MAQB: How the Panthers and Jets Negotiated the Sam Darnold Trade

The Panthers kept chasing a quarterback upgrade, and a conversation at Ohio State's pro day led to their eventual move. Plus, reading into Aaron Rodgers' words, Justin Fields' offseason work, Mike Vrabel acknowledges a draft mistake and more.
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Three weeks until the draft, but we’re hitting more than just that this week. …

Quarterbacks Sam Darnold, Aaron Rodgers and Justin Fields

• The Panthers/Jets trade may have seemed to have come out of nowhere—but the truth is the teams had been chipping away at it for quite some time. Carolina first broached the topic of a deal for Sam Darnold with the Jets in mid-February, a couple weeks after a very strong bid for Matthew Stafford fell through. New York GM Joe Douglas was even keeled through the process, which caused the talks to stagnate a little (San Francisco was involved for a time, as well), and then things heated up again in the last couple weeks.

By the start of last week, the Panthers had emerged as the strongest suitor for Darnold. Last Monday night, the teams talked again, with both arriving in Columbus for Ohio State’s pro day. And at the pro day, on Tuesday, Douglas finally got the chance to go face-to-face with his Carolina counterpart, Scott Fitterer, and Panthers coach Matt Rhule. Talks there were positive enough for the sides to continue in earnest in the days to follow.

The Jets were said to have sought a return besting what the Cardinals got for Josh Rosen in 2019—looking for a second-rounder and a mid-round pick or player. But my understanding is a lot of different concepts were discussed, including one that would’ve sent the 23rd pick and Darnold to Carolina for the eighth pick (the Panthers weren’t going for that).

In the end, the compromise wound up being the Jets’ desired return, but in 2022 picks, rather than 2021, with a ’21 sixth-rounder tacked on. So now, Douglas has five picks in the first three rounds this year and four in the first two rounds next year with which to build. And this, of course, also locks in the certainty that quarterbacks will go 1-2-3 on April 29, with Atlanta now in position to take the fourth one or get a ransom for their pick.

• The first piece of fallout here for the Panthers concerns the decision they’ll have to make on Darnold’s fifth-year option, which I’d expect them to pick up. It’s set at $18.858 million and will be fully guaranteed upon being exercised. Which is pricey, to be sure. But the Panthers could also just restructure Darnold, with the $4.604 million due this year folded in, and spread the total of $23.462 million over the next two years as they see fit.

The APY on that, by the way, would be a very reasonable $11.731 million.

The second piece is Teddy Bridgewater, due a $17 million base, in addition to $750,000 in per-game roster bonuses and a $250,000 workout bonus this year. The final $7 million of that base doesn’t become fully guaranteed until Week 1 ($10 million was guaranteed at signing), and that $17 million number has made Bridgewater virtually untradeable (the Panthers have been trying to deal him for weeks). So, barring someone suddenly having to scramble for a starter on the fly, it looks like at least $10 million is sunk. Would Bridgewater accept a pay cut to be traded? Or would he rather just force the Panthers to cut him, knowing $10 million would be his ceiling? Add it up, and Carolina’s best play absent the pay cut/trade scenario, may be just to let Bridgewater compete with Darnold for the job for now.

• This morning, in the MMQB column, we told you to listen to what Aaron Rodgers says, because not a word of it is by mistake. And lo and behold, we have a little more to go on, after Rodgers Zoomed into Pat McAfee’s show Monday. There, he was asked about his contract and where he stands with the Packers on April 5, 2021.

“Look, I’m not insulated completely from all those conversations,” Rodgers said. “I think part of it, you have to have some understanding of what’s going on out there. I think that we’re exactly where we were last year when I made comments after the draft, and throughout the season. I don’t feel like any of that’s changed. Even my comments directly after the last game, and we talked about it on this show, there were some people who made assumptions based on what I said.

“Nothing’s really changed. My future, really, a lot of it’s out of my control. That’s why I use phrases like beautiful mystery, because it is quite uncertain which way things are going to go. All I can do is play my best, and I feel like last year I did do that. And I may have thrown a wrench into some timelines that may have been thought about or desired. But ultimately, things haven’t really changed on that front.

“I meant what I said last year, really about being at peace with the whole thing. That hasn’t changed. I feel good about the way I played. I feel good about the way I led. I loved our interactions, and everything this show provided for me last year. I think people got a raw look at honest conversation about the future. And someone who’s not bitter or disappointed or frustrated about things they realize they can’t control.

“My future is one of them, and I’ve surrendered to what’s going to happen, and just confident in what I bring to the table and how I played last year. Everything is for speculation and I’m sure there’ll be plenty of it.”

Like I said, we need to take these comments at face value, because Rodgers is a pretty sharp guy, and he’s well aware by now of the reaction he’s going to get from making them. Along those lines, if we distill what he’s saying here, the takeaways are easy.

1) He hasn’t gotten assurances from the Packers on his future.

2) He skipped over talking about his contract, rather than saying it’s not an issue.

3) He said his focus is on playing well, and he feels like he has.

4) His comment on “throwing a wrench in some timelines” has obvious implications. And very clearly, if in a coded way, he’s implying that he believes the Packers expected some level of decline leading, to an eventual transition to Jordan Love.

And then, there was the “at peace” part of it, which feels a little bit like the scene from Swingers, where Vince Vaughn tells Jon Favreau to wait two days to call a girl back—just so she knows he’s not desperate. In this case, Rodgers is basically telling the Packers, “Hey, I’m pretty desirable, so whatever you wanna do, I’m good.”

Is all of it a little ridiculous? Sure, it is. But I wouldn’t overcomplicate it, either. What you think Rodgers is trying to do, yeah, that’s probably exactly what he’s doing here. And while it might annoy Brian Gutekunst and Matt LaFleur to have to deal with it, Rodgers knows where his leverage is—it’s in how he played last year—and he very clearly isn’t afraid to wield that leverage in a very public way.

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• One thing has sort of flown under the radar the last couple months: Two of the top quarterback prospects have been working out together on an almost daily basis, tucked away at 3DQB’s facility at a community college in Orange County. Ex-NFL quarterback John Beck has been charged with getting both Justin Fields and Zach Wilson ready for their pro days, meetings with teams and ultimately their entry into the league—which has given him a unique look at both guys.

And he’s also gotten to see the benefits the two have reaped from being side-by-side.

“Very cool dynamic. Very competitive dynamic. Yet, they were always very good about complimenting each other,” Beck said. “Like if someone made a good throw, they would say it: Great shot. But at the same time, if one of them made an unbelievable throw, you bet the next one was going to try to match it. That happened a lot. You see in their pro day scripts, there were some similarities, because them together, as they would go through the types of throws we wanted to show, a lot of times they were on the field at the same time and so, ‘Yeah, I want that in mine,’ and the other person says, ‘I want that in mine as well.’

“I think what it did, it gave them a glimpse into what it’s like to compete at a professional level. Both those guys are going to be very high draft picks, both guys are very talented. And that’s what it’s like in the NFL. You’re competing with very talented people day-in and day-out. So I think not only was it a great experience for them, but it’s going to be great preparation for them to be ready for what the NFL is like.

“Here’s the other thing I love: You know they showed up each day trying to be their most efficient. There were no slack days, there was no, ‘Eh, my accuracy was just O.K.’ Every day those guys strapped it up, they were trying to be the best they could be, which is great as part of the culture and environment they set.”

In last week’s MMQB column, Beck helped take us through his experience coaching Wilson. This week, he helped us with the guy Wilson was working with over the last two and a half months. Here, then, are some of the points Beck wanted to make on Ohio State’s two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.

Beck was excited to work with a guy who had Fields’s physical gifts, but he was equally pumped to find out about Fields’s background … in baseball. It’s been just three years since Fields was being looked at by college and pro scouts as a draftable shortstop prospect (he was committed to playing football at Georgia at that point), and even last year Fields mulled going out for the Ohio State baseball team before COVID-19 shut that group’s season down. “It excited me for some of the things I know quarterbacks with baseball background bring to the table,” Beck said. “One of the biggest things is where did they play, were they a middle infielder? When guys are middle infielders they have the ability to throw the ball from funny body positions, they can change arm angles, usually they have an elite level of hand quickness to be able to, in baseball terms, go ball in the glove, out of the glove, turning the double play ball. All those things—very quick hands, quick release—so to see somebody with his skill set that I knew had a background in that, those are some of things I was going to want to draw out of him in training.”

Really, after starting to work with Fields, that underscores what he saw: a prospect who needed some finishing touches, not an overhaul. So their work became about getting the little things, like those baseball skills, out of him. “He was pretty polished,” Beck said. “There were some minor things we could do in terms of weight positioning, where his front shoulder posture was. It’s the small things you work on with guys that are in the NFL. The thing about Justin, I’m gonna back up, sometimes we get guys from college and immediately they need a stronger arm or immediately there are throws they need to get better at. Justin can make any throw on the field; Justin has a very strong arm. It’s, O.K., how can we get that to happen faster, how can we get that to happen in a smaller space, how can get that to happen, when you’re making it quicker, more accurate? Those types of things. … It’s really similar to what we get when we get an NFL starter that comes to us in the offseason and says I want to enhance my game.”

Fields has been a willing learner. And to Beck, some of the learning has come with how, in the NFL, he’ll have to become more willing to take a profit than get rich on every throw. Because with the talent around him at Ohio State, there were a lot of opportunities to break the bank. “He’s going to be coached to get through those things quicker, to be more efficient, just like any player coming out of college. They have areas they have to get more efficient in,” Beck said. “For Justin, a lot of the time, their scheme gave players an opportunity to win. So where other teams may say, Hey, this underneath back is doing this, let’s get off and go here, at Ohio State, there was a lot of trust in the guys around him, believing those guys were going to make a play. And he played that way. No one can argue with the success. The guy played in the national title game. The guy has an unbelievable TD to INT ratio. The guy threw for a lot of touchdowns in both years as a starting quarterback. You can’t argue with the production.”

And that, of course, comes back to some of the questions that floated around about Fields last week. As I wrote in Thursday’s GamePlan, and as Beck is saying here, my sense is that work ethic was never an issue for him at Ohio State. From here, it’s going to be about how he distributes his hours, and maybe moving a few from the extra time he spends on the field or in the weight room into the classroom.

“He has a great skill set,” Beck said. “Where is Justin going to be able to grow as a pro? He’s gonna learn how to manage and how to set those times, and he’s gonna learn to invest in certain areas, and of course it’s going to be a jump. I saw [Ohio State coach] Ryan Day do an interview where he said A lot of the schemes that we run are schemes that are used in the NFL—that is a true statement. They are.

“But what Justin’s going to have now, he’s going to have more volume of those schemes. And with that volume, it usually requires more time invested in the study.”

Which, to me, seems like a simple adjustment for a guy who’s always been a willing worker.

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• Titans coach Mike Vrabel addressed the team’s epic swing-and-miss of a first-round pick from last April. Isaiah Wilson didn’t last nine months on the roster, and after being traded for a bag of pylons in January, is now out of football altogether. “We have to continue to do our due diligence and trust in our process,” Vrabel said. “We’re excited about the guys we have from that draft coming back and hopefully we’ll be able to add to that this year.”

Wilson carried serious maturity flags from Georgia to the draft, to be sure, and Titans GM Jon Robinson has to carry the burden from here of not taking them seriously enough. And with that miss part of the equation, Robinson’s first-round record is relatively spotty, with three of his five first-round picks (Jack Conklin, Corey Davis and Wilson) no longer on the roster. Which isn’t great.

But, one of those five is a star (Jeffery Simmons), another is a solid, steady piece (Rashaan Evans) and two of three gone (Davis and Conklin) got paid elsewhere. On top of that, Robinson has hit a few home runs outside of the first round—Derrick Henry, Kevin Byard, A.J. Brown and Jonnu Smith were all unearthed after Day 1. So while taking Wilson in the first round wound up being a really bad look, I think it’s fair to say Robinson (who’s also been to the playoffs three times in five years) has earned some benefit of the doubt here.

• It’s interesting to see the Bears being very definitive about where they’re going on offense this year—Andy Dalton over Nick Foles at quarterback, Matt Nagy over coordinator Bill Lazor as play-caller—after a year in which a lot of these things were muddy. I think, on balance, Nagy’s done a lot of good in three years as head coach (and his 28–20 record is actually top 10 in the league in that time). This, to me, at least signals a level of introspection from the 42-year-old, who I still believe has all the tools to be a top head coach in the league.

• I think the slew of lightning 40 times from this year’s set of pro days is a sign of two things. One, more elite guys are running, because there wasn’t a combine (generally, guys who ran really well in Indy would stand on their time and only do position drills at their pro days). Two, all of these guys had more time to focus on getting their time where it needed to be. And three, they got to run in a comfortable environment, their home environment, rather than in a giant, empty, unfamiliar NFL stadium after four days long on work and short on sleep. Add all this up, and I do wonder if the league’s going to have a harder time convincing the truly elite players to run at the combine in the coming years.

• While we’re there, two pro day winners who I should’ve mentioned in the morning column (but didn’t because I figured they might be a little obvious): linebackers Zaven Collins (Tulsa) and Jamin Davis (Kentucky). The former was nearly 6' 5", 259 pounds, clocked a 40 under 4.7 and posted a 35-inch vertical. The latter (who my old NFL Network colleague Daniel Jeremiah put me on when we podcasted back in February) ran in the high 4.3s on some watches at 234 pounds and put up a 42-inch vertical. These two are different types of backers, and athletes, but both are clearly freaks. I’m not ready to say one or the other is going in the first round. But I believe both have a shot now.

• I wonder if Sammy Watkins will now ask the Ravens for No. 2. Or if Curtis Samuel will try to wrangle No. 4 from Taylor Heinicke in Washington. There are lots of possibilities with the proposal to loosen restrictions on numbers (and we outlined a couple drawbacks in this morning’s column too, if you want to check that out).

• It’s hard to ignore the Deshaun Watson situation as it relates to the Panthers’ decision to move harder on Darnold the last couple weeks. Tony Buzbee, the attorney representing 22 plaintiffs suing Watson, will hold a press conference in Houston on Tuesday.