NEW YORK — Sam Darnold was the face of a hopeful franchise, a promising playmaker who might just be the New York Jets’ quarterback for at least the next decade.
It took only three years for that dream to fizzle and fade into disappointment.
Darnold was traded Monday to the Carolina Panthers, ending months of speculation and a stint in New York that was marked by a few flashes of brilliance, inconsistent play and unfortunate injuries.
And with the rebooting Jets holding the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft, they’re likely moving on to another young signal-caller — perhaps BYU’s Zach Wilson or Ohio State’s Justin Fields — who they hope will deliver the team back to respectability.
New York acquired a sixth-round pick in this year’s draft and second- and fourth-round picks in the 2022 draft. That gives them 21 selections over the next two drafts, with seven of them coming in the first two rounds.
Meanwhile, the 23-year-old Darnold gets a much-needed change of scenery and a new opportunity in Carolina, where he’ll also be reunited with wide receiver Robby Anderson. The quarterback could also quickly seek some measure of revenge this season when the Panthers host the Jets.
“I like his toughness,” Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said. “He can move in the pocket and make plays down the field with his arm. All of those really stood out about him. I think in this offense with Matt Rhule and Joe Brady, that he can really take that next step.”
Darnold was considered an untouchable player on the Jets’ roster in his second season, but it became clear they could move on when GM Joe Douglas backed off that stance in March. Douglas praised Darnold, but acknowledged he would answer calls from teams interested in acquiring him.
The market for Darnold didn’t appear as robust as the Jets had hoped. But the speculation New York would move on from the young QB only intensified when Douglas, new coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur all traveled to Provo, Utah, to watch quarterback Wilson’s impressive passing display at BYU’s pro day on March 26.
With Darnold’s future uncertain, New York had also long been among the teams mentioned as possible suitors for Deshaun Watson, who requested a trade from Houston. But he’s currently dealing with legal issues as he is accused of sexual assault and harassment in lawsuits filed by 21 women.
“I want to publicly acknowledge the commitment, dedication, and professionalism Sam displayed while with the Jets. He is a tough-minded, talented football player whose NFL story has not been written yet,” Douglas said in a statement. “While all these things are true, this move is in the short- and long-term best interests for both this team and him.
“We thank Sam for all of his work on behalf of this organization and wish him well as he continues his career.”
Then-GM Mike Maccagnan traded up to select Darnold with the No. 3 overall pick in 2018 out of USC. Darnold’s California cool personality played well in New York and he seemed unfazed by the lofty expectations and the Big Apple spotlight.
But a foot injury as a rookie, a bout with mononucleosis in his second year and a shoulder injury last season sidelined him for stints. And when he did play, Darnold’s mistakes overshadowed the positives. That led to serious doubts as to whether he could ever truly lift the franchise. Former coach Adam Gase also acknowledged he didn’t help Darnold enough to thrive in their two seasons together, and the Jets lacked playmaking talent to help him take the next step in his development.
Another likely determining factor was his contract. Darnold was entering the fourth year of his rookie deal and was scheduled to count $9.8 million against the Jets’ salary cap. Instead, they will get $4.8 million in relief and a $5 million “dead” charge for 2021. New York would have had until May 3 to decide whether to exercise Darnold’s fifth-year option — which would have cost the Jets $18.9 million, fully guaranteed.
And that was a price — and a risk — that proved too high.
A person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press the Panthers will discuss picking up the fifth-year option for Darnold with his agent. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the team hadn’t announced its plans.
Douglas is in his third season as the Jets’ GM, but is overseeing just his second full offseason. With a new coaching staff in place and soon a new quarterback, the entire franchise can fully reset as New York tries to end a 10-season playoff drought — the longest active streak in the NFL.
In 38 games with the Jets — all starts — he threw for 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions. Darnold is also coming off his worst statistical season with just nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He’s the first quarterback taken in the top five picks to not make it to a fourth season with the team that drafted him since JaMarcus Russell, who went No. 1 overall to the Raiders in 2007.
For Carolina, the trade further clouds the future of Teddy Bridgewater, who was 4-11 last season as a starter and struggled to win close games down the stretch. Bridgewater completed 69.1% of his passes, throwing for 15 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. The team’s primary backups last season were P.J. Walker and Will Grier.
After the season, Rhule said of Bridgewater: “He’s our quarterback.” But the Panthers attempted to trade for Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, who wound up with the Los Angeles Rams, and also were interested in Watson. Bridgewater has two years remaining on a three-year, $63 million contract that he signed in 2020.
“There are things that we have to work through, obviously,” Fitterer said. “We’re going to talk to Teddy’s agent and find the right place, whether it is here or wherever it may be. We will figure things out, contract-side as well.”
The Panthers have the eighth overall pick in the draft and it was widely suspected they could use the selection on a quarterback. But with Darnold in the fold, the Panthers are likely to target other areas of need including offensive tackle, linebacker, tight end or cornerback.