3:26pm: Carolina will exercise Darnold’s fifth-year option, CBS Sports’ Jonathan Jones tweets. This will tie Darnold to the Panthers through 2022 and fully guarantee Darnold $18.9MM next year.
3:03pm: The Jets are trading Sam Darnold to the Panthers, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com tweets. Carolina will send back a sixth-round pick in 2021, as well as second- and fourth-round picks in 2022.
The Panthers had made no secret of their desire to upgrade at quarterback, and while Darnold is not coming off a particularly impressive season, he is a former top-three pick on a rookie contract. Although a previous report suggested the Panthers were not particularly high on Darnold, they had discussed him for weeks with the Jets, Schefter adds (via Twitter).
This trade also essentially confirms Jets GM Joe Douglas made his quarterback decision. The Jets have been linked to BYU quarterback Zach Wilson with their No. 2 overall pick. While some late rumblings suggested Darnold had support in the building for a fourth season, to either compete with Wilson or induce a trade-down maneuver, the Jets have been expected to draft Wilson and start over for a bit now. Douglas has now traded predecessor Mike Maccagnan‘s final two first-round picks — Darnold and Jamal Adams — over the past two years.
“He is a tough-minded, talented football player whose NFL story has not been written yet,” Douglas said of Darnold. “While all these things are true, this move is in the short- and long-term best interests for both this team and him.”
Carolina had been the team most closely linked to Deshaun Watson this offseason. Owner David Tepper‘s desire to acquire the superstar Texans quarterback became known several weeks ago. Darnold is obviously well off the Watson tier, but the latter’s sudden off-field issues have quieted his trade market. The Jets were also linked to a potential Watson push. Both teams moving on signals the Pro Bowl quarterback may well be in Houston next season.
Darnold is still just 23 but has yet to deliver on the hype he carried in 2018. The Browns were connected to the USC prospect three years ago, but they opted for Baker Mayfield at No. 1 instead. Fixated on Saquon Barkley, the Giants refused to entertain trade offers that could have sent Darnold elsewhere. His New York stay produced occasional flashes, but the situation bottomed out in 2020. Darnold ranked last in QBR, among qualified passers, during his second season with Adam Gase. Darnold has yet to eclipse 20 touchdown passes in a season and has also missed at least three games in each of his three seasons.
The once-coveted prospect will be tabbed to replace Teddy Bridgewater, whose QBR figure ranked 17th last season. But Bridgewater has established a fairly low ceiling. Illustrated by this trade package, Darnold’s still remains relatively uncertain. Darnold will reunite with Robby Anderson in Charlotte, with Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore further illustrating the skill-position upgrade the maligned quarterback will receive. Darnold going from Gase to fast-rising OC Joe Brady represents intrigue as well.
The three-year veteran is due to count $9.7MM against the Panthers’ cap in 2021, but should Carolina pick up Darnold’s fifth-year option, his 2022 price would jump to $18.9MM. The Panthers will be forced to eat a chunk of dead money if they trade or release Bridgewater, who is attached to a three-year, $63MM contract. But Tepper authorized a long-term rebuild, giving Matt Rhule a seven-year contract. It would not surprise if the team picked up Darnold’s option for evaluation purposes. Considering Carolina’s interest in Watson, it would also not surprise if the Panthers made this move as a stopgap measure while Watson’s legal situation unfolds.
Holding the No. 8 overall pick, the Panthers can now focus on helping their Darnold-centered roster. This draft will almost certainly begin with three quarterback picks for just the third time ever. The Jaguars, Jets and 49ers’ choices will leave the rest of the QB-seeking crowd with just two of the much-hyped top five quarterback prospects for whom to vie.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.