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Carolina Panthers OC Ben McAdoo says QB Sam Darnold is the team's starter

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- New Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo emphatically said "yes" on Tuesday when asked whether Sam Darnold was his starting quarterback and added that the third pick of the 2018 draft was one reason he took this job.

Seconds later, the former New York Giants head coach tempered his yes by adding that coach Matt Rhule has a say over the decision but that "the way it is in the building right now, Sam is our starting quarterback."

Darnold and P.J. Walker are the only quarterbacks under contract for 2022, and the Panthers are vetting quarterbacks as candidates for the No. 6 pick in the draft.

"One of the things I've been working on is being better talking to you people [media], so announcing the starting quarterback here I just put my foot in my mouth," said McAdoo, who was fired by the Giants after the 2017 season.

"That wasn't something I should have said."

But McAdoo has liked parts of Darnold's game since the New York Jets drafted him No. 3 out of USC. He told the New York Post in 2018 that Darnold had a "lot of magic in his game," although he wondered aloud whether Darnold ever would be the franchise-saver the Jets needed him to be.

At the time, he couldn't get past the flaws in Darnold's throwing mechanics and ball security.

"I think he's special," McAdoo told the Post. "He's obviously a talented guy, he can make plays with his feet. 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. I'm gonna be looking at that, trying to fix it, because it's a fundamental flaw, and I believe in the fundamentals. The quarterback, his No. 1 job is to pass the football. If I don't like the way he throws the ball, I have a hard time picking him, right?"

But in a sense McAdoo picked Darnold when choosing to come to Carolina after spending last season as a consultant for the Dallas Cowboys.

"Sam does have some magic in his game," McAdoo said in his first interview since being hired on Jan. 24. "He's got some athleticism to him. I'm excited to work with Sam. We've been working the last few days here to get up to speed on offense, and he's shown flashes of being a good player in this league."

That doesn't mean the Panthers are more likely to take a left tackle than a quarterback at No. 6. They've spent the past few months evaluating quarterbacks and used seven of their 30 official visits on the position. The Panthers have had visits with -- Liberty's Malik Willis, Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett, Ole Miss' Matt Corral, Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder, North Carolina's Sam Howell, Western Kentucky's Bailey Zappe and Nevada's Carson Strong.

Willis, Pickett and Corral, according to draft analysts, are the most likely to go in the first round, with Pickett considered best prepared to be a Day 1 starter in the NFL.

McAdoo doesn't put a lot of stock in being game ready.

"I'm a big 'swing for the fences' kind of guy," he said. "So just because you're ready doesn't mean you're going to be the best. But ready does factor in some scenarios. Experience obviously helps. What type of system you played in may help some guys over others.

"But at the end of the day, you have to pick a player that you're going to be happy with at that position, hopefully for the next decade."

McAdoo inherited two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning with the Giants and helped him have two of his better seasons toward the end of his career. He also was fired one week after benching Manning, ending the quarterback's string of 210 consecutive starts.

Now he inherits Darnold, a quarterback the Panthers had so many questions about after he went 4-7 last season that they were willing to offer the Houston Texans three first-round draft picks, players and other draft picks for Deshaun Watson.

Shortly after Watson was traded to the Cleveland Browns, Carolina general manager Scott Fitterer said Darnold was "in the lead" for a job he declared "open" after the season.

McAdoo appears open to Darnold being his starter despite reports the Panthers are interested in trading for Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. League sources told ESPN that the team simply has been doing due diligence on the position and that if such a trade occurred, it would be after the draft.

McAdoo said in the 2018 Post article that Mayfield had an "edge" about him but that he didn't see "a lot of pro-style football in his tape."

McAdoo declined to talk about Mayfield on Tuesday.

"I'd love to comment on your question, but this isn't my first rodeo," McAdoo said. "I'm going to keep the comments to players on our roster right now."