Sam Darnold’s future with Panthers just got very messy

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Just when Sam Darnold’s future looked cleared up, it’s messy again.

Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said the team won’t decide on Darnold’s fifth-year option for the 2022 season until after the 2021 NFL Draft, which begins Thursday.

It was reported soon after the Panthers traded three draft picks for Darnold on April 5 that they planned to exercise the $18.5 million contract option – so this represents either a reconsideration or a draft smokescreen.

The deadline for NFL teams to decide whether to pick up fifth-year options on all of the 2018 first-round draft picks is May 3. That is four months before the beginning of each player’s fourth season. Most teams wait until after the draft, even when an option is obviously going to be exercised, like the Giants and Saquon Barkley.

“We have a strong plan in place,” Fitterer said.

It sounds blasphemous to think that the Panthers would trade for Darnold as a one-year rental when two of the picks they gave up as compensation are in the 2022 draft. Declining his option would mean opening a door for him to leave in free agency, having to negotiate a long-term extension sooner than expected or having to use the highly expensive franchise tag to keep him around.

Is it possible the Panthers could draft a quarterback like Mac Jones, Justin Fields or Trey Lance with the No. 8 pick next week? If they do, then the writing is on the wall not to pick up Darnold’s option. It sounds more like a bluff to create a trade market for the pick.

“There’s actually several of them that we’re excited about,” Fitterer said of the quarterbacks. “But we’re not going to get into exactly who.”

Darnold was supposed to be the quarterback of the future for the Jets. That lasted just three disappointing seasons of roster, coaching and front-office turnover before he was traded to make way for presumptive No. 2 pick Zach Wilson.

The Panthers could use the No. 8 pick to draft an elite pass-catcher or a left tackle to help Darnold grow. Or they could set up drama.

“I think you always learn from experiences you have, and it’s not just quarterbacks,” Fitterer said. “It’s every position. I believe in bringing in the best players that can fit your team, create competition and upgrade your roster. So whether it’s a quarterback, a corner, it doesn’t matter. It’s how do they fit our team, what’s the path for success and what’s our plan.”

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