Carolina Panthers QB search in 2022 may rely heavily on the 2018 class as the draft approaches

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – If you’re still trying to understand what new Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo meant Tuesday when he declared Sam Darnold his starting quarterback before backtracking -- "That wasn't something I should have said" -- maybe his 2018 interview with the New York Post will help.

McAdoo, who was in between jobs after being fired by the New York Giants at the time, rated the quarterback draft class for the newspaper. He had Wyoming’s Josh Allen No. 1, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson No. 2, Southern California’s Darnold No. 3, UCLA’s Josh Rosen No. 4, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph No. 5 and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield No. 6.

As we fast-forward to the 2022 class and where the Panthers are in their search for a franchise quarterback, his assessment was pretty spot on for a coach who prides himself on evaluating quarterbacks. Allen and Jackson clearly have been the most successful, and the others that McAdoo had issues -- some major -- have struggled.

As a reminder, Mayfield went No. 1 to the Cleveland Browns, Darnold No. 3 to the New York Jets, Allen No. 7 to the Buffalo Bills, Rosen 10th to the Arizona Cardinals, Jackson 32nd to the Baltimore Ravens and Rudolph 76th (third round) to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

So consider this when McAdoo says Darnold is his starter. And consider this among reports the Panthers are interested in trading for Mayfield after the draft as league sources have confirmed remains an option, depending on who Carolina takes at No. 6.

ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum, the general manager of the Miami Dolphins in 2018, is not sold at all on Carolina trading for Mayfield, who became expendable after the Browns traded for former Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

He shared some of McAdoo’s concerns about Mayfield four years ago.

“I’d take a good player at six and go draft and develop my own quarterback,’’ Tannebaum said of the Panthers.

That McAdoo later quantified his naming of Darnold as the starter with “the way it is in the building right now’’ and declined to comment on Mayfield or the 2022 quarterback class is worth paying close attention. Remember, Darnold and P.J. Walker are the only quarterbacks Carolina has under contract.

It’s also worth noting that McAdoo said he was a “big swing for the fences kind of guy’’ when it comes to what kind of quarterback he wants.

Allen and Jackson were big swings that paid off in Buffalo and Baltimore. Allen made the Pro Bowl in 2020 (and declined to be an alternate this year), and he has taken the Bills to the playoffs the past three years with a 34-15 record. Jackson was the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player and is a two-time Pro Bowl selection with a 37-12 record.

Mayfield (29-30), Darnold (17-32), Rosen (3-13) and Rudolph (5-4-1) are a combined 54-79-1. Rosen is a free agent that has been with four other teams since the Cardinals traded him to Miami because new coach Kliff Kingsbury made Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray the top pick in 2019.

So it raises the questions: Would Mayfield really be an upgrade over Darnold? Would the Panthers be better off swinging for the fence in this year’s class featuring Liberty’s Malik Willis, Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett and Mississippi’s Matt Corral as the top three options in next week's draft?

“I’m not comfortable talking about that right now,’’ McAdoo said.

In this time of smokescreens and posturing, you can’t blame him.

But McAdoo was comfortable in 2018. So perhaps these comments on each will help clarify how he felt about that class and why starting over with a rookie might make more sense than a Darnold-Mayfield battle.

McAdoo on Mayfield back then: “He’s got an edge to him, I like that. He’s gonna lead, they’re gonna follow him. I didn’t see a lot of pro-style football in his college tape. And if you’re short you have to be able to make up for it some way, somehow, and personality doesn’t do that. I didn’t think he was a great athlete. This guy is kinda like a pocket quarterback that is short and with small hands, that’s what I worry about.’’

Today: Mayfield still is short (6-foot-1) by quarterback standards and his hands haven’t grown. Is he an upgrade over Darnold? According to ESPN Stats & Information, some but not much. Mayfield had a 2021 Total QBR of 35.1, which ranked 27th in the NFL. Darnold was at 33.2, 29th. Both ranked near the bottom of the league in completion percentage, Mayfield 27th (60.5) and Darnold 28th (59.5). Each had 13 interceptions, tied for 19th. Mayfield’s biggest edge was in touchdown passes, 17 to Darnold’s nine. Fast-forward that to the 2022 class and what McAdoo said about small hands. The biggest concern over Pickett are his 8.5 inch hands, the third-smallest of any quarterback at the combine since 2003.

McAdoo on Darnold back then: “The kid the Jets drafted has a lot of magic in his game. ... I’d just have a hard time drafting a guy in the first round where you don’t necessarily like the way he throws. He can overcome it, guys have, but that’s something that’s a challenge for me.’’

Today: Darnold’s footwork has been a concern since the Panthers traded for him. Darnold has 52 interceptions to 54 touchdown passes in four seasons. But McAdoo noted Darnold still “has some magic in his game’’ and he’s seen “flashes he can be a good player.’’

Tannenbaum says it’s “apples to oranges’’ which is better. Like McAdoo, there were things he liked about Mayfield in 2018 in terms of “athleticism and competitiveness, arm strength.’’ He, too, was concerned about size and speed.

His concerns with Darnold in 2018 were turnovers, and that hasn’t changed.

Tannenbaum sees the 2022 class much like 2018 in that it’s “pot luck’’ because each has flaws.

McAdoo agreed, saying each has their “intricacies.’’ Beyond that, he’s not declaring anything.

“You’ve got all these different flavors out there,’’ he said. “It’s just what are you looking for.’’