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Why Did the Panthers Rush the Sam Darnold Trade?

Liam McKeone
Sam Darnold
Sam Darnold / Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
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It's official: the New York Jets are taking a quarterback with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and giving up on 2018 No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold. Adam Schefter broke the news on Monday afternoon that Darnold was heading to the Carolina in exchange for a 2021 sixth-round pick and a pair of 2022 picks, one second-rounder and one fourth-rounder.

On the surface, this makes sense for both sides. The Jets were not going to get much more than this compensation-wise given how bad Darnold has been at times over the last three seasons. Some of that can be attributed to a poor supporting cast/the curse of being coached by Adam Gase, but the tape doesn't lie. Darnold has talent but needs a lot of coaching to get there. He wasn't going to fetch anything more than a future second and some lower picks.

On Carolina's side, they've been looking to upgrade at quarterback all offseason. They were a strong dark horse candidate for Deshaun Watson before the lawsuits accusing the Texans star of sexual assault emerged. Rumors were abundant that Carolina was looking to trade up in this year's draft to land a signal-caller to pair with Matt Rhule and his six-year contract. The Niners beat them to the punch and sent three first-round picks to Miami to jump to the front of the line at No. 3. The Panthers weren't going to convince the Falcons to trade with them, and all the top prospects might be gone by pick No. 5 if Atlanta goes quarterback too. Darnold is a fine break-in-case-of-emergency option; they didn't sacrifice any substantial draft capital and get a chance to rehabilitate a former top-five pick. If he doesn't work out, he'll be a free agent in 2023 and the Panthers get another shot at QB musical chairs. If he does, then Darnold is the man in Carolina for the foreseeable future.

What is confusing is that the Panthers made this move right now. Anything can happen on draft night. Why didn't Carolina wait until then to make this deal? There is a chance, albeit a slim one, that Justin Fields or Trey Lance falls to the eighth overall pick. Darnold wasn't going anywhere. The Panthers, per Ian Rapoport, were the only team trying to acquire the USC product.

The Panthers had two options. They make the deal now to ensure another team doesn't swoop in and steal Darnold. Or they wait to see if a better option emerges, then make the deal and bank on the fact that Darnold's value league-wide is as low as it appeared. Choosing the latter would have kept Carolina's options open and probably resulted in a lesser trade package; if draft night rolled around and the Jets took Zach Wilson as expected, Darnold's value would have been even lower than it is right now. Instead, not only did Carolina choose the former, they also picked up Darnold's fifth-year option worth $20 million. They locked themselves into the Darnold experience for the next two years at a minimum.

It could work out! None of that is to say that Darnold will be awful and the Panthers will regret this trade for years to come. But waiting until draft night would have resulted in the same outcome and given the franchise flexibility in case the unexpected happens and the QB they want falls into their lap. Now, if Fields or Lance falls to eight, the Panthers have to consider taking them and making Darnold a sunk cost before he even stepped onto the field. They've backed themselves into a corner for no reason at all.

Carolina made their move for a quarterback of the future. It must be asked if they made the move too early.

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