FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Three years after hailing him as a franchise savior, the New York Jets traded Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers on Monday, ending months of intense speculation about their quarterback plans.
In return for Darnold, the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2018, the Jets received three picks: a sixth-rounder in the 2021 draft later this month and a second-rounder and fourth-rounder in 2022.
Without a proven quarterback on the roster, the Jets are expected to select Darnold's replacement with the No. 2 overall pick in the April 29 draft in Cleveland (on ESPN and the ESPN App). The leading candidate is BYU's Zach Wilson, who has met virtually multiple times with the Jets' brass.
If the Jets do select a quarterback at No. 2 overall they would become the first team in the common draft era (since 1967) to select two quarterbacks within the top three overall picks in a four-year span, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
The organization was conflicted by the decision to part with Darnold, sources said. Jets coach Robert Saleh spoke highly of him, saying he has "unbelievable arm talent."
The Jets considered the idea of keeping Darnold and pairing him with a rookie, a source said, but they liked the idea of a fresh start for all parties. The organization also was cognizant of a potential quarterback controversy and felt it might have become a distraction.
The benefit of resetting with a rookie contract also was a factor in the decision, a source said. The No. 2 pick brings a fixed cost -- a projected $35 million over four years. With Darnold, there would've been financial uncertainty beyond 2021 if the Jets didn't exercise his fifth-year option for 2022.
Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said talks with the Jets heated up at Ohio State's pro day on March 30 and continued over the Easter weekend. Ohio State's pro day came three days after the 49ers traded up to No. 3, reducing Carolina's odds of getting the quarterback it wanted at No. 8.
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Fitterer said he liked Darnold coming out of USC because of his mobility and ability to push the ball down the field and that the trade will allow the Panthers to take the best player available with the No. 8 selection, even if that's a quarterback.
"This doesn't take us out of anything in the draft," Fitterer said. "It doesn't take us out of taking a quarterback, it doesn't take us out of taking any position. What we wanted to do going into this draft, through free agency, through this trade with Sam, was to just get rid of all the needs we have.
"We wanted to get to a place where the roster was in a good spot, and we could take the best available player at No. 8. We could always move up, and we could always move back, but this puts us in a position to make the right football decision for this team moving forward."
Darnold has one year remaining on his rookie contract, with guaranteed salary and bonuses totaling $4.6 million. The Panthers must decide on Darnold's fifth-year option for 2022 by May 3; the predetermined amount is $18.8 million, fully guaranteed. He was due to count $9.8 million on the Jets' cap, but they will get $4.8 million in relief and a $5 million "dead" charge for 2021.
The Panthers plan to discuss exercising Darnold's fifth-year option with his agent, a league source told ESPN's David Newton.
Carolina has been looking to upgrade from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater since the end of last season. The Panthers offered Bridgewater and the No. 8 overall pick to the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford, who ultimately was traded to the Los Angeles Rams.
Fitterer said he talked with Bridgewater on Monday but would not get into details.
"The whole idea of bringing Sam in was to raise the competition level to where it needs to be," he said, and added: "These guys can push each other and make each other better."
Fitterer called Darnold and Bridgewater both "starting-level" quarterbacks, and said it will be coach Matt Rhule's decision who ultimately will start for the team.
The Panthers also were interested in dealing for Deshaun Watson, league sources told Newton, before the Houston Texans quarterback was accused of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior in 22 different lawsuits.
Carolina signed Bridgewater last year to a three-year, $63 million contract that in reality is a two-year deal because of the way it was structured. Bridgewater is set to count $22.9 million against this year's salary cap, with only $7.9 million in savings against the 2021 cap if the Panthers cut him after June 1.
"I think there's things we have to work through, obviously," Fitterer said of Bridgewater's future with the Panthers. "I've already talked to Teddy's agents. We're going to find the right place, whether it's here, wherever it may be, we'll figure things out, contractwise as well."
After the trade, the Jets now have 10 selections in the 2021 draft and own seven selections in the first two rounds of the next two drafts.
"I want to publicly acknowledge the commitment, dedication, and professionalism Sam displayed while with the Jets," Jets general manager Joe Douglas said in a statement released by the team. "He is a tough-minded, talented football player whose NFL story has not been written yet. While all these things are true, this move is in the short- and long-term best interests for both this team and him. We thank Sam for all of his work on behalf of this organization and wish him well as he continues his career."
Darnold, 23, failed to fulfill huge expectations in New York. He showed promise at the end of his rookie season, but he regressed under former coach Adam Gase, who was hired in 2019 -- in large part -- to develop the former USC star.
In three seasons, Darnold went 13-25 as a starter, with 45 touchdown passes and 39 interceptions. He completed 59.8% of his passes and never finished above 26th in passer rating.
He finished as the NFL's lowest-rated passer in 2020 (72.7), 36th out of 36 qualifying quarterbacks. His career passer rating is 78.6, which ranks 39th out of 39 since 2018.
Darnold has been slowed by injury and illness throughout his pro career. He missed three games as a rookie (sprained foot), three games in 2019 (mononucleosis) and four games in 2020 (sprained throwing shoulder).
To be fair, he didn't have much stability with the Jets, as he played under two head coaches and two different offensive systems. He also had no 1,000-yard rushers or 1,000-yard wide receivers, and he played behind an ever-changing offensive line.
The Jets landed Darnold after a blockbuster trade one month before the 2018 draft. Determined to pick a quarterback, they moved up three spots to No. 3, sending three second-round picks to the Indianapolis Colts.
They didn't think Darnold would be available at No. 3, but the Cleveland Browns pulled a surprise by taking Baker Mayfield No. 1 overall. Running back Saquon Barkley went to the New York Giants, leaving Darnold for the Jets, who had rated him the draft's No. 1 quarterback.
Ownership wasn't shy about expressing its excitement.
"I honestly think [people] are going to look back 20 years from now and say this is the moment the Jets shifted into a new gear, that they became a great team," Jets vice chairman Christopher Johnson said a few days after the draft.
Darnold started opening day as a rookie, infamously throwing a pick-six on his first pass. He settled down and beat the Detroit Lions in a blowout, exciting the Jets' quarterback-starved fan base. He had an up-and-down season (17 touchdowns, 15 interceptions), but there were enough positives to make the organization believe it had found a long-term answer.
It wasn't until the 2020 season that questions emerged about his future. Darnold struggled, injured his shoulder, and the team started 0-13, putting it in contention for the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft. With speculation about Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence swirling, Darnold led the Jets to two wins in their final three games, leaving the franchise with the No. 2 pick.