High Expectations Rest on Sam Darnold and the Carolina Panthers

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The second year of the Matt Rhule era with the Carolina Panthers sees the arrival of its second quarterback in as many years, New York Jets castoff Sam Darnold. Ideally, it’s going to be a fresh start for the fourth-year quarterback, a chance for Darnold to prove with a new team around him why he had gone No. 3 overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. 

Or is it? 

The Carolina Panthers have an abundance of talent at wide receiver and running back and the defense isn’t too shabby either, but the sum total of their parts doesn’t necessarily mean that Darnold is going to swoop in and transform himself into a bona fide starting quarterback. His three underwhelming seasons in New York say otherwise. 

The question hinges on whether Darnold was a victim of a dysfunctional Jets team under former head coach Adam Gase or  whether, simply put, he just doesn’t have what it takes to succeed in the NFL. Obviously, the Panthers organization is banking on the former being the case. 

If they’ve gotten it wrong though, there will be tough questions to answer and maybe heads will roll. In particular, as those that keep up with NCAA odds, will be keenly aware of several standout signal callers in the 2021 NFL draft. And the way the draft unfolded and played right into their hands, gifting the Panthers with an unexpected chance to grab one of those top-rated quarterbacks on the board, was simply unbelievable.

But the Panthers didn’t pull the trigger. That’s a decision that hangs in the balance of the 2021 NFL season and, in turn, over Darnold’s head, threatening to rain on his parade at a moment’s notice should anything go wrong in his second chance in the NFL.

Matt Rhule’s first full season with the Panthers was nothing to write home about. The Panthers finished 5-11-0 SU and third in the NFC South with Teddy Bridgewater as the starter. Although it was an atypical season, marred by the coronavirus pandemic that disrupted normal practice and brought about a slew of restrictions, the Panthers had seen enough of Bridgewater to comfortably move on. Bridgewater is a good quarterback but he wasn’t exactly lighting it up in Carolina, which with what the Panthers have to offer simply wasn’t acceptable.

So, on April 5th, the Panthers traded for Darnold in exchange for a 6th round pick in 2021 and 2nd and 4th round picks in 2022; the Panthers afterwards also picked up Darnold’s 5th-year-option for 2022.

For the Panthers  the stakes are high because Darnold represents a huge gamble on an embattled quarterback that nobody is really sure is the real deal anymore. Moreover, the significance of the gamble was compounded further after the Panthers chose not to pounce on an unforeseen opportunity to draft Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields, who was remarkably still available on the board when the Panthers were on the clock with the Nb.8 pick in the 2021 NFL draft.

If Darnold thought life was going to be easier down south, compared to the tough New York market where the media is fickle with its praise and brutal in its criticism, he’s in for a rude awakening. The simple fact that Carolina chose to stick with Darnold rather than bank on Fields adds an enormous amount of pressure on his shoulders. Darnold didn’t deal well with pressure in New York, so will he be able to deal with it in Carolina?

Moreover, Carolina’s decision now links Darnold and Fields forevermore – and if Darnold falters at any point in the season, all the while Fields flourishes in Chicago, you can bet Panthers fans will look back at the decision to pass on a potential future franchise quarterback as a big mistake.

This scenario is not unlike the manner in which Mitch Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes are linked by Chicago fans after the Bears selected Trubisky at No.3 instead of Mahomes. The Bears actually traded up to pick Trubisky! Fancy that.

Tale told, Mahomes fell down to No.10 in the 2017 NFL draft and the Kansas City Chiefs traded up to snatch him there. The rest is history, but…well, the long and short of it…Mahomes took the league by storm in 2018 (his first year as a starter) and a year later, he bestowed the Chiefs their first Super Bowl victory in 50 years. 

Understandably, Chicago fans were left wondering about what might have been; imagining how the Super Bowl parade could have been traversing the streets of their windy city; and contemplating which Chicago streets would the bus have merrily trundled along…

Chicago learned the lessons of 2017 the hard way. GM Ryan Pace, presented with a second chance to right the wrongs of the past, made no mistakes this time and traded up to draft Fields at No.11. 

The Carolina Panthers took CB Jaycee Horn at No.8…..

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