of my career," new coach Ron Rivera said Tuesday.
Added general manager Marty Hurney: "You know the importance of it. Every pick is important, but the first pick definitely brings a sense of urgency."
While signs point to the Panthers taking Auburn's Cam Newton and Hurney spoke of the growing importance of the quarterback in today's pass-happy NFL, he stopped short of declaring Newton the choice in a pre-draft press conference.
"I don't think anybody turns in their (player) inactives on Friday when you have until an hour and a half before the game. That's where we are," Hurney said. "We have obviously done a lot of work up to this point and have ideas throughout the draft and how things might unfold. But you just never know what's going to happen and you go up to the time to when you have to make the selection."
Coming off a 2-14 season, with Rivera replacing John Fox and with 28 potential free agents, the Panthers need upgrades in several areas. The lockout has prevented them from signing or trading players, negotiating with potential No. 1 picks or knowing if there will be a rookie wage scale for the top choice Thursday night.
But that could change after a judge's ruling Monday that lifted the lockout. Kicker John Kasay, the Panthers' player representative to the union before it dissolved, even showed up at Bank of America Stadium Tuesday morning and was allowed inside.
"We're just walking through the process," Kasay told The Associated Press, declining further comment.
As the NFL owners scramble in hopes that an appeals court will put the lockout back in place, there's the possibility it will remain lifted during the draft. That could possibly mean current players could be included in trades involving draft picks.
Hurney insisted they've discussed all possibilities.
"We talk about different scenarios all the time," Hurney said. "Ron and I have talked so much, we've talked more to each other than our wives about stuff."
Hurney acknowledged he still hasn't fielded any calls from teams looking to snag the No. 1 pick. That may not change even if current players can be traded. Hurney recalled in 2002 when Houston made it known early it was taking quarterback David Carr he never received a call from a team interested in the No. 2 pick.
"We selected Julius Peppers and I think it worked out pretty good," Hurney said.
If Carolina holds onto the pick, Newton could be the guy. He could also add to management's anxiety level.
At 6-foot-5 and 248 pounds, Newton has great size but also good speed. He's got a rocket arm, great running skills and showed poise in the pocket in leading Auburn to an unbeaten season and the national championship.
But the Heisman Trophy winner played only one college season, has been arrested, and has faced other issues that put his character into question.
Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus might be a safer choice. LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson and Georgia receiver A.J. Green are possibilities, too. But those positions don't have the impact quarterback has.
Carolina, which plays in a division that includes Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman, have never had a franchise quarterback. Jimmy Clausen threw three touchdown passes, nine interceptions and had a league-worst 58.4 passer rating a year ago when Carolina had the NFL's worst offense.
Rivera stressed from watching film that it was "almost unfair" the situations Clausen was put in, but also mentioned quarterback as one of his team's needs.
"I think the importance of that position has increased even more in recent years," Hurney said, citing recent rule changes that favor passing offenses.
But is Newton the guy? Can he be trusted? Can he adapt from the spread offense to a pro-style system?
Those are the kind of questions that have kept Hurney up at night.
"There is a sense of responsibility as far as making the right decision," Hurney said, "to get your football team to the point where it's competitive, exciting and it makes the region proud."