The Carolina Panthers pulled the trigger on a quarterback trade, although the deal doesn’t look much like the one envisioned earlier this offseason.
The team landed Sam Darnold, the former No. 3 overall draft pick who struggled in his three seasons with the New York Jets.
The Panthers reportedly tried to trade for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who was dealt to the Rams instead, and were involved in the scramble to land disgruntled Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Watson’s legal problems — close to two dozen women have accused him of sexual harassment — likely ended any chance of a trade and forced the Panthers to go in a different direction.
The draft was the next best option for the Panthers, but it was becoming evident that there will be an early run on quarterbacks that would deplete the prospects available when the team picks at No. 8 overall. San Francisco, also looking for a quarterback, swung a trade to move up to No. 3, and Justin Fields’ performance at Ohio State’s pro day likely meant he wouldn’t last until the Panthers’ pick.
So the Panthers went back to the trading block and snagged the best available passer.
Darnold arrived in the league with plenty of potential, but he was thrown into the fray early and struggled behind a porous Jets line and with an uninspiring group of skill position players as targets. Many expert evaluators believe Darnold still has the chance to develop into a franchise quarterback in the right situation.
Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer is clearly among that group of evaluators. While the Panthers’ line still needs work, it’s a clear upgrade from what Darnold saw with the Jets. There’s also no question Darnold will have plenty of targets in the backfield and at receiver, including DJ Moore, Robby Anderson (who played with Darnold in New York for two years) and All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey. He’ll also be learning from some of the more creative offensive minds in the league.
“Sam is a guy I really liked,” Fitterer said. “Liked the competitor, liked the toughness, the ability to move in the pocket, he can make big plays downfield with his arm. All those things really stood out about him. I think in this offense with (offensive coordinator) Joe Brady, with (head coach) Matt Rhule, with the weapons we have around him, that he can take that next step with us.”
The Jets hold the second overall pick and are in position to take whomever they determine to be the best quarterback prospect behind likely top pick Trevor Lawrence. According to the draft rumor mill, the Jets are focusing on BYU’s Zach Wilson.
The Panthers had to surrender three draft picks to complete the deal for Darnold, but the team managed to hold on to its first-round pick. That allows the Panthers to choose the best player remaining on its board at No. 8 and fill another major need on the roster.
And there’s still the possibility that the best guy left on the board might be a quarterback.
“This doesn’t take out of anything in the draft,” Fitterer said. “It doesn’t take us out of taking a quarterback. It doesn’t take us out of taking any position. What we wanted to do going into this draft, through free agency, through this trade with Sam, was to just get rid of all the needs we have. We wanted to get to a place where the roster was in a good spot and we could take the best available player at No. 8. We could always move up, and we could always move back, but this puts us in a position to make the right football decision for this team moving forward.”
The price for Darnold was a sixth-round pick in this year’s draft (No. 226 overall) and second- and fourth-round picks in next year’s draft.
The trade leaves Teddy Bridgewater’s future even more unsettled than it was before. The starter at quarterback for the Panthers last year, Bridgewater was criticized by Rhule late in the season. The team is open to Bridgewater returning as a backup, but the Panthers also gave Bridgewater permission to seek a trade. Carolina also has P.J. Walker, Will Grier and Tommy Stevens available at the position.
“I think there’s things we have to work through, obviously,” Fitterer said. “And I’ve already talked to Teddy’s agents. We’re going to find the right place, whether it’s here or wherever it may be, we’ll figure things out, contract-wise as well.”