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Panthers to wait until after draft to decide on Sam Darnold's fifth-year option

When the Carolina Panthers traded three draft picks for Sam Darnold, the presumption was he'd get more than a one-year look-see. The Panthers have the right to pick up the fifth-year option on the quarterback.

It's not a decision they must make until the May 3 deadline, and exercising the option would guarantee Darnold's $18.858 million salary for 2022.

Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said Friday that the decision wouldn't come down until after the draft next week.

"We have a strong plan in place,'' Fitterer said, adding the team will discuss the option post-draft.

The holdup is simple: The Panthers want to see if a quarterback of their desires falls to them at No. 8 overall before committing to Darnold.

While the trade for the former No. 3 overall pick answered one aspect of the Panthers' QB quandary this season, it won't stop Carolina from drafting an upgrade if they see one Thursday night.

Fitterer was asked Friday if out of the top five projected signal-callers -- Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, Mac Jones -- there was one QB that best fits his team. The GM replied, "Yes."

"There's actually several of them that we're excited about," he said. "But we're not going to get into exactly who."

If, for instance, Fields is the apple of the Panthers' eye, and he falls to No. 8, Carolina wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger. If the QB they love isn't there, they'll ride with Darnold and likely pick up that fifth-year option down the road.

Utilizing multiple assets at the QB position isn't something Fitterer shies away from. In his time with Seattle, he learned that stacking as many QBs as possible until you hit on a franchise difference-maker is the name of the game. While drafting Russell Wilson in the third round after paying Matt Flynn isn't an apples-to-apples comparison to the Panthers potentially using the No. 8 pick after trading three selections for Darnold, it's in the same fruit genre.

"I think you always learn from experiences you have, and it's not just quarterbacks," Fitterer said. "It's every position. I believe in bringing in the best players that can fit your team, create competition and upgrade your roster. So whether it's a quarterback, a corner, it doesn't matter. It's how do they fit our team, what's the path for success and what's our plan."

How the draft unfolds on April 29 will determine which path the Panthers take at quarterback or elsewhere with the roster.

Want to create your own mock for the 2021 NFL Draft? Check out PFF’s draft simulator to play out countless scenarios for every team spanning all seven rounds.

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