The Carolina Panthers took an aggressive approach to upgrading at quarterback this offseason, before settling on the Sam Darnold trade. While many have assumed that would be it for Carolina, it appears the front office might not be done improving upon the position.
Carolina boasts a strong supporting cast to help a young quarterback thrive. Play-caller Joe Brady is one of the NFL’s brightest minds and is a future head coach. In terms of skill positions, the offense boasts D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson and Christian McCaffrey. But the Panthers’ ceiling on offense was limited in 2020 by Teddy Bridgewater, leading to the organization’s pursuit of an upgrade.
The Panthers packaged the No. 8 pick in an offer for Matthew Stafford, but the Detroit Lions landed two first-round picks from the Los Angeles Rams. David Tepper, Carolina’s owner, pushed for a Deshaun Watson trade and the front office planned to make a strong offer, but sexual assault and harassment allegations against Watson derailed any hopes for a deal.
Carolina ultimately traded its 2022 second- and fourth-round picks, along with its sixth-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, for Darnold. While there is confidence he can rebound in a new environment, it seems this team hasn’t closed the door on drafting his replacement.
ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported Sunday on SportsCenter that the Panthers will consider drafting Ohio State star Justin Fields if he slides to their pick, believing an opportunity to land a talented, young quarterback on a rookie contract is too valuable to pass up.
Some in the NFL believe the NFL draft rumors hinting at Carolina’s interest in Fields is overblown. Instead, rival clubs think it’s being done in an effort to increase the trade value of the No. 8 pick and thus compel another general manager to pay a higher cost in a trade for Fields.
What will the Carolina Panthers do in the draft?
Unsurprisingly, Carolina is interested in trading down. Every team with a top-10 pick, outside of the first three locked into quarterbacks, is open to the idea of moving down the draft board. This is a deep draft class, especially on the offensive side, and quarterback-needy teams are often willing to overpay to land their potential franchise star.
If a team like the New England Patriots (No. 15) or Chicago Bears (No. 20) is willing to trade multiple first-round picks to come and get Fields, it would be wise for Carolina to listen. Darnold is the former No. 3 overall pick and there’s clear confidence within the organization that a better supporting cast will help him become the player many thought he could be.
There are also legitimate reasons to believe the Panthers would be better off drafting Fields. He finished the 2020 college football season viewed as the second-best player in the 2021 NFL Draft class, a potential franchise quarterback. But the nitpicking then took over, just like we saw with Justin Herbert this time last year.
For a short time, anonymous team officials questioned Fields’ work ethic and determination. Those rumors were eventually walked back, with Ohio State’s coaches and many who watched Fields develop, praising his commitment to the game and his passion for football. Fields’ ability to progress through his reads also came into question, but those concerns are overblown.
Darnold is just three years into his rookie contract, but the Panthers don’t have to make the final two years of the deal fully guaranteed. If Carolina exercised the fifth-year team option, an $18.9 million salary in 2022, it would be a huge commitment for a quarterback with a sub-60% completion rate through three seasons.
Fields will be playing on a much better contract, offers more physical tools and could be a draft-day steal if he falls to the 8th pick. Ultimately, this will all come down to whether or not the Panthers are willing to pull the trigger after the Darnold trade.