Amidst their desperation to find a new quarterback, the Panthers completed a trade Monday that brings former No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold to Carolina in exchange for a 2021 sixth round pick, a 2022 second round pick, and a 2022 fourth round pick. At first glance it’s the kind of deal worthy of ridicule. But is there something more to the trade than meets the eye?
The Panthers did a terrible job of hiding their desires to find a new quarterback. Publicly the team was touting the idea that Teddy Bridgewater was “their guy,” but with every quarterback move this offseason came news the Panthers were talking to teams as well. They were close to a deal for Matthew Stafford, until the Rams offered more. They were interested in Carson Wentz, until a deal was finalized with Indianapolis. The looming possibility of making a mammoth trade for Deshaun Watson was still being touted as recently as a month ago, but quickly silenced during wide-ranging sexual assault and harassment allegations.
This left Carolina in a weird spot. This is a team in desperate need of a quarterback to start implementing the offensive rebuild coach Matt Rhule and co. started a year ago, but it was increasingly looking like there wasn’t an option. The Panthers were faced with the reality that they might either need to reach for a second-tier quarterback in the draft, or trade the farm in hopes of moving up to get someone they liked. In the end this third choice presented itself, and it may have just protected the Panthers … from themselves.
Up to this point every possible QB scenario for Carolina was loathsome. Had they landed Stafford it would have been the peak of desperation, and an incongruous move for a team building around youth. Any scenario in the draft centered on moving up would have mortgaged the team’s future for years to come. Resigning themselves to start Bridgewater again in 2021 without competition was the equivalent of punting on the season.
The circuitous route Carolina took to trading for Sam Darnold is the kind of move that will either be worthy of the mockery it’s currently being met with, or wind up being genius — and there’s compelling reasons for both scenarios.
Darnold has shown flashes
The idea of Darnold being a “bust” is labored at best. The fact is, there have been plenty of games and moments where there have been flashes of the player people hoped he would be coming out of USC.
Look at Week 1 of the 2019 season, for example. Despite having few weapons, and facing a brutal Bills’ defense, Darnold pushed Buffalo to the wire, losing 17-16 in a game where he completed over 68 percent of his passes and finished with a 84.9 rating.
That same year, just a few weeks later, Darnold returned from his meme-worthy absence due to mononucleosis, and threw for over 300 yards against the Cowboys. Not only was this a breakout performance, but he completed over 70 percent of his passes and finished with a 113.8 rating.
There was inconsistency throughout the season to be sure, but Darnold still managed to throw for over 3,000 yards in 13 games. This was with an offensive line that allowed him to be sacked 33 times on the year.
There’s familiarity in Carolina
Trading for Darnold isn’t entirely out of left field for the Panthers, and there’s a common thread here: Wide receiver Robby Anderson. Anderson worked for two years with Darnold on the Jets before leaving for Carolina, and during his time in New York he was the young QB’s favorite target. Keep in mind that one of the biggest reasons Matt Rhule signed Anderson was familiarity, coaching the receiver at Temple.
So there’s a logical through line here where Rhule would have consulted with his 1,000 yard receiver about how it was to play with Darnold, and whether there’s potential there. It’s the kind of endorsement that could have been enough to push the Panthers to make a deal.
Always bank on Adam Gase’s ineptitude
Even if you’re not sold on Darnold the player, it’s impossible to deny that he entered the league in the worst situation of any rookie quarterback — because of Adam Gase. A man who will go down in NFL infamy for his inability as a coach, there’s already a clear litmus test of Gase being complete inept when it comes to evaluating and utilizing quarterbacks.
PFF grade with Adam Gase:
(‘19-’20) Sam Darnold – 58.8
(‘16-’18) Ryan Tannehill – 59.7
PFF Grade without:
(‘19-‘20) Tannehill – 92.4 (4th)
(‘21-) Darnold – pic.twitter.com/PeIA7nzlIL
— PFF (@PFF) April 5, 2021
Normally I’d say it’s unfair to pin all of a quarterback’s failings on a head coach, but I’ll gladly make an exception for Adam Gase. As PFF mentions above, Ryan Tannehill looked like he was destined to be a journeyman backup before being bounced out of the league until he left Miami, got away from Gase, and quickly became one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
Now, that’s a pretty unique situation, but if there’s ever a time to bet on a turnaround, this might be the one. We have a clear, analogous case of a Gase quarterback leaving for another team, and immediately becoming the player hoped they could after being regarded as a bust.
It’s not just the schemes Gase implemented that failed, but his utter inability to put talent around young quarterbacks. During his tenure in Miami the best receiver Tannehill had was Jarvis Landry, who was allowed to walk and replaced with … a 33-year-old Danny Amendola.
Similarly, Darnold’s best receiver during his time in New York was Robby Anderson, who was also allowed to walk in free agency and replaced with … a 33-year-old Chris Hogan.
Darnold has never had a better chance to show he belongs
The 23-year-old is getting so much more than a change of scenery. Not only is he being reunited with the best receiver he had on the Jets, but also another 1,000 yard receiver in D.J. Moore, Christian McCaffery at running back who can catch outlet passes, as well as David Moore and Dan Arnold, two big-play pass catchers signed in free agency.
Most importantly he’ll get to work with Joe Brady, the offensive coordinator who took Joe Burrow and turned him into a Heisman winner, and stellar rookie before he was lost to injury. Now, for the first time in his career, Darnold has an actual support structure around him that will allow him to show what he’s got.
Does this mean the Jets made a mistake by trading Darnold?
Hell no. Absolutely not. Buying into the idea Darnold is a legend in the making is a fun possibility, but the reality if that there’s nothing he showed in New York that justifies passing on a quarterback with the No. 2 pick. especially if there’s someone new coach Robert Saleh believes in. By all accounts that seems to be Zach Wilson, and the team is prepared to build around him.
In the end New York had to move on, whether Darnold was a victim or circumstance or not — and they managed to get some picks to boot. This will help with their rebuilding efforts moving forward.
And what about the Panthers?
The best part of this trade is that Carolina pivoted from the possibility of taking a major risk in the draft, to a minor one via trade. Even if Darnold is terrible, they didn’t give up much to take the risk. Carolina will find itself back in the top 10 again next year, this time with a better chance of landing a top quarterback.
For now though, they’re going to give Darnold a shot, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how it pans out.