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‘Strong chance’ Sam Darnold is Carolina Panthers starting quarterback in 2022

Matt Johnson
Sam Darnold, Carolina Panthers
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers entered the offseason looking to upgrade over starting quarterback Sam Darnold. When Week 1 rolls around, expect Darnold to be on the field and leading this same team once again.

Carolina didn’t hide its intentions this offseason. A year-long pursuit of Deshaun Watson intensified and the organization became one of the four finalists. The Panthers focused their entire pursuit on Watson after Russell Wilson expressed no interest in the franchise. In the end, Carolina finished in fourth place for Watson.

There is still time for the organization to make a change at quarterback. Jimmy Garoppolo is available and Baker Mayfield will be traded this month. The 2022 NFL Draft also offers an opportunity to bring in a young signal-caller. While all of those options exist, only one outcome is viewed as likely.

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Jonathan Alexander of The Charlotte Observer wrote that there is now “a strong chance” Darnold will be the Panthers’ starting quarterback in Week 1.

It would be a massive disappointment for a fan base that wanted to see someone better under center at the start of the 2022 NFL season. Unfortunately for Panthers fans and owner David Tepper, it’s a result that should have been expected.

Why the Panthers are stuck with Sam Darnold

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Panthers are still paying the price for the trade made in April 2021. Carolina traded its 2021 sixth-round pick along with second- and fourth-round picks in 2022 to the New York Jets for Darnold. Without even seeing him play a game for his new team, the Panthers exercised his guaranteed fifth-year option.

  • Sam Darnold contract: $18.858 million guaranteed in 2022

Things looked promising early. Across his first three starts, a 3-0 stretch, Darnold posted a 99.0 passer rating with 888 passing yards and he scored six total touchdowns. It seemed like head coach Matt Rhule might finally have a quarterback he could rely on.

Things quickly unraveled. Between issues on the offensive line and Christian McCaffrey’s injury, Darnold had to take on more. In the next six games, a 1-5 stretch, he most resembled the quarterback New York was happy to move on from.

  • Sam Darnold stats (Week 4-9): 4-10 TD-INT, 16 sacks, 54.77% completion rate, 56.5 QB rating

He missed the next four games due to a shoulder injury and returned from the injured reserve late in the year. The Panthers saw enough, recommitting to their pursuit of an upgrade this offseason.

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Unfortunately for Carolina, trades for Darnold and cornerback C.J. Henderson proved costly. The Panthers don’t have second- or third-round picks in this year’s NFL Draft. It kept them out of the running for Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan and likely rules out a Garoppolo trade with the San Francisco 49ers.

Even the 6th pick in the upcoming NFL Draft presents issues. Malik Willis offers the highest upside of any passer in this class, but he isn’t pro-ready and his development will be hindered if he is forced to start immediately. Kenny Pickett is an option, but there is a limited upside and he’s not a top-20 talent in the draft class.

Already committed to Darnold’s 2022 salary, the Panthers are left in a bad situation. Of course, it’s one they created and a big reason why Rhule will be on the hot seat this season.