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Jets trade Sam Darnold to Panthers for three draft picks

Sam Darnold's days as the hopeful future of the New York Jets franchise have come to a conclusion.

The 23-year-old former No. 3 overall pick will now take on the hopes of the Carolina Panthers' organization going forward.

Darnold has been traded from the Jets to the Panthers in exchange for a 2021 NFL Draft sixth-round pick (No. 226) plus second- and fourth-round selections in the 2022 draft, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Monday afternoon. The Panthers soon thereafter confirmed the acquisition of Darnold.

The Panthers, who still have 2020 starter Teddy Bridgewater on the roster, were the sole suitor for Darnold and had been strong suitors for Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, but had transitioned to Darnold, Rapoport added. Darnold now takes the starting reins for the Panthers, while Carolina will look to trade Bridgewater or adjust his contract, Rapoport reported. Bridgewater is on the second year of a three-year, $63 million contract signed last offseason.

"I just think in this offense with [offensive coordinator] Joe Brady, with [head coach] Matt Rhule, the weapons that we have around him, that he can take that next step with us," Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said Monday. "Just kinda looking overall where we were at with the draft, the position we're in, I was really exited to add somebody of Sam's caliber to our team."

Meanwhile in Gotham, the Jets, who took Darnold out of USC with the third pick in the 2018 draft, have officially moved on from the former Trojans standout with all eyes of the prize of the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft, where they'll presumably take their next hopeful franchise signal-caller.

"I want to publicly acknowledge the commitment, dedication, and professionalism Sam displayed while with the Jets. He is a tough-minded, talented football player whose NFL story has not been written yet," Jets general manager Joe Douglas said in a statement. "While all these things are true, this move is in the short- and long-term best interests for both this team and him. We thank Sam for all of his work on behalf of this organization and wish him well as he continues his career."

It would seem likely the Panthers would exercise Darnold's fifth-year option, but they have until May 3 to make the decision, with the QB projected to make $18.858 million, per Over the Cap. Darnold is in the final year of his rookie deal, with $4.8 million due, and will account for $5 million against New York's 2021 cap.

As for Bridgewater, whether he stays or goes, his days as a QB1 are in question going forward after his sole season as the unquestioned starter in Carolina, one in which he produced 3,733 yards, 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 15 starts.

Fitterer said he talked to Bridgewater on Monday, along with the quarterback's representation.

"I think we're all on the same page of where we stand," Fitterer said. "I'll let coach kinda handle what the pecking order is and what the plan is. But, overall the whole idea of bringing Sam in, was to raise the competition level at the position to get to where we need to be." 

However, later in the news conference, Fitterer's comments indicated Bridgewater could very well be suiting up elsewhere in 2021.

"I think there's things we have to work through, obviously," Fitterer said. "I already talked to Teddy's agents. We're gonna find the right place, whether it's here, wherever it may be, we'll figure things out, contract-wise, as well."

Carolina enters the upcoming draft with the No. 8 pick in the first round and though it just traded for Darnold, Fitterer doesn't believe that disqualifies the club from possibly taking another QB in the first round. Obviously, whether that's spin or not remains to be seen until after the draft has concluded.

"This doesn't take us out of anything in the draft. This doesn't take us out of taking a quarterback, doesn't take us out of taking any position," Fitterer said. "What we wanted to do going into this draft, you know through free agency, through this trade with Sam, is to get rid of all the needs that we have, we just wanted to get to a place where our roster was in a good spot where we can take the best possible player at No. 8."

Darnold's three-season stay in New York offered flashes of promise, but was overshadowed by uneven play and the chaos that surrounded him during the last season of Todd Bowles' stay as head coach and two years of tumult under Adam Gase.

Though Darnold heads to Charlotte with three season of experience under his belt, he'll still only be 24 when the 2021 campaign -- one that will see the Jets and Panthers play -- kicks off. He'll have the chance to play and learn under Rhule and Brady, which is likely to be a marked improvement from his stay in New York in which his head coach's future was often the talk of the town as much as his inability to showcase consistent progress.

Nonetheless, Darnold is coming off a 2020 campaign that was likely his worst. In 12 starts, Darnold threw 11 interceptions and had career-lows of nine touchdowns and 2,208 yards passing. Since entering the NFL in 2018, Darnold ranks last in completion percentage, TD-INT ratio and passer rating, according to NFL Research.

In Carolina, Darnold will reunite with wide receiver Robby Anderson after the tandem played together in 2018-19 in New York. Darnold will work with coaches in Rhule and Brady whose first season offers promise of building a franchise the right way and doing so around their new QB. And, perhaps most significantly, Darnold has been bestowed a chance to start anew in many ways.

Darnold's second chance might well be his last, however, as it was long argued whether his Jets tape told the true story of who he was as an NFL quarterback, having been hamstrung under Gase and playing among a largely stagnant cast of playmakers. With a star running back like Christian McCaffrey lining up in the backfield with him and Anderson and D.J. Moore out wide, Darnold must deliver now.

The days of Darnold as the next great hope for the Jets have officially ended and the next presumptive face of the team is more than likely not yet on the roster.

As for the Panthers, their rebuild continues, but they've found their centerpiece in Darnold, who gets a second shot at turning around a franchise.

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