How will Sam Darnold’s time with the Carolina Panthers be remembered?

(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports) Sam Darnold
(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports) Sam Darnold /

Sam Darnold has reportedly joined the San Francisco 49ers, but how will the quarterback’s time with the Carolina Panthers be remembered?

When the Carolina Panthers made their bold move up to No. 1 overall in the 2023 NFL Draft, the writing was firmly on the wall for Sam Darnold. Although those in power will likely bring in a veteran bridge option or backup mentor in the coming days, a new regime was not going to hitch their wagon to the former first-round pick in pursuit of immediate progression.

Darnold was a marquee trade addition in 2021. Something that cost the Panthers a high-end second-round selection in addition to fourth and sixth-rounders for good measure.

This was done after Darnold reportedly caught defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s eye when watching film. The USC product didn’t get off to the best start with the New York Jets, but Matt Rhule was willing to bet this was the environment rather than his overall talent.

Carolina Panthers hitched their wagon to the wrong QB in 2021

Not only this, but the Panthers felt so confident in Darnold that they triggered his fifth-year option with a fully guaranteed $18.89 million attached. As it turned out, this was another fatal mistake.

It also left them looking at Justin Fields differently. Even though the signal-caller was there for the taking at No. 8 overall before they went with cornerback Jaycee Horn out of South Carolina.

Darnold was unable to maximize another starting chance behind a poor offensive line. The mistakes that riddled his time in New York came with him to Carolina and it was evident from early on that this was never going to work out.

The Panthers traded for Baker Mayfield last summer, but they didn’t give up on Darnold. However, after losing the quarterback battle with his fellow top-five pick in 2018, a season on the sidelines beckoned and that’s without the high ankle sprain he suffered during the preseason.

Mayfield fluffed his lines in a big way, which was the last straw for team owner David Tepper regarding the Rhule era. In fairness to Darnold, he performed much better when installed into the lineup under Steve Wilks, but the signal-caller folded when needed most and something that all but confirmed his departure in free agency.

Darnold wasn’t looking for alternative employment long. The player reportedly agreed to a one-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers, which is a sensational fit back in the California sunshine.

There is a chance Darnold starts early in 2023 depending on the health of Brock Purdy and Trey Lance. The presence of good friend Christian McCaffrey will smooth his transition and there’s no doubt John Lynch sought the counsel of Wilks – San Francisco’s new defensive coordinator – before making this move.

While there were mitigating factors beyond his control, Darnold just didn’t have the skills to take Carolina where they wanted to go. The trade will go down as one of the worst in franchise history, which became a constant source of personnel mismanagement throughout Rhule’s disastrous reign of terror.

Landing in San Francisco is the best-case scenario for Darnold. And at 26 years old, there is still time to turn things around in the more structured, quarterback-friendly system implemented by Kyle Shanahan.

However, this does not detract from how disappointing his overall production was in Carolina. Darnold is a stand-up guy and a great teammate, so all fans can do is wish him well and look forward to a potentially prosperous new era with a franchise prospect from the college ranks.

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