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NFL Draft

Do Panthers Need To Find Another QB?

  • The Draft Network
  • October 25, 2021
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There was a time when it looked like Sam Darnold really could be the answer to the Carolina Panthers’ quarterback questions. But even after a 3-0 start, it was still hard to buy into the idea that he had completely turned his fortunes around in Carolina. He and the Panthers had only played the New York Jets, a Marshon Lattimore-less New Orleans Saints defense, and the Houston Texans. Four weeks and one benching later, it looks like we were right to be hesitant.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how Darnold’s early-season luster had begun to wear off after two straight games with multiple interceptions. A lot of it came down to his susceptibility to making bad decisions under pressure. We saw a lot of it in his days with the Jets: a struggling offensive line allowed too much of a leak in pass protection, and Darnold would start forcing throws under duress and even—seeming to see ghosts in the pocket—without that pressure. That isn’t a trend that has improved in the weeks since. The Panthers’ struggles to stifle their opponents’ pass rush continued Sunday, with the worst offense happening on the second play of the second quarter. New York’s defensive front managed to push the Carolina offensive line back into their own end zone—almost on top of Darnold—and forced the quarterback to commit an intentional grounding penalty for a Giants safety.

The former Jets quarterback entered Sunday’s contest with a 61% completion rate against standard pressure, second-worst among qualifying quarterbacks. On Sunday afternoon, he finished 9-of-18 with an interception in pressure situations, according to ESPN Stats & Info. To make matters worse, the interception he threw was inside the Giants’ 5-yard line. It wasn’t even under intense pressure either.

I truly could not tell you who he was targeting in that situation. The two players closest to the pass by far were Giants’ defenders James Bradberry and Logan Ryan. That interception—Darnold’s eighth of the year—extended his pick streak to four straight games, matching the longest such streak of his career.

It’s getting bad under center in Carolina. So bad, in fact, that Panthers head coach Matt Rhule tried to give the offense a change of pace by benching Darnold early in the fourth quarter. Backup quarterback P.J. Walker entered with his team down just 12 points, but Rhule had clearly seen enough from his starter. Walker, who led the XFL in passing yards and touchdowns in 2020 before its early demise, did not fare much better in his fifth NFL appearance. He finished 3-of-14 for 33 yards, along with a 13-yard run. When that is the performance from the guy that the head coach hoped to be “somewhat of a spark,” it’s not a good look for the quarterback situation.

Nevertheless, Rhule doubled down on his support of Darnold in postgame comments after having said on Thursday that he was “bought in” on the former Jet as his signal caller. Even so, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the rumored possibility that the Panthers may be looking elsewhere for a new quarterback—specifically the chance that Carolina could be one of the teams in pursuit of acquiring Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

As the Nov. 2 trade deadline approaches, talks surrounding a Watson trade have been heating up. The Miami Dolphins, in particular, are reportedly the closest to completing a trade for the Houston signal-caller, though the Texans are still listening to offers. On Sunday, The Athletic reported that the Panthers are expected to be involved in trade talks for Watson. 

Unlike other teams involved in the Watson sweepstakes, Carolina doesn’t have immediate draft capital stocked up. The Dolphins have two first-round picks in 2022, and the Philadelphia Eagles could have three if Carson Wentz stays on the field in Indianapolis. What the Panthers do have are an aggressive owner and general manager along with all their near-future first-round picks to work with. Houston’s asking price for Watson is high—like, three first-round picks high—but it could grow even higher this offseason if the uncertainty with his legal issues settles.

For the last four weeks, Darnold’s performance has continued to regress to the point of looking more like his Jets self. His bad throws, poor decision-making, and heavy share of the fault for the Panthers’ four-game skid have left Carolina without much choice besides looking for a change. Whether they make that change is up to their aggressive front office and its willingness to give up several future picks. With the trade deadline around the corner and offers for Watson already on the table, the clock is ticking.

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