Who’s the 1?

The Carolina Panthers hold the first pick overall in the 2011 NFL draft, but is there a player in this class that is worth that lofty selection? And if so, which one deserves to be No. 1?

The last time the Carolina Panthers had a Top 5 perch in the first round of the NFL draft was in 2002. They held the second overall pick and used it on defensive end Julius Peppers.

Peppers is still sacking quarterbacks and being voted to the Pro Bowl – except that he’s now doing it in Chicago after signing with the Bears in free agency last year. The Panthers can only hope the draft is as kind to them this year, when they hold the first pick on April 28 – as a result of finishing the 2010 season with an NFL-worst 2-14 record.

The risk to the Panthers’ reward: Is there a player in this draft class who is worthy of that pick? Another Peppers, if you will.

Cam Newton? Blaine Gabbert? Patrick Peterson? Robert Quinn? Da’Quan Bowers? Marcell Dareus? Nick Fairly? Von Miller? A.J. Green?

2011 NFL Draft
When: Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April 28-30

What: The first round will be conducted Thursday starting at 4:30 p.m. PDT; rounds 2-3 will be conducted Friday starting at 3 p.m.; rounds 4-7 will be held Saturday starting at 9 a.m.

Top 10 Picks: 1, Panthers; 2, Broncos; 3, Bills; 4, Bengals; 5, Cardinals; 6, Browns; 7, 49ers; 8, Titans; 9, Cowboys; 10, Redskins.

Seahawks picks (eight): 25th pick overall in first round; 57th pick overall in second round; no pick in third round; 99th pick overall in fourth round; 156th and 157th picks overall in fifth round; 173rd pick overall in sixth round; 209th and 242nd picks overall in seventh round.

There has been speculation about each going to the Panthers with the first choice, and each comes with the prerequisite pros and cons attached. First-year coach Ron Rivera has even said that Panthers’ list of potential picks is eight players deep.

But, again, are any of them really worth it? From the top-rated quarterbacks (Newton and Gabbert); to the prospect many consider the best player in this draft class (Peterson, the LSU cornerback); to the best pass-rusher (Miller); to the best pass-catcher (Green); to the best of those from the best, and deepest, unit (defensive ends Quinn and Bowers and D-tackles Dareus and Fairly).

All come with questions and concerns.

“There are a lot of very, very good players in this draft,” said Todd McShay, draft analyst for ESPN. “But I’d rather be picking at three or four, than picking at one or two.

“When you look at it, I don’t think there’s a big difference between Marcel Dareus and Patrick Peterson and Von Miller and A.J. Green, from a talent level.”

Who the Panthers pick, of course, will impact the rest of the first round – all the way down to the Seahawks, who hold the 25th pick. If Carolina goes QB, it leaves one less for the other 10 teams that are in the market. If teams at the top of round can’t get one of the top-rated passers, they might be looking to trade back into the lower end of the round to draft one of the second-tier quarterbacks.

The slam-dunk pick at No. 1 always is a franchise quarterback. Last year, the St. Louis Rams got theirs when they selected Sam Bradford. But is Gabbert or Newton the next Bradford? Or, the next Ryan Leaf?

“It’s always tough,” McShay said. “But when you’re the No. 1 team drafting and you need a quarterback and there is a clear-cut No. 1 quarterback, it’s still a tough decision. But certainly it makes it a lot easier.

“The problem Carolina is faced with is they’ve got to upgrade their quarterback situation.”

The Panthers do have Jimmy Clausen, who they selected in the second round of the draft last year. There’s also Matt Moore, the former Oregon State QB who won his first NFL start against the Seahawks in 2007.

“Is Blaine Gabbert enough of an upgrade, and is he going to be ready to play and give us what we need and what we’re looking for?” McShay said. “I don’t know that the answer is ‘yes’ to all that.”

The fallback position could be defensive tackle, especially with the talent and depth in this class and the Panthers’ just-as-obvious need for a franchise player in the middle of their line.

McShay did his homework on the position, going back to the last time one was selected with the first pick overall (Dan Wilkinson by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1994) and continuing through 2007. He excluded the past three drafts because, as he put it, “I just don’t think it’s fair to decide whether a guy is a bust or a hit at this point.”

But during his 14-year “window,” eight defensive tackles were selected in the top six picks.

“Six of them were either tremendously disappointing or just flat-out busts,” McShay said. “So only two of those eight wound up being hits and living up to expectations.”

The hits were Kevin Carter, the sixth pick overall by the St. Louis Rams in 1995 who was moved to end and collected 104½ sacks over the next 14 seasons while playing for four teams; and Corey Simon, the sixth pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2000 who played in one Pro Bowl.

The others: Wilkinson, who played 13 seasons for four teams but never at a level of dominance expected of the top overall pick; Darrell Russell, the No. 2 pick overall by the Raiders in 1997 who played in two Pro Bowls but was killed in a 2005 auto accident; Gerard Warren, the third pick by the Cleveland Browns in 2001 who played 10 seasons for four teams; Ryan Sims, the sixth pick by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2002 who played eight seasons for two teams; and Dewayne Robertson and Johnathan Sullivan, who went 4-6 to the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints in 2003.

After the double disappointment supplied by the selections of Robertson and Sullivan, no defensive tackles were taken among the first six picks in the next four drafts.

“Why is that happening?” McShay asked of the diminishing returns from the big-bodied tackles.

He then supplied his own answer, offering, “I think the biggest reason with these big guys who are so dominant in college going up against offensive guards and just able to beat them with pure talent – because there are so few 300-plus pound athletes at the college ranks.

“Well, you get to the NFL and you have these elite athletes along the offensive line – not just at left tackle – and now you have to work; you have to work every down. You’ve got to be great with your hands and your technique and you’ve got to have stamina. All these things you didn’t have to have at the college level. And some of guys just can’t do it. They can’t make the transition.”

Even with all that said, McShay offered a favorite for the Panthers with that No. 1 pick: Dareus.

“There’s a lot of different ways they could go,” he said. “But ultimately I think Dareus – in terms of being one of the four elite, elite players in this draft and having the need that they have at the defensive tackle position – right now, to me, he makes the most sense.”

But McShay has since shifted to Newton as the top pick for the Panthers in his latest mock draft.

Now, it’s up to the Panthers to make sense of all this.

Who’s the 1?.