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Panthers trade for Sam Darnold, but what does that mean for the Falcons?

It may impact both the 2021 NFL Draft and the state of the division, though both outcomes are a little cloudy right now.

New York Jets v New England Patriots Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

In case you missed it yesterday, the Panthers threw up their hands after a long pursuit of top draft and veteran quarterbacks and made a lesser move. Carolina flipped a 2021 6th rounder and 2022 2nd and 4th rounders to the New York Jets for Sam Darnold, bringing in a Jets-scarred quarterback who the team hopes will be a significant part of their future.

This is a baffling move in a lot of ways, if I’m being frank. Darnold is not a clear, definitive upgrade on Teddy Bridgewater, who piloted a decent Carolina passing attack in 2020, and presumably you’re making a move like this to ensure you have an upgrade. Darnold has yet to play in a full 16 game season in his three years in the NFL, was among the ten worst quarterbacks in the league in terms of on-target throws, and threw more interceptions last year than touchdowns, all the classic signs of a quarterback who has been destroyed by the relentless franchise player-crushing machine that is this Jets team. There’s still promise here, but it’s far from a given that he’ll realize it, especially after three years of dispiriting games and bad habits.

Our Eric Robinson offered up the most measured take on Darnold’s value, noting that he’s young (just 24 in June) and relatively affordable this year and will be going from a putrid team in New York to one with a highly sought-after offensive coordinator and better weapons. The problem is that after picking up his fifth year option, Darnold is only likely to be affordable for this year, and the Panthers appear to be a team still rebuilding the roster. The price they gave up to get him will absolutely seem like nothing if Darnold works out, however.

There are plenty of unknowns here, but let’s examine how this might impact the Panthers and our Falcons.

What it means for the Panthers

The first thing this means is that Teddy Bridgewater is gone. The Panthers could still draft a quarterback, but the decision to pick up Darnold’s 5th year option suggests it probably won’t be in the first round. Bridgewater would be a fine bridge starter for several teams across the league, but Carolina may need to eat some cash to move him, and they’ll then likely go out and sign a Chase Daniel or draft a Davis Mills to back up Darnold.

It’s not clear whether this move brings the Panthers rebuild forward, but we know Carolina is counting on Darnold thriving in Joe Brady’s offense. He’s young enough to re-capture that value, but the Panthers will need to do a much better job of upgrading their so-so offensive line and add a little more talent to the skill positions to give Darnold his best possible chance to thrive. My strong guess is that they won’t suddenly become a great team in 2021 unless Darnold is massively better than expected, and with Brady looking like such a hot candidate this offseason, it’s very possible any lift he gets from his offensive coordinator will be gone when Brady gets snapped up for a head coaching job elsewhere in 2022.

This is a significant bet for the Panthers, not because it cost them draft capital (and it did, but not an outlandish amount) or because it’ll cost them money (though it will next year). It’s a big swing because they might be wasting time, acquiring a project quarterback has spent what could be a career-ruining three years in New Jersey and picking up an option and potentially sinking two years into a player who is far from guaranteed to work out. They’re betting on it because they didn’t see a way to snag a star quarterback this year, but it’s not entirely clear why Carolina didn’t think they could take one more turn with Bridgewater after a surprisingly decent year and with enough draft captal to enhance the roster in 2021.

If it works, they’ll look like geniuses and Carolina could contend in a weird, unsettled NFC South right away. If it doesn’t, they’ll be scrambling for yet another quarterback in a year or two, with the potential to end up once again ending up with a player who isn’t anywhere close to a lock to be great.

What it means for the Falcons

Besides the question marks about whether this will make Carolina more of a threat in the division, this trade could very well impact Atlanta’s ability to trade down from #4, if indeed they are interested in doing so. We know they’ve had early conversations about it, but given that most of the reporting we’ve seen indicates they’re strongly considering a quarterback or Kyle Pitts with the pick, it seems like they’d have to be blown away by an offer to consider doing so.

The primary reason for that is that Carolina is no longer a threat to try to move up. Atlanta presumably would have no interest in allowing the Panthers to move up and snag a franchise quarterback at #4, which meant if you absolutely had to be sure you got one of the draft’s top 4 or 5 options at the position, you’d more or less have to try to go up with Atlanta to ensure you got that guy. The Panthers will at the very least stand pat at #8, in all likelihood, so that fear has mostly melted away. With the Bengals, Dolphins, and Lions in front of them, none of whom seem like locks to get a quarterbacks, team may now actually consider moving up to #8 with Carolina to trump the Denver Broncos.

Still, Atlanta has leverage if they really do have any interest in moving down, simply because they have been so strongly linked to the likes of Justin Fields and Trey Lance to this point. If you can’t knock the Falcons out of their perch at #4, there may not be a guy you consider worthy of a first round pick beyond that, which means if you absolutely must have, say, Lance, you’ve got to figure out a killer trade package now.

The Falcons are, in other words, still seemingly in a solid position to make a move down if they want to. It remains to be seen whether they’re really interested in passing up the best player on their board with the fourth overall pick to do so.

This trade isn’t a blockbuster on paper and seems unlikely, in my humble opinion, to alter the trajectory of the Carolina Panthers significantly unless Darnold is a completely different player outside of New York, something I’m a bit dubious about. At the end of the day, given both Atlanta’s seeming interest in top players at #4 and the fact that a team desperate to get a quarterback could still pitch them compelling offers, it seems unlikely to change the trajectory of the Atlanta Falcons draft, as well.