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So many questions surround the future of the Carolina Panthers after their surprise trade to acquire Sam Darnold. Will they still take a quarterback if one is available at eight? Why didn’t they just trade up higher in the draft order? Is Darnold really their new franchise guy?
Let’s take a deeper dive into the situation at hand and how it will impact what the Panthers do in the 2021 NFL draft.
Why didn’t the Panthers just trade up in the draft?
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After seeing what San Francisco traded away (1st round picks in 2021, 2022, 2023, and 3rd round pick in 2021) to move up just nine spots in the draft order, it goes without saying that this year’s offseason carousel is a seller’s market. This is one of the best quarterback classes we have seen in recent memory and the demand is higher than ever. Realistically, the Panthers did not want to just sit back at eighth overall and settle with whatever guy falls to them - they wanted to go out and get their guy. However, the price tag and practicality of doing so did not make a whole lot of sense for a rebuilding organization like the Panthers. After the San Francisco trade the first three picks of the draft are essentially locked in, which would take three of the top five quarterbacks off the board. That leaves Atlanta (4th overall) and Cincinnati (5th overall) as the other two trade partners the Panthers could have struck a deal with. Realistically speaking, NFC South rival Atlanta most likely would never trade with Carolina – especially when they would be trading up to draft their franchise quarterback – and if they did they would get a king’s ransom in return. That leaves trading up with Cincinnati as the only feasible option on the table, but the chances of Atlanta taking another quarterback at fourth overall or the hefty price tag of trading up just three spots was too much. Team owner Dave Tepper and head coach Matt Rhule want long term success and they know that giving up two first rounders and some mid-round picks just to move up three spots is not the solution. Trading a future second and fourth rounder (along with a sixth rounder in 2021) for a potential franchise QB is more conducive to long-term success. Darnold is still young and offers tremendous upside if he can fix his issues.
What's the overall value of the trade?
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Both parties received fair compensation in this trade, but if things work out for Darnold in Carolina, the Panthers will have committed highway robbey. The thing that Panther fans need to realize is that if Darnold fails, Carolina can easily move on knowing that they didn’t sell the farm to acquire him. A second and fourth round pick will not put your organization behind the eight ball, but three first-rounders will. Also, this means that Teddy Bridgewater will likely be traded before the start of the season. His current value probably rests somewhere between a fourth and fifth rounder, so Carolina will likely be able to recoup the fourth round pick they lost acquiring Darnold. If he is able to turn things around in Carolina, Matt Rhule and Scott Fitterer will look like geniuses.
Why he failed in NY and how Darnold can succeed in Carolina
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You can go on forever with excuses as to why Sam Darnold flopped in New York. For starters his head coach, Adam Gase, was arguably one of the worst head coaches we have seen in the last 25 years. He had no idea how to run an offense, was clueless on formulating schemes that worked to the strengths of his players, and had a very poor transaction history with acquiring players. That leads to the next point; Darnold had little to no talent surrounding him in New York. Nearly every player on the Jets’ offense that saw action was a mediocre NFL player at best (with the exception of wide receiver Robby Anderson). Their offensive line was consistently one of the worst in football and Gase did nothing to improve it. Also, Darnold’s receiving corps was less than stellar and full of guys who were average athletes that could not separate at the stem of a route. Yes, he did have Anderson and Jamison Crowder at one point but they were both consistently hurt and missed a combined total of 21 games. It is extremely hard to get in rhythm with your main targets when they are consistently missing reps and even harder to produce when guys like Quincy Enunwa and Jermaine Kearse are your number one and two receivers on the field. However, through the mess that was the 2018-2020 New York Jets, Darnold did offer some incredible glimpses at what he could become if he is utilized in an offense that plays to his strengths. First and foremost, the arm talent to make any throw is there. He does not have generational arm talent by any means but Darnold has plus arm strength, accuracy to all levels of the field, and ability to throw on the run without sacrificing accuracy or strength. Darnold is also a quality athlete for his position and offers surprising mobility in the pocket to evade oncoming pass rushers – after all he did get plenty of practice in New York. Combining these traits with legitimate offensive weapons and a playcaller that knows how to use Darnold’s strengths could lead to a breakout for the young quarterback. Fortunately, Carolina has some serious playmakers on offense and one of the brightest young offensive minds in Joe Brady. It really feels like Darnold is set up for success in Carolina, he just has to want it. He will have a great coaching staff supporting him, one of the best running backs in the league, two excellent receivers that know how to create separation, and an average offensive line (but better than the Jets) that can potentially become great with an addition of a left tackle in the draft.
Darnold in comparison to this year’s rookie QB class
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As far as immediate impact goes, Darnold will probably provide about the same impact in year one as the top tier quarterbacks in this class. I am not by any means saying that Sam Darnold is better than Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, or Justin Fields, but Darnold has been in the NFL for three years now and has at least been exposed to the speed of pro defenses. There will be a learning curve with any rookie quarterback adjusting to new systems, play speed and mental processing so Darnold is a slight step ahead of them as far as immediate value goes. Do not sleep on Darnold’s potential in Carolina, either. Lawrence, Wilson, Fields, and Lance all have incredibly high ceilings and will likely be superstars at their position. But let’s not forget about Darnold’s sneaky good athleticism, arm talent, and mobility in the pocket. He is also just 23 years old and has very little “wear and tear” throughout his career. It is difficult to tell just how much potential Darnold really has since his past three seasons in New York are basically considered a wash. However, he has shown some incredible flash plays of what he could become if the Panthers come up with the right offense that fits his strengths. Surely it would have been nice to get a young, franchise quarterback in the draft that is a much “safer” pick than rolling the dice on Darnold. But Darnold is in a position where he might offer as much upside as Wilson, Fields, or Lance.
What does this mean for the Panthers at 8?
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By no means should we rule out the Panthers taking a quarterback at eight, especially if Justin Fields or Trey Lance falls into their lap. However, there are likely two scenarios in this situation for the Panthers. The first, and most likely, scenario would be to stay put at eight and take the best player available. Penei Sewell (Oregon OT), Kyle Pitts (Florida TE), Rashawn Slater (Northwestern OT), or Ja’Marr Chase (LSU WR) are all potential options that would provide immediate value and give Darnold an incredibly strong supporting cast. The other option would be to trade back into later half of the first round to recoup the draft capital lost in the Darnold trade and build for the future. If a quarterback is still on the board at eighth overall there will surely be teams like New England, Washington, and Pittsburgh calling make the jump up to grab their future signal caller. Coming from Seattle, an organization that seemingly trades back almost every year, Scott Fitterer could very well pull the trigger on a deal like this and add some more picks. [vertical-gallery id=635518]