Sam Darnold’s career with the Carolina Panthers has taken a winding road, with peaks that had fans calling him the franchise QB of the future and valleys that had them calling for his release. With the Panthers’ quarterback situation in limbo and Darnold likely looking to compete for a starting job in 2023, will he be back with the Panthers next season?
Would the Carolina Panthers Consider Bringing Back Sam Darnold?
Despite ending the year without a playoff berth, the Panthers had one of the most eventful campaigns of the 2022 NFL season. The team has started three quarterbacks, two of which were top-three picks in an NFL draft and were once considered the futures of their previous franchises. Carolina also fired its head coach and traded the face of the team, star running back Christian McCaffrey, in what appeared to be a lost campaign.
Then, all of a sudden, things turned around. After starting the year 1-4, the team began to play more competitively under interim head coach Steve Wilks. The Panthers went 5-5 with Wilks at the helm heading into Week 17. Although Carolina lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was eliminated from playoff contention, QB Sam Darnold was a big reason for the team’s turnaround, especially over the season’s final stretch.
Darnold returned to the starting QB role in Week 12 after missing the first half of the season due to injury, and he played some of the best football of his career. Darnold cut down on turnovers, one of the issues that plagued his stat sheets over the early years of his tenure in the NFL.
Prior to Carolina’s elimination from the playoff race, Darnold put together a respectable stat line: a near-62 percent completion rate, 220 passing yards per game, seven TDs, and just one interception. He also added 74 yards and two scores on the ground.
Sure, Darnold was aided by an improved defense and strong running game spear-headed by a resurgent D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard, but in 2022, Darnold looked more in command of the offense than in previous seasons. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Carolina look to keep the former third-overall draft pick around.
One important point that makes it easier to see a reuniting of Darnold and the Panthers in 2023: the 25-year-old QB wouldn’t necessarily need to be brought back as a surefire starter. At this point in his career, it’s unlikely that any team would bring Darnold in as the unquestioned first-string guy. It’s far more likely that he’s brought in as a high-end backup or, at best, someone to compete for a starting job.
With the Panthers potentially looking to reset at QB through the NFL draft, general manager Scott Fitterer could bring Darnold in to start while a rookie sits and learns or to push the rookie in a QB competition. The question, then, remains — at what price?
Sam Darnold Contract Considerations
Quarterback contract values can be among the most difficult to project when working with players who fall between full-time starter and journeyman backup. This gray zone leaves plenty of room for one or two teams to overvalue a player at the game’s most important position. But where does Darnold fall within that range?
Sam Darnold’s Market Value
Sports contract website, spotrac.com, projects Darnold’s market value to fall in at $5.1 million per year on a two-year deal. That would place Darnold just below the likes of Case Keenum (three-year, $18 million, $6 million per year) and Teddy Bridgewater (one-year, $6.5 million) among quarterback salary rankings.
Frankly, that feels a little low for a player with Darnold’s draft pedigree and 2022 production. Given the impending rise of the NFL salary cap and lack of plentiful options in the upcoming free agent market at the QB position, it’s likely that Darnold will be able to leverage a deal closer to Marcus Mariota’s two-year, $18.75 million deal with the Atlanta Falcons signed during the 2022 offseason.
Regardless, Darnold will likely receive a contract that represents him as an upside dart-throw on a short-term, prove-it deal that leaves open the possibility of playing significant snaps but doesn’t tie his team to any significant salary cap constraints long-term.
Which teams could make sense for such a pairing? The Panthers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Las Vegas Raiders, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Washington Commanders are all options when simply perusing the league for teams with up-in-the-air QB depth charts heading into 2023. Their respective salary cap situations would come into play in narrowing the field.
Panthers Depth Chart, Options at QB
The Panthers have one QB under contract for the 2023 season — 2022 third-round pick Matt Corral. Corral suffered a foot injury during the preseason and, due to the injury, didn’t take a single regular season snap during his rookie season despite the team’s carousel of starting quarterbacks.
While Corral could be a viable long-term option, there’s great uncertainty surrounding his NFL future and his potential as a starting QB.
At the time of this writing, the Panthers possess the ninth-overall pick in the NFL draft. Carolina also has six picks within the first four rounds, including two each in the second and fourth rounds due to the team’s trade with the San Francisco 49ers that shipped McCaffrey to the Bay Area.
With such substantial capital, the Panthers are squarely in range to nab one of the top passers in the draft, such as Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, and Kentucky’s Will Levis, especially if Carolina would consider trading up. If that’s the case, bringing Darnold back on a relatively inexpensive contract could make sense.
Darnold could be excited at the idea of a QB competition that leaves open the window of meaningful regular season play while a rookie learns under his wing. At the same time, the team could appreciate the reliability and influence his veteran presence brings, especially given his improved play down the stretch of the 2022 season.
If the Panthers want to bring in a higher-profile veteran name through free agency or the trade market, Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo are two that could make sense. Daniel Jones, Aaron Rodgers, and Lamar Jackson seem more likely, to varying degrees, to remain with their current teams, while Tom Brady will probably look for a roster better set to compete for a Lombardi Trophy in 2023.