The Carolina Panthers seemingly found their starting quarterback for the 2021 season, pulling off a trade with the New York Jets for Sam Darnold. While the former No. 3 pick will get a fresh start this year in Carolina, it seems his arrival doesn’t rule out a draft-day surprise.
It’s no secret that the Panthers coveted an upgrade over Teddy Bridgewater this spring. They offered the No. 8 pick in a trade package for Matthew Stafford that was rejected. Team owner David Tepper also made a strong push for a Deshaun Watson trade. The front office got aggressive with its pursuit, but sexual assault and harassment allegations against Watson derailed any hopes for a deal.
Carolina ultimately settled for Darnold, sending its 2022 second- and fourth-round picks along with a 2021 sixth-round selection for the 23-year-old quarterback. While Darnold is excited to suit up in this offense, the Panthers haven’t closed the door on drafting a quarterback for the future.
According to The Athletic’s Joseph Person, the Panthers are intrigued by Ohio State star Justin Fields. He is the only quarterback who is catching the club’s attention, with the front office reportedly not enthralled with Mac Jones or Trey Lance.
It’s possible this is posturing by Carolina’s general manager. This information could be a strategic leak used to sway another club to trade up with Carolina, increasing an offer for the No. 8 overall pick. The New England Patriots or Chicago Bears might view Fields as the second- or third-best quarterback in the 2021 draft class and be determined to land him.
On the other hand, the Panthers may genuinely like Fields’ fit in their offense and feel confident that his ceiling is higher than what Darnold offers.
Darnold is receiving the benefit of the doubt to this point in his NFL career. He showed flashes in his rookie season and seemed to take a step forward in 2019, but everything came crashing down this past year. However, much of that is excused because of the underwhelming supporting cast around him on the field and the presence of head coach Adam Gase.
Even when accounting for those factors, the numbers make it impossible to not question whether he can be a quality starter.
- Sam Darnold stats (2018-20): 13-25 record, 59.8% completion rate, 45-39 TD-INT ratio, 6.6 ypa and 78.6 passer rating
Those aren’t the kind of numbers that justify an $18.858 million salary. If Carolina exercises Darnold’s fifth-year option, a decision that must be made on or before May 3, that 2022 salary becomes fully guaranteed. It would be an overpay based on three years of film and would limit this club’s cap space.
Fields is a better prospect than Darnold was entering the NFL Draft. The knocks on his anticipation and ability to progress through reads are overblown. He is the most accurate quarterback in this year’s class, is more advanced than Lance and offers far better physical tools than Jones.
With Jones expected to land at No. 3 to the San Francisco 49ers, there’s a good chance Fields is available for Carolina. He offers the upside to be an outstanding quarterback, in the mold of a Dak Prescott. That’s the caliber of franchise quarterback the Panthers want.
Darnold could enter the summer as the Panthers’ starting quarterback, with Fields allowed to compete for the job. Given his talents, it likely wouldn’t be long before Fields took the field in this explosive offense.