The Panthers gave the Jets a sixth-round pick in 2021, plus second- and fourth-round picks in 2022, because they felt Darnold would be an upgrade over Teddy Bridgewater. They took it one step further and exercised Darnold’s fifth-year option, guaranteeing him $18.8 million in 2022.
The Jets went 4-13 last season and are picking fourth in this year’s draft. The Panthers, who finished 5-12, pick sixth.
Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian summed it up best from the Panthers’ perspective, saying it put the team “between a rock and a hard place" in terms of moving forward. Their failed attempt to trade for Deshaun Watson, now with the Cleveland Browns, only magnifies that.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said the trade "worked out really well" for the Jets. While acknowledging Wilson "didn't have the best rookie season," McShay also noted, "This was a rebuild and everybody knew it."
The deal had many layers to it. On the one-year anniversary, ESPN NFL Nation reporters Rich Cimini (Jets) and David Newton (Panthers) look back and ahead:
One year later, how is the trade impacting the teams?
Newton: The simple answer is "everywhere."
The Panthers were so convinced Darnold wasn’t the answer going forward after he went 4-7 as the starter in 2021 that they were willing to give three first-round picks, at least one player and additional draft picks to Houston for Watson, who still faces 22 civil suits against him alleging sexual assault and inappropriate conduct during massage sessions. And, remember, Darnold wasn’t their top choice last year; they first made runs at Watson and Matthew Stafford.
That Darnold posted a 13-25 record with the Jets, and statistically ranked among the worst quarterbacks in the NFL for three years, should have been a red flag. One could argue this move showed a bit of arrogance on the part of coach Matt Rhule and former offensive coordinator Joe Brady, thinking they could reinvent Darnold. Instead, Brady was fired with five games left in the season, Rhule landed on the hot seat and Darnold again ranked among the league’s worst quarterbacks (29th in QBR in 2021).
Now, the Panthers are considering using the No. 6 pick in the 2021 draft on a quarterback class -- headlined by Liberty’s Malik Willis, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral -- that isn’t considered strong. Because of the Darnold trade, and the trade for cornerback CJ Henderson that cost them a third-rounder, the Panthers don't have a pick after the first round until the fourth. Also, Darnold’s cap hit forced them to creatively restructure deals to clear gobs of cap space -- first to make a run for Watson and then to rebuild the roster.
Despite all this, the team is left staring at this reality: Darnold may be their starter again.
"I think it's cumulative; they didn't do it on a one-year basis," ESPN front-office analyst Mike Tannenbaum said. "Darnold is still there, and he's their starting quarterback this season. There's value in that. He could turn out to be pretty good. With these young quarterbacks, you just don't know yet. ... The issue with Darnold for me is, can he cut down on the turnovers (52 interceptions, 29 fumbles in four NFL seasons)?"
Cimini: The trade will impact the Jets in a big way during the draft, especially on Day 2. Having that extra second-round pick (38th overall) provides tremendous flexibility.
They can trade it for a player (it was offered when they tried to acquire Tyreek Hill) or they can package it with their own second-rounder (35th) to jump up into the middle of the first round. Or they can stay put and take a player, who, in theory, should be an eventual starter.
The sixth-round pick that came last year from the Darnold deal was traded and parlayed into two players -- defensive back Jason Pinnock and defensive tackle Jonathan Marshall. Both project as 2022 backups. Overall, the Jets received excellent value for Darnold, an injury-prone quarterback coming off a bad year.
Now let's talk big picture.
Symbolically, the Wilson-for-Darnold swap dovetailed with the hiring of coach Robert Saleh -- a fresh, new start for everyone. But let's be clear: This wasn't an easy decision for the Jets. Sources said they went back and forth and could've easily stayed with Darnold, but the financial component -- the benefit of a rookie QB contract -- was a key reason for the trade. They also fell in love with Wilson during the scouting process and knew they could have him with the second pick. They became the first team in the common draft era (since 1967) to select two quarterbacks within the top three overall picks in a four-year span.
On the field, the Jets have yet to feel a positive impact from the trade. With Wilson at quarterback, they were a bottom-six team in passer rating for the fourth straight season. They expect big improvement from him. If Wilson doesn't pan out, they will be starting over in a couple of years with a new regime.
Where would they be now if they hadn't made the trade?
Newton: Bridgewater likely would have remained the starter in 2021 instead of being traded to the Denver Broncos, with the Panthers paying most of his salary. Carolina would have retained their second- and fourth-round picks in this year’s draft and not had Darnold’s $4.7 million cap hit last season and $18.9 million this season.
That could have afforded the team the luxury of selecting a left tackle at No. 6 in this year's draft and perhaps still getting a quarterback in the second round. That’s not to say Carolina won’t take a tackle at six, but the class is deep and the team appears to consider only the top two worthy of the sixth pick (Alabama’s Evan Neal and North Carolina State’s Ikem Ekwonu).
The Panthers would have had less trouble in 2022 trading Bridgewater, who would be entering the third year of his deal, than Darnold. No team appears interested in taking on Darnold’s cap number based on performance.
Carolina also may have used the eighth pick last season on a quarterback -- either Justin Fields (No. 11 to Chicago Bears) or Mac Jones (No. 15, New England Patriots) -- instead of cornerback Jaycee Horn. Either would have been rated ahead of any quarterback in this year’s class. Then they for sure get a left tackle this year or trade back because they already have their franchise quarterback.
The Panthers also wouldn’t have opened themselves to criticism for pursuing Watson.
And Rhule’s seat might not be quite so hot.
Cimini: The Jets probably would be in the same boat as the Panthers -- quarterback purgatory, looking to find a long-term answer in a draft that lacks a blue-chip passer. Watson? They did explore the possibility of trading for him last offseason, a source said, but that was before the sexual misconduct allegations became public. That pretty much removed him from the Jets' radar.
The fascinating part of the 'what if?' is what the roster would look like if they had kept Darnold. If they had used the second pick on a non-quarterback, the choice may have been wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, who enjoyed a spectacular rookie season with the Cincinnati Bengals. With Chase in the fold, there would've been no reason to pursue Hill. They'd be set at receiver without having to shell out a massive contract and trade compensation.
With Darnold, they could've opted to trade the second pick to a quarterback-needy team, bringing back multiple first-rounders. Think about it: The Philadelphia Eagles got three first-rounders for the third pick, dropping to 12th. That would've provided a major infusion of talent for the Jets. General manager Joe Douglas knew he was sitting on a gold mine, but he decided to focus on the quarterback position -- and he picked Wilson over Darnold. He can sleep better at night, knowing he has quarterback certainty in 2022. He hopes it goes well beyond '22.
"It depends on how well Zach Wilson turns out," Tannenbaum said. "[The draft compensation] is great, but to me it's all about can Zach Wilson take the next step? There were certainly reasons to be encouraged toward the end of the year."
Bottom line, was it a good trade?
Newton: No. This ranks as arguably the worst trade in franchise history. It’s worse than giving Washington two first-round picks for Sean Gilbert in 1998 after the defensive lineman sat out the 1997 season in a contract dispute. You can make a mistake on a defensive lineman and move forward. A mistake on a quarterback can set a franchise back for years, and this one apparently has done that, barring some miracle turnaround by Darnold. For all the ramifications in the previous two sections, this went from a potential win-win scenario for Carolina to a lose-lose.
Cimini: The Jets got excellent value for the player -- a player who continued to regress -- so it was a strong trade from a transactional standpoint. It will get better if one of the draft picks develops into a front-line player, and it will be an all-timer if Wilson becomes a star. Either way, the Douglas and Robert Saleh regime will be defined by the outcome of their quarterback swap.