Sam Darnold’s future is very much up in the air entering the fifth-year option of his rookie contract. With the Carolina Panthers currently in the race for Deshaun Watson in 2022, let’s examine the situation with Darnold’s contract and his impact on the Panthers’ salary cap space in 2022.
Sam Darnold’s contract details and bonuses
After drafting Darnold No. 3 overall in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Jets signed him to a four-year contract worth a guaranteed $30.2 million. Darnold’s contract contained a $20 million signing bonus, $2.72 million in base salary, and $7.71 million in roster bonuses. Those roster bonuses are fully guaranteed and paid on the fifth day of training camp in 2019, 2020, and 2021.
Following Darnold being traded to the Panthers, Carolina picked up his fifth-year option. With Darnold having played over 75% of the snaps with the Jets in all three seasons, he became eligible for the third-highest salary tier. Therefore, Darnold’s salary cap number for 2022 is set to be $18.858 million — all as fully guaranteed base salary.
Darnold has one more year remaining on his contract
The fifth-year option on Darnold’s contract is the final year of his rookie deal. Therefore, after the 2022 season, Darnold will become a free agent. His salary for 2022 is fully guaranteed, so even if the Panthers released him, he would still be assured that money.
What is the salary cap impact if Darnold is traded in 2022?
Right now, we’ve heard little about the future of Darnold. The Panthers already re-signed P.J. Walker, who is arguably a better fit as the backup to Deshaun Watson than Darnold. As a result, we may see the Panthers looking to move Darnold if they add Watson. The problem for Carolina is the cost to the team acquiring Darnold if he is traded.
None of Darnold’s $18.858 million cap number would remain with the Panthers as things stand. Currently, all of that would travel with Darnold and his contract to the team acquiring for him. Consequently, that could be a hard sell for the Panthers given the level we’ve seen from Darnold in the past. The Panthers may have to send draft capital to make it work — similar to the Brock Osweiler situation.
However, the Panthers could change the math somewhat on Darnold’s contract. To facilitate a move, the Panthers could pay a portion of Darnold’s salary as a signing bonus, thereby keeping that portion on their salary cap as dead money when they trade him. Doing this might make a trade more feasible, especially if the Panthers have already given up considerable assets to acquire Watson.