NFL draft reinforces Panthers commitment to QB Sam Darnold

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The NFL draft weekend certainly proved one thing for the Carolina Panthers: they’re all-in on quarterback Sam Darnold.

By passing on Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields with the eighth overall pick — they selected cornerback Jaycee Horn from South Carolina instead.

They also agreed to pay Darnold $18.9 million in 2022 after picking up his fifth-year option, as the Panthers expressed confidence that he can revive his career in Carolina after going 13-25 as a starter in three seasons with the New York Jets.

In addition, the Panthers also traded away last year’s starter Teddy Bridgewater before the draft, meaning Darnold won't have any competition for the starting job.

“We brought Sam here because we believe that he can win for us," Panthers coach Matt Rhule said Saturday. “When we look at him over his last three years we see a guy with tons of potential. We see a guy that in our offence is going to do really good things."

Entering the draft weekend there was still some questions as to whether the team viewed Darnold as a stopgap quarterback even after trading the Jets a sixth-round pick this year and second and fourth-rounders in 2022.

But that conjecture is over.

The Panthers didn't draft a quarterback with any of their 11 picks.

Instead, they focused on giving Darnold playmakers to work with, drafting wide receiver Terrace Marshall from LSU in the second round, left tackle Brady Christensen from BYU and tight end Tommy Tremble from Notre Dame in the third round, running back Chuba Hubbard from Oklahoma State in the fourth round, and guard Deonte Brown from Alabama and slot receiver Shi Smith from South Carolina in the sixth round.

Rhule said he wants Darnold taking things “one day at a time”.

“Everything for him doesn’t have to be a referendum on whether he is a great quarterback or not," Rhule said. "He just needs to come in and work every day. The quarterback position is really important, but I also believe great teams win. Sam will be as good as the guys around him.”

TOOTING THAT HORN

The Panthers surprised some when they took a cornerback with the eighth overall pick.

But the addition of Horn makes perfect sense from a matchup perspective because Carolina needed a bigger cornerback who can match up against some of the NFC South's biggest receivers. The Panthers feel that the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Horn checks that box.

Rhule said there were times the Panthers “couldn't get off the field” in 2020 and has long viewed cornerback as a major need.

Said Rhule: “There is a size matchup in the NFC South that really matters.”

FIRST OFFENSIVE PICK

Rhule had drafted exclusively defensive players — seven last year and Horn in the first round — before finally breaking the string by taking Marshall in the second round.

That appeared to open the floodgates, as the Panthers spent four straight picks on upgrading the offence .

TRADER SCOTT

New general manager Scott Fitterer came to Carolina from Seattle with a reputation for making trades on draft day, and he lived up to that reputation.

Fitterer made a franchise-record five trades over the weekend, four of those coming on Friday. Fitterer twice traded back in the second round. While that meant going down 20 spots to No. 59, it did allow the Panthers to pick up a pair of third-round picks.

Fitterer nonchalantly dismissed the number of trades as simply working to get the Panthers in better position, but Rhule called him “masterful” in his moves.

“We came into Day 2 thinking we were going to get two players and we came away with three,” Rhule said. “The way personnel people look at it, a three this year equates to a two next year and then we also picked up a four next year. So basically the Sam Darnold trade is paid off now. We got three players that we really like, but we’ve also paid off that trade so I think excellent.”

METRICS MATTERS

Rhule said he's one coach who still puts stock into metrics such as how high a player can jump or how fast they are in certain drills.

“If you look at the great players on our team, they're all great, great, great athletes,” Rhule said. “... Again, the tape’s the most important thing for us, but their metrics they just verify that what you see on tape is real. Fast people run fast, they’re powerful, they jump high, and these guys (that we drafted) do all those things.”

OH, CANADA

Hubbard was born in Edmonton, making him the first Canadian running back the Panthers have selected since taking Tshimanga Biakabutuka in the first round of the 1996 draft. Hubbard could see playing time as the team's No. 2 running back after the Panthers allowed Mike Davis to leave via free agency.

“I model a lot of my stuff, when it comes to catching the ball, after him (Christian McCaffrey)," Hubbard said.

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Steve Reed, The Associated Press