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Panthers 'open to Cam' Newton, but Sam Darnold is 'in the lead' for QB job

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With the offseason quarterback carousel mostly ground to a stop, a few questions about starting positions around the league remain.

The Carolina Panthers lead that list. For now, it sounds like Sam Darnold is the plan. Until a better option comes along. General manager Scott Fitterer addressed the subject in a news conference on Friday. He confirmed that Darnold has the locker room lead at the position.

"Sam’s on the roster as I sit here right now," Fitterer said. "He’s in the lead for that job. We want him to take it and run with it.

"But we're gonna add a lot of competition to that room. The whole emphasis is to stabilize the quarterback position to play winning football. That's what we're working toward.”

The Panthers dealt for Darnold last offseason as the New York Jets moved on from their former first-round pick. Darnold ultimately played to the level that made him a bust in New York, completing 59.9% of his passes while averaging 6.2 yards per attempt with nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 12 games. Any plan that includes Darnold as a starting quarterback is surely frustrating news for Panthers fans.

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 31: Quarterback Sam Darnold #14 of the Carolina Panthers during the Week 8 NFL game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers on October  31, 2021 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Sam Darnold remains Carolina's top option at quarterback. For now. (David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

'Door still open' for Cam Newton

The Panthers, of course, know by now that the Darnold reclamation project failed. Or they should, at least. Four seasons into his career, it's clear who he is as an NFL quarterback. But they missed out on the high-profile quarterback movement of the offseason and currently list a depth chart that reads Darnold and P.J. Walker. So yeah. Darnold's "in the lead for that job."

The desperate situation at the position left Fitterer fielding questions on Friday about Cam Newton, the former franchise star and league MVP who returned last season looking largely incapable of making downfield NFL throws. In eight games, including five starts, Newton completed 54.8% of his passes for 5.4 yards per attempt while throwing four touchdowns and four interceptions.

“The thing with Cam, it’s got to be a fit for us and it’s got to be a fit for him just as well,” Fitterer said. “He’s looking for a certain opportunity. The door’s still open for us. We’re very open to Cam. We’ll see where it goes. He knows where we stand."

No, Newton's not the answer any more than Darnold. So what are the Panthers' options?

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 30: Jimmy Garoppolo #10 of the San Francisco 49ers looks to pass the ball in the NFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium on January 30, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Would the Panthers trade for Jimmy Garoppolo? Should they? (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Surely there's a better plan

There are still couple of names on the trade market that could make sense. Jimmy Garoppolo is still a San Francisco 49er and Baker Mayfield's still a Cleveland Brown. Are the Panthers interested in either? Should they be? Both teams looked to different options at quarterback for a reason.

Fitterer said on Friday that he hasn't had any recent conversations with other teams about a trade. But he didn't rule one out, vowing to "explore every option."

Who are the draft options?

So that leaves the draft. Thanks in large part to the Darnold trade, the Panthers have just one pick in the top 136 selections in April. They gave up their second- and fourth-round picks to acquire Darnold. But the early pick they have is a good one — No. 6 overall. Would they consider using it on a quarterback?

Fitterer confirmed that the Panthers met this week with Liberty's Malik Willis, Mississippi's Matt Corral and Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett. They also spent time with Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder at the Senior Bowl and scouting combine. None resemble a sure bet to be a successful NFL starter. But starting-level quarterbacks are in short supply, and teams will surely gamble with high picks come April.

Yahoo Sports' Eric Edholm projected the Panthers to roll the dice on Willis at No. 6 in his latest mock draft. Fitterer, meanwhile, addressed the gambling mentality that comes with picking a quarterback out of college.

"Quarterbacks are hard to find. Sometimes you have to swing to take a shot at these guys. And if you miss, you can't stop swinging. You have to take a shot again. It's the most important position on the field. There's a lot of ways we can go. Quarterback is one of them. And we do like these guys."

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