Rare does the trade of an NFL starting quarterback elicit a yawn, which tells you everything you need to know about the dissolving relationship between the New York Jets and Sam Darnold. Jets’ brass could hardly have been more noncommittal about Darnold in their public comments since the season ended and Robert Saleh was hired as the head coach. When the general manager says he will take phone calls about a player, well, it’s only a matter of time until the phone calls lead to something. The only real question — as Zach Wilson excelled at his pro day and the Jets didn’t endorse Darnold — was where the former No. 3 overall pick would land. With the trade to the Carolina Panthers on Monday, both Darnold and the Jets get a fresh start. Given the year everybody has just been through, it’s hard to argue with starting over. There is plenty to break down about this deal.
Sam Darnold: Is it too harsh to say he’s the biggest winner because he gets away from the Jets? Well, it’s true. Darnold never got a real chance at success in New York, considering he arrived during an exceptionally dysfunctional and unstable period. In his three seasons, the roster was among the worst in the league, and the coaching was substandard, particularly in the last two seasons when Adam Gase was in charge. Darnold also had an incredible amount of bad injury luck, missing time for, among other things, an injured shoulder and mononucleosis. Two head coaches and one general manager were fired during his three-year tenure. Now he gets to reset his career in Carolina, which will reportedly pick up his fifth-year option, signaling that the organization sees him as the starter. He will be coached by Matt Rhule and Joe Brady and will have better weapons in D.J. Moore, Christian McCaffrey and familiar face Robby Anderson. For Darnold, there won’t be anymore excuses if the results don’t pick up and if his tendency to throw maddening interceptions doesn’t end, but for a quarterback with a career completion percentage under 60 percent, this is about as good a landing spot as one could hope for. Yes, three seasons is a pretty good sample size to make a judgment on a player, but important note: Darnold will be just 24 years old when the season starts.
Carolina Panthers: On paper, this is an incremental upgrade for the Panthers. But they didn’t give up much — second- and fourth-rounders in 2022 and a sixth-rounder this year — for a quarterback who talent evaluators around the league feel still has significant upside that was untapped in New York. It was clear by the end of the season the Panthers did not view Teddy Bridgewater as the long-term answer, and with the eighth overall pick, the Panthers were out of range for the best of the quarterback draft class. The Panthers clearly believe their coaching can do more with Darnold than the Jets’ did — check Brady’s work with Joe Burrow at LSU — and have to be thinking of a Ryan Tannehill-like second act for Darnold.
Teddy Bridgewater: His time in Carolina is likely going to end, and he may have to settle for a backup job wherever he lands next; though, Panthers GM Scott Fitterer did not rule out Bridgewater remaining on the roster with Darnold. Bridgewater wasn’t terrible last season — he accounted for 20 total touchdowns — and he could be a fit for a team that needs competition at quarterback. (Hello, Denver?) We will never stop wondering what might have been had he not suffered that catastrophic injury earlier in his career in Minnesota.
Deshaun Watson: When it seemed possible he was going to be traded by the Texans, Carolina appeared to be very interested in Watson. Now, with his future very much in doubt amid an avalanche of sexual misconduct allegations and lawsuits, and quarterback-less teams filling their spots, it is obvious that Watson won’t be traded this offseason. Frankly, he has much bigger problems to worry about right now.
The Jets: On the one hand, turning a player you moved up to draft third overall just three years ago into three non-first round picks could provoke a cynical cry of “Same Old Jets” from a weary fan base. On the other, that’s a sunk cost and the Jets’ new braintrust now gets to work with a clean slate. And considering everybody in the league knew the Jets had to move Darnold, the front office did the best it could in compensation.
But let’s be clear: The Jets better be right about Zach Wilson. This will be the defining decision of Joe Douglas’s era as Jets general manager, and he’ll be trading in a lottery ticket for Wilson if he indeed selects the BYU passer at No. 2 overall. If the Jets had believed Darnold was a viable quarterback, they could have traded back for a boatload of picks, and built around Darnold. Alas, that was not the choice, so now Wilson is presumed to become the latest in a long line of Jets saviors (see, recently: Chad Pennington, Mark Sanchez, Darnold). The Jets can only hope that the talent Douglas has begun to put on this roster will give Wilson a much better opportunity for success. Still, there is always risk with a rookie quarterback — nobody thought Darnold would be gone in three years when he was selected — so the Jets are out on the high wire again.
On the bright side, they reset the financial clock on the quarterback position — that’s big — and at least they didn’t give Darnold an extension before they soured on him, the way the Rams (Jared Goff) and Eagles (Carson Wentz) did. On the not-so-bright side: Was it really worth it to win those two meaningless games last season and blow the chance to draft Trevor Lawrence?
The bottom line for the Jets is the same as it is for every other team engaged in this offseason’s frantic quarterback machinations. If you don’t think you have the guy, you have to do everything you can to get the guy. The Jets think they just did. Their future — and many jobs — depend on them being right.
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