CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Four months ago, almost to the day, Sam Darnold sat in front of the New York media (virtually) and spoke about his uncertain future with the Jets.
The very next day, much further south, a former Jets quarterback deflected similar questions about his future.
Now that former Jets signal caller — Teddy Bridgewater — and Darnold are on the same roster, at least for now. In need of another answer, any other answer, at quarterback, the Carolina Panthers have turned to Darnold, the 23-year old former third-overall pick who was unable to find success in his three seasons with the Jets.
How Darnold performs in Carolina will call into focus many things, including the talent scouting ability of general manager Scott Fitterer, who has had an eye on Darnold since he was coming out of USC. Darnold's level of success will also showcase offensive coordinator Joe Brady and head coach Matt Rhule's abilities to work with a struggling quarterback coming off his worst season.
The bottom line: Trading a 2021 sixth-round pick and 2022 second- and fourth-round picks for Darnold doesn't answer long-term questions for the Panthers. In fact, more questions than answers emerge.
If it doesn't work out for Carolina — again — this team will not be in much different place than it was this past offseason. And the offseason before that. If it does work, it could become a steal and give the team something to build around.
Quarterback question mark
The Panthers should have known what they were getting in Bridgewater a year ago. His play wasn't that different from his previous seasons in the NFL. The Panthers certainly know what he offers now, and felt that Darnold offered more. A higher upside, certainly.
Darnold is a question mark. He could still be a good quarterback, but has yet to show it in the NFL. Perhaps a change of scenery will do him good.
If he plays well, the deal could turn into a steal, but the possibility remains that we will be here again next year. The Panthers will pick up Darnold's fifth-year option for $18.9 million in 2022, per league sources, which will put him under contract for the next two seasons.
"He's only 23 years old. A lot of these quarterbacks don't mature, hit their prime till like 24, 25, 26. If this is a player that we can hit on at this price, and if he is our quarterback for the future, it's definitely worth the gamble," Fitterer said.
If Darnold doesn't work out, the Panthers will have to reset at the quarterback position sooner rather than later, and they still won't have a long-term answer to build around. If he does fit, the team will have to pay him a lot beginning in 2023, as opposed to the cheaper price for a longer period of time that a rookie presents.
The team either doesn't have a quarterback, or it's stuck debating whether he played well enough to warrant a bigger, long-term deal.
Three consecutive offseasons of searching for an answer at quarterback doesn't help build a successful roster, especially when the team expects to have a better record, and therefore a worse draft pick, in 2022. No top rookie quarterbacks will be available for a cheap price then, either.
From the start of the offseason, the Panthers' level of interest in quarterbacks they believed would be available to them at No. 8 overall, or that were worth trading began to reveal itself.
The first big domino to fall was Matthew Stafford, whom the Detroit Lions traded to the Los Angeles Rams. Carolina was very much in on trying to make a similar trade.
The Panthers then turned a significant portion of the attention to Houston's Deshaun Watson, who had requested a trade from the Texans. Interest in Watson was significant, however recent allegations of sexual assault have made that situation complex. The Texans also offered early resistance to trade talks, and the cost to bring him in to begin with was going to be significant. Is Watson completely off the table? Maybe not, but that wasn't happening any time soon.
Then there's the draft situation.
More than a week ago, the San Francisco 49ers made a trade with the Miami Dolphins to move from the No. 12 pick up to No. 3, ostensibly to pick a quarterback. The cost of moving up to select a top quarterback was high and now the odds of the Panthers selecting one in the draft are reduced. Holding on to picks in the first three rounds this year was important.
Having two young and cheap quarterbacks on the roster wouldn't be the worst thing, but how can you start to build around Darnold in a way the Jets didn't by drafting a quarterback at No. 8?
Signing Bridgewater last season helped the Panthers to be good enough to win a few games, but not bad enough to land the top quarterbacks in this year's draft. It didn't work.
Now, they've opted for Darnold, which gives them a guaranteed new player with potential at quarterback.
The deal started really being finalized at Ohio State's pro day Tuesday when Fitterer and Jets general manager Joe Douglas discussed the situation on the football field while Justin Fields threw in front of them. By then, the teams had collected all the data they needed on the quarterbacks in the draft and other trade targets, and both sides could move forward.
Can Darnold succeed with the Panthers?
The ramifications of the Panthers' on-field product this season is one of the more interesting aspects of this situation. The team is taking a chance on a player who's been among the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL, especially last season.
But, who is to blame for Darnold's performance? Is it bad coaching under former Jets head coach Adam Gase? A lack of weapons to connect with? The pressure of playing in a big city like New York? Just the low quality of the team around him in general?
The bigger question, then, is whether Brady and Rhule can help Darnold return to being the quarterback he was at USC, with the success that led to him to being the third overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
"I think he moves well in the pocket. He's not a runner, like you would picture, but he's a person that can slide and climb in the pocket," Fitterer said. "I think he sees the field, he can push the ball downfield. When he does take off, he does have speed as a runner. I think he can make throws at all levels, I've seen that going back to college. You can see glimpses of that in the NFL," Fitterer said.
"I think in our offense, with Joe Brady, with Christian (McCaffrey), with DJ (Moore), with Robby (Anderson), and now Dan Arnold, this receiving tight end, I really like what he can bring to us, and the ability to push the ball downfield, all those things are really exciting."
In 2020, Darnold had his worst statistical season and looked out of sorts at times. He averaged just 184 yards per game, thew 11 interceptions to nine touchdowns and was sacked 35 times, the most of his career despite playing in one fewer game than he had each of the two previous seasons.
A major flaw in Bridgewater's performance last year was end-of-game situations. He bore some of the blame for the team's 0-8 record in games with the ball in his hands and a chance to win or tie.
Darnold hasn't fared much better. In his career, Darnold has completed 52.2% of his passes in fourth-quarter situations within one score, and he's thrown two touchdowns to six interceptions.
He will have the opportunity to get the ball out more quickly in Brady's offense and move around, which may benefit him. Similar to the Jets, however, the Panthers' offensive line is a major work in progress, which is part of what made the early draft picks this year so valuable.
Maybe this will be the change of scenery he needs.
But if Darnold continues to perform as he has thus far in his NFL career, this trade will be the latest in a series of moving pieces at quarterback for the Panthers.
2021 NFL Mock Draft: Trades shake up first round
2021 NFL Mock Draft: Trades shake up first round
6. Miami from Philadelphia (4-11-1) — Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama, Jr.
It's scary that a 10-win team with such a good coach and plenty of young talent also has four picks in the top 50. The Dolphins are desperate for wide receivers who can get open and it's clear that will be the target here (or they wouldn't have made this deal with the Eagles). Miami mimics Cincinnati by reuniting a top receiving prospect with his old college quarterback. A healthy Waddle is the most explosive all-around athlete at receiver in this class and his addition will only expedite former Crimson Tide teammate Tua Tagovailoa's development. Top needs: WR, RB, LB
7. Detroit (5-11) — Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon, Jr.
In most drafts, Sewell would be the consensus No. 1 overall pick and he'd pair nicely with Taylor Decker, giving the Lions bookend tackles. The 2019 Outland Trophy winner — he opted out last season due to the threat of COVID-19 — isn't flawless, but his ceiling is as high as they come (he'll only be 21 in October). Top needs: WR, LB, DB
9. Denver (5-11) — Micah Parsons, LB, Penn St., Jr.
A classic Vic Fangio defense usually features a playmaking linebacker at its core. Parsons is another elite prospect who opted out of the 2020 season, citing "the potential risk to the health and well-being" of his young son due to COVID. He recently dazzled scouts with a 4.39 40-yard dash at his pro day. This would be the first time in my lifetime the first defensive player off the board lasts this long. Top needs: Edge, OT, LB
11. N.Y. Giants (6-10) — Kwity Paye, Edge, Michigan, Sr.
The Giants are in need of another pass rushing threat to go opposite Leonard Williams. Paye is already an impressive run defender against the spread offense, which is becoming increasingly important in the NFL, and there are athletic indicators he will continue to improve as a pass rusher. Top needs: OL, Edge, LB
12. Philadelphia from Miami through San Francisco (6-10) — DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama, Sr.
Is it me or does it seem like the Eagles are always in need of help at receiver? The Heisman winner took his game to another level after Waddle was sidelined in 2020 — he had 1,300 yards on 72 receptions and 19 touchdowns in his last eight games. The only blemish is his size. Top needs: WR, CB, LB
13. L.A. Chargers (7-9) — Rashawn Slater, OL, Northwestern, Sr.
Signing All-Pro center Corey Linsley is a step in the right direction for a very bad offensive line. Slater opted out this season due to COVID, but handled the mighty Chase Young as a junior while playing left tackle and didn't allow a single sack his last season. He's versatile and talented enough to play all five offensive line positions. He did nothing during his pro day to hurt himself. Top needs: OL, CB, DL
14. Minnesota (7-9) — Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech, Sr.
Coach Mike Zimmer didn't hold back when he called his defense the "worst one I've ever had," but the offensive line is priority here considering the Vikings don't have a pick in the second round. Darrisaw would be the first Hokie offensive lineman to be drafted in the first round since 2008 ( Duane Brown). Top needs: OL, S, Edge
16. Arizona (8-8) — Najee Harris, RB, Alabama, Sr.
If you're a fantasy player who is excited about Chase Edmonds' potential as a featured back now that Kenyan Drake has moved on, don't get your hopes up. Harris has evolved into an all-around threat. Of course, he's a powerful runner with his size (6-foot-2, 230 pounds), but he's also developed into a great receiver out of the backfield and he's improved significantly in pass-protection. Top needs: CB, RB, OL
17. Las Vegas (8-8) — Trevon Moehrig-Woodard, S, TCU, Jr.
The Raiders must address their atrocious secondary. Moehrig-Woodard's skillset is scheme-proof. He's a hard hitter who led all safeties in pass breakups in each of the past two seasons. Top needs: OT, S, LB
18. Miami (10-6) — Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson, Sr.
One way to alleviate the pressure off of a young quarterback is to give him a dynamic running back who is a three-down threat and capable of scoring every time the ball is in his hands. Etienne, a three-time All-American and the ACC's career rushing leader, fits the bill perfectly. Top needs: WR, RB, LB
19. Washington (7-9) — Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame, Sr.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say Taylor Heinicke isn't the quarterback of the future for the Football Team — or Ryan Fitzpatrick for that matter — but there's not a QB on the board worthy of this pick. Owusu-Koramoah is an explosive athlete who can make plays from sideline-to-sideline. The ACC Defensive Player of the Year also won the Butkus Award (nation's top linebacker) and was a consensus All-American. Top needs: QB, LB, Edge
21. Indianapolis (11-5) — Azeez Ojulari, Edge, Georgia, So.
I expected the Colts to be aggressive seeking their next quarterback in the trade market and they didn't disappoint. The next biggest priority is to continue building their pass rush. Ojulari was a semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award (the nation's top defensive player) with 8.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and 25 quarterback hurries. He's only scratching the surface of his talent. Top needs: Edge, OT, CB
22. Tennessee (11-5) — Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina, Jr.
The Titans will need to address their secondary (after releasing Kenny Vaccaro and Malcolm Butler) in a major way. Horn — his father Joe was a Pro Bowl wide receiver — is a very talented, uber-aggressive press corner with elite speed, good size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) and can make plays in run support. Top needs: WR, CB, DT
23. N.Y. Jets from Seattle (12-4) — Jaelan Phillips, Edge, Miami, Jr.
If past is prologue, once head coach Robert Saleh has his quarterback situation figured out, he'll focus on building a pass rush. Phillips stepped up in Gregory Rousseau's absence after transferring from UCLA. The former highly-touted recruit is a relentless pass rusher who produced eight sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in 10 games as a Hurricane. Top needs: QB, OT, LB
24. Pittsburgh (12-4) — Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, USC, Jr.
The Steelers are facing difficult decisions at almost every major position after this season, but it's clear the offensive line has to be a priority. Vera-Tucker was one of the best offensive tackles in the country, but could also shine on the interior in the NFL. Top needs: OT, RB, LB
26. Cleveland (11-5) — Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa, Jr.
The Browns need to upgrade their pass rush outside of Myles Garrett, but they also need to improve their linebacker corps. Collins has the size (6-4, 260), athleticism and positional flexibility that will cause most defensive coordinators to drool. He received the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, awarded by the Football Writers Association of America to the top defensive player in college football. Top needs: LB, Edge, DL
27. Baltimore (11-5) — Gregory Rousseau, Edge, Miami, So.
Yannick Ngakoue and Matt Judon are gone. It's been almost two decades since a Hurricane defensive end was taken in the first round ( Jerome McDougle in 2003). Rousseau finished with 15.5 sacks in 13 games as a redshirt freshman, but opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. Top needs: Edge, C, LB
28. New Orleans (12-4) — Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue, So.
Emmanuel Sanders' release and no money for free agency might necessitate this move. Moore would be a nice fit opposite a healthy Michael Thomas. An impressive pro day should boost him into the back-end of the first round. Top needs: QB, DB, WR
30. Buffalo (13-3) — Jaylen Mayfield, OL, Michigan, Jr.
Offensive tackle Daryl Williams was resigned, but the Bills still need to address the interior. Mayfield features the versatility and athleticism to thrive in offensive coordinator Brian Daboll's system. Top needs: DL, G, CB
31. Kansas City (14-2) — Samuel Cosmi, OT, Texas, Jr.
The greatness of Patrick Mahomes has made up for the mediocrity of his offensive line since he became the starter. Joe Thuney was a nice addition at guard. Cosmi is capable of starting at right tackle day one, but has the ability to protect Mahomes' blindside eventually. Top needs: OT, LB, WR