Panthers, Sam Darnold Begin Talks

The Panthers are meeting with Derek Carr at the Combine, joining the Jets and Saints in doing so. While Carolina is entertaining the prospect of signing the longtime Raiders starter, the team’s price range is believed to check in lower than what Carr will command.

As a result, the Panthers are circling back to one of their own quarterbacks. The team has begun talks with Sam Darnold about returning, David Newton of tweets. These can be classified as preliminary discussions, but Darnold would make sense for a team that uses its first-round pick on a quarterback.

Darnold is only 25 but has been given plenty of chances to show he is a franchise-caliber passer. The former No. 3 overall pick has already made 55 starts. Seventeen of those came with Carolina over the past two seasons. Matt Rhule pushed for the 2021 Darnold trade. Despite Rhule now camping in Nebraska, the Panthers are interested in keeping him. Darnold would represent a bridge option for a Panthers team that has been steadily connected to using its No. 9 overall pick on a QB or trading up for one.

Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo reside as the top available free agents — at least, among those actually expected to hit the market. Geno Smith would join them near the top of the QB market, but the Seahawks are not expected to let the reigning Comeback Player of the Year walk. The Giants are not letting Daniel Jones walk. Both he and Lamar Jackson will be franchise-tagged absent extensions surfacing before Monday’s tag deadline. Aaron Rodgers‘ status looms over all of this, but this year’s QB trade market does not appear as rich as 2022’s.

The market for bridge options will give the Panthers some choices. Baker Mayfield resides on this tier but should not be viewed as a candidate to come back to Charlotte. But Andy Dalton, Marcus Mariota, Jacoby Brissett, Teddy Bridgewater, Gardner Minshew and Carson Wentz are free agents or will be soon. This array of lower-tier starter options should make the players here fairly affordable, despite the QB demand that exists almost every year.

Darnold closed last season with a career-high 48.3 QBR, a mark much higher than his Panthers debut season (33.2), and a career-best passer rating (92.6). The Panthers fell short in their quest to rebound from a rocky start and make the playoffs, but Darnold showed some degree of promise after replacing Mayfield. Carolina’s offensive line restocking effort aided Darnold, as did the team’s D’Onta Foreman-led ground attack. Darnold still completed just 58.6% of his passes and should not be considered a multiyear option. But a team preparing to retool around a first-round pick could certainly do worse than adding the sixth-year vet as a stopgap.

After entering last season with Darnold, Mayfield and P.J. Walker on their roster, the Panthers have only Matt Corral and Jacob Eason under contract for 2023. Neither can be considered a viable starting option, pointing to Carolina exploring vets.

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