Sam Darnold is nominally part of the Panthers’ quarterback competition, but after Carolina acquired Baker Mayfield earlier this month, Darnold seems unlikely to re-emerge as the club’s starter. In fact, some around the NFL believe Darnold will not be on the Panthers’ roster when Week 1 rolls around. If Carolina opts to move on from the former No. 3 overall pick, where could he land?
Will the Panthers trade Sam Darnold?
The Panthers got a sweetheart deal on Mayfield. They picked him up from the Browns in exchange for only a conditional 2024 fifth-round pick, and they’ll pay him just under $5 million in 2022. Mayfield has consistently posted better results than his 2018 draft mate Darnold, and he’s the clear favorite to become Carolina’s starting QB.
Does that mean Darnold could be on the move? Not if you listen to Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer.
“No,” Fitterer said last week. “No teams have called. We’re not looking to move Sam at all. I said this last week. Sam’s very much a part of this competition. I think this’ll be great. It’s great for Baker, it’s great for Sam. And I think they’re both gonna rise and play their best football they have.”
Still, informed speculation leads us to believe that Darnold could be available on the trade market. Despite his poor production at the NFL level, many teams could be interested in taking a chance on a signal-caller with his pedigree.
That chance would likely be relatively risk-free. Darnold wouldn’t be joining a new team as anything more than a backup, and he’d probably command less draft capital than Mayfield. Plus, the Panthers would likely need to eat a substantial portion of Darnold’s fully guaranteed $18.858 million salary.
With those caveats in mind, which teams might be interested in acquiring Darnold at a team-friendly cost?
The Seahawks are the only team in the league without an obvious NFL-caliber starting QB on their roster, and Darnold could conceivably beat out Drew Lock and Geno Smith. Pete Carroll’s mantra is all about competition, so why not add another face to the mix? If neither Darnold nor Lock proves themselves as a long-term option in 2022, Seattle could take an early-first-round swing as a quarterback in next year’s draft.
While the Texans want to figure out what they have in Davis Mills, there’s no guarantee the 2021 third-rounder will develop into a long-term starter. Houston won’t compete next season, so they have the freedom to take chances that other clubs may shy away from. Darnold wouldn’t imperil Mills’ opportunity to open the year as Houston’s starting QB, but the Texans would have the option to turn to Darnold if Mills struggled down the stretch.
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco will only make sense as a Darnold landing spot if the 49ers move on from Jimmy Garoppolo. Could Jimmy G. end up in Cleveland as a one-year Deshaun Watson solution? In that case, the 49ers would need a new backup quarterback — unless they want to roll with Nate Sudfeld, arguably the worst No. 2 option in the league. Darnold is athletic enough to run some semblance of the Trey Lance offense if San Francisco’s starter were to go down.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers selected Kyle Trask in the second round of the 2021 draft, but he was rarely mentioned as a reliable successor when Tom Brady initially announced his retirement. If Tampa Bay isn’t sold on Trask, they could bring in Darnold as an alternative. Carolina may not want to trade within the division, but they’ll probably take anything they can get for Darnold.
Los Angeles Rams
John Wolford started a playoff game for the Rams after the 2020 season, but he’s a rather uninspiring option as a backup to Matthew Stafford. Sean McVay has as good a chance as any coach in the NFL to harness Darnold’s talent. The move to LA would benefit the 25-year-old, too — performing well in a large media market in Stafford’s stead could help Darnold land a new deal elsewhere in 2023.