Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule seems sold that Sam Darnold can be the franchise’s quarterback of the future, which is why the team passed on a first-round signal-caller in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Rhule recently explained in an interview on The Rich Eisen Show that it wasn’t so much that he disliked what prospects like Ohio State’s Justin Fields or Alabama’s Mac Jones brought to the gridiron, but that Darnold presents a lot of promise, per NFL.com’s Grant Gordon:
“I just believe in Sam, I believe that he deserves the opportunity to go out and play with us. I think those other young quarterbacks are gonna be fantastic players, but the hit rate on first-round quarterbacks isn’t real, real high, and to have a chance to get Jaycee Horn and have Sam Darnold, we just kind of felt like, ‘Hey this is two for one.’ Now, we just have to make sure Sam’s a great player for us.”Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule on Sam Darnold
Instead of bringing in Fields or Jones with the eighth overall pick, Carolina opted to draft South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn, who should be a strong player. However, if Fields or Jones hit big in Chicago or New England respectively, and Darnold fails in Charlotte, that won’t be a great look.
Darnold has never been lacking for talent. He was the third overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft by the New York Jets, but they went through multiple front office and head coaching changes during his brief tenure there. As a result, Darnold wasn’t surrounded by a great support system or personnel, and ultimately flopped with Gang Green.
After trading a fair amount to acquire Darnold, including a 2022 second-round pick, the Panthers are locked into him for at least this coming season. Beyond that, it’s a bit of a wait-and-see approach.
Panthers are in a great situation with Sam Darnold
Carolina knows that even after picking up Darnold’s fifth-year option on his rookie contract, he’ll still count less than $19 million against the 2022 salary cap.
If he performs well this year, then great, he’s an absolute bargain for the subsequent season. Should Darnold fail to live up to expectations, he can get the benefit of the doubt and one more shot to prove himself for the Panthers at a bargain cost compared to the high-end QB market.
Other scenarios include Darnold getting traded away again to a team that believes in his upside, or remaining on the roster while Carolina pursues an upgrade either via trade or in the 2022 draft.
The hope is that it doesn’t come to that. Playing for a brilliant offensive mind in Panthers play-caller Joe Brady is going to help Darnold a lot, as is a reunion with former Jets receiver Robby Anderson. Darnold also has wideout DJ Moore and all-world tailback Christian McCaffrey at his disposal, among others. Everything’s lined up for Darnold to finally fulfill his potential.
If Sam Darnold fails, Panthers must acquire superstar QB
That rosy forecast aside, there is a decent chance that Darnold gets overwhelmed in the NFC South by stout defenses in Tampa Bay and New Orleans, continues making ill-advised throws and bad decisions and can’t shake the turnover-inducing habits that followed him from USC to the NFL.
In this instance, it’s imperative for Carolina to attack the quarterback spot while many of its key players are still under rookie contracts.
Panthers owner David Tepper is, by all accounts, adamant about spending whatever is necessary to land a franchise quarterback, and the Panthers have a strong, promising young roster that could stay mostly intact if they simply give up lots of draft capital. Prior to the Deshaun Watson scandal, Carolina was reportedly ready to go all-in for him, and still could someday, depending how the allegations surrounding the Houston Texans star pan out.
Setting aside Watson for the time being, consider that Aaron Rodgers is deeply disgruntled in Green Bay and Russell Wilson all but demanded a trade out of Seattle earlier this offseason. Perhaps the Panthers could swing a blockbuster deal with the Packers or Seahawks.
An in-conference trade is trickier to pull off most times, yet if Carolina offers a king’s ransom, what’s the real incentive to turn it down? It’s at least not an in-division trade.
Rodgers would be more of a short-term fix, whereas Wilson could have an epic second act in Charlotte. The Panthers may also find an unforeseen answer in the 2022 rookie class, or could maybe pull off a trade for someone like Jimmy Garoppolo.
What’s great about Darnold is, no matter how he pans out, Carolina has excellent financial flexibility, which is why Rhule can afford to come out and give him such a ringing endorsement at this stage of the game.