When the Panthers traded for quarterback Sam Darnold, a report emerged that they would pick up his 2022 option, at $18.858 million. They haven’t. On Friday, G.M. Scott Fitterer said they would address the issue of fifth-year options after the draft, and that they have a “strong plan” in place for Darnold.
It’s hard to imagine this meaning anything other than the Panthers are being coy because they can, and that they’ll eventually pick up the Darnold option and give him the same one-year test run that they gave to Teddy Bridgewater. After all, they invested a sixth-round pick in 2021 and second- and fourth-round picks in 2022 to get Darnold from the Jets.
But what if Trey Lance or Justin Fields or Mac Jones manage to sneak through to No. 8? Owner David Tepper wants a franchise quarterback. And Tepper is willing to sink cash and/or draft picks into the effort to find out.
Tepper built his billions by taking plenty of calculated risks. What if Tepper balanced the cost of trading up against the cost of creating protection against being leapfrogged, if one of the top quarterbacks trickles past the No. 6 spot? Without Darnold in Carolina, the Lions at No. 7 would be the prime spot for a team that wants to keep the Panthers from taking whichever top quarterback may remain. With Darnold in Carolina, the Broncos at No. 9 (for example) will feel far less compelled to jump the Panthers.
So instead of incurring the expense of trading up, what if the Panthers opted for the cheaper option of trading for Darnold and in turn creating the impression that they’re not all in for a quarterback? Then, if they get Lance or Fields or Jones at No. 8, they can do what the Cardinals did two years ago, after picking Kyler Murray with the first overall selection — trade Darnold elsewhere, with his new team having the flexibility to decide whether to pick up the option for 2022.
Candidates for a pre-May 3 Darnold trade, based on how the board falls, could be the Patriots, the Steelers (who need a successor to Ben Roethlisberger), the Texans (depending on the Deshaun Watson situation), the Eagles (with them, who knows?), Washington, the Bears, and maybe even the Seahawks (depending on the still-simmering Russell Wilson situation).
The chances of something like that happening are slim. But they’d be even smaller if the Panthers were opting not to create a potential mystery about their plans for Darnold.