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Panthers thin, so quarterback seems inevitable

With the opening of the NFL draft eight days away, the Carolina Panthers have fewer games started by quarterbacks on their roster than any other team - and it's not close.

Matt Moore has eight starts and the only other quarterback under contract, Hunter Cantwell, hasn't taken a snap during a regular-season game.

The next-lowest number in the league is 19 combined starts for the St. Louis Rams, who recently released long-time starter Marc Bulger and are expected to take Oklahoma's Sam Bradford with the draft's No.1 pick.

The New York Jets (24 starts) and Detroit Lions (27) are next, but both used top-five picks last year to select quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Matthew Stafford, respectively.

Unlike the Rams, Jets and Lions, the Panthers aren't ready to declare they've found their franchise quarterback.

Carolina hasn't signed a veteran free agent even though a player with 31 career starts who was on the roster the past two years, Josh McCown, is willing to re-sign at a bargain price.

The Panthers also haven't shown interest in pursuing Washington's Jason Campbell (52 starts), who recently was supplanted when the Redskins traded for former Philadelphia star Donovan McNabb. Carolina passed on McNabb and now-relocated former Cleveland quarterbacks Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson

It now appears questionable whether Carolina will sign a veteran quarterback. Team officials are said to be working with a tight internal budget into which even a modest veteran's salary might not fit. Rookies, other than top draft picks, are more cost-efficient.

Therefore, as the draft approaches, the Panthers are in the market to find a player who can at least compete with Moore to become the quarterback of the future.

Given the urgency of the situation following the release of seven-year starter Jake Delhomme last month, this is uncharted territory for the Panthers during the tenures of general manager Marty Hurney and coach John Fox.

They've drafted a quarterback once during eight years, selecting Louisville's Stefan LeFlors in the 2005 fourth round when Delhomme was entrenched as the starter. LeFlors is playing in the Canadian Football League.

But the Panthers won't necessarily use their first pick, the 48th overall in Round2, on a quarterback. They also have pressing needs at receiver and defensive line.

If the Panthers choose a quarterback with their first pick, it's likely to be either Florida's Tim Tebow, Texas' Colt McCoy or perhaps Cincinnati's Tony Pike.

Tebow and McCoy, in particular, are natural leaders who score high in intangibles, qualities Fox and Hurney consider essential.

Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour is another strong leader who should be available in the third or fourth round, with possibilities after that including Troy's Levi Brown and Fordham's John Skelton.

As for Moore, the Panthers like what they've seen from him. As an undrafted rookie in 2007, he was 2-1 starting the final three games. Last season, he was 4-1 after taking over for Delhomme, passing for eight touchdowns and one interception.

The performance allowed Carolina to finish 8-8 after a 4-7 start with Delhomme. The rally did wonders for Moore's standing in the eyes of the coaching staff and led to the decision to declare him the starter.

"I like his mindset," Fox said of Moore last month at the NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla. "I saw him improve. I thought in the last three games, he was playing about as good as anybody. He had about a 93 quarterback rating (actually 98.5). We had hovered around 59 most of the season, (so) that gave us a chance to win games. Hopefully, he can do that moving forward."

Fox made it clear, however, that more help was on the way.

"There will be somebody else definitely in the mix," he said. "We always want competition."

For the Panthers, that's even more of a need than a want.