How Sam Darnold trade impacts NFL landscape ahead of draft

NFL analyst Michael Lombardi joins Follow The Money to discuss why he really likes the Sam Darnold trade for the Carolina Panthers, especially since they dealt away 2022 picks and hung onto their first round picks.

One more NFL off-season domino fell on Monday after when the New York Jets traded 2018 No. 3 pick Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for a 2021 sixth-round draft pick and second-rounder and fourth-rounder in 2022.

With the NFL draft just a few weeks away and the Panthers-Jets deal likely to have ramifications on how things play out on April 29, here's a look at the impact of the trade on the league's landscape.

Another off-season QB question answered

The Panthers were always expected to add another quarterback this off-season after Teddy Bridgewater’s debut season in Carolina did not work out the way many had hoped.

Whether acquiring Darnold – who has shown rare flashes but is widely considered a disappointment through three pro seasons – is the answer for the Panthers at the position is a question that will be hotly debated in the lead-up to next season.

But Carolina’s quest for competition under centre meant they didn’t have many options left given what has transpired so far this off-season. The Panthers had been rumoured to be very interested in acquiring Deshaun Watson, but the chances of Watson moving seem unlikely at this point as the Texans QB currently faces 22 lawsuits alleging sexual assault and misconduct.

Carolina was also a prime candidate to trade up in the draft from their current position at No. 8 before the San Francisco 49ers moved up nine spots to No. 3 on March 26 in a trade with the Miami Dolphins. That deal meant the Panthers’ best hope of jumping up in the draft order was by acquiring the fourth-overall pick from the Atlanta Falcons – which was never going to happen as the two teams are NFC South rivals.

So the Panthers gave up a trio of picks for Darnold, who could be the answer if his early-career woes in the Big Apple lay squarely at the feet of a franchise that spent his time there in complete disarray. But if that’s not entirely the case, and Darnold can’t find his footing with the Panthers, this trade will be a tough one for fans to swallow.

What does it mean for Bridgewater? Well, we’re of the mind the Panthers would be smart to keep both QBs and hold a competition this summer but early reports suggest Carolina could trade last season’s starter.

Draft’s top-3 picks now all but guaranteed to be QBs

This has been the expectation since the 49ers moved up to No. 3, but if there was any doubt, Monday’s trade ensures quarterbacks will be selected with each of the first three picks in the first round of this month’s draft.

Trevor Lawrence is a lock to go to the Jacksonville Jaguars first overall. The Jets, now with just James Morgan and Mike White on the depth chart at QB, will most definitely take one of the four remaining signal-callers expected to go in the first round and most experts in the know point to BYU pivot Zach Wilson being GM Joe Douglas’s guy.

And at No. 3 is the draft biggest wild-card: the 49ers. Many assumed when the trade was made to acquire the pick, that it would be one of two still available out of Wilson, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, but in the time since March 26 many NFL insiders have pointed to Alabama’s Mac Jones as the quarterback that tickles Kyle Shanahan’s fancy.

Regardless of who San Francisco selects, the Darnold deal means we're all but guaranteed to see three QBs go in the first three picks. But then what?

Then things get really interesting.

Falcons are THE team to watch heading into draft – maybe Lions, too

The Falcons, at this point, hold all the cards in the draft with the top-three picks likely to be quarterbacks, and they’ll have plenty of options at No. 4.

New GM Terry Fotenot could select whichever of the top-four QBs doesn’t go in the first three picks, solidifying a post-Matt Ryan future at the position. He could also have his pick of the non-QBs in the draft, highlighted by prospects like tight end Kyle Pitts, wide receiver La’Marr Chase and offensive tackle Penei Sewell – all of whom are regarded as close as can’t-miss as you can get.

Or Fotenot could trade the pick to a QB-needy team in the spots below for what would likely be a huge haul of future draft picks. According to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, the Falcons are “open to the idea of trading the pick and have had exploratory talks with other teams on a deal that would have someone else moving up to No. 4.”

Breer also points to the Lions as a team that, with the No. 7 pick, could move down if the draft shakes out in a way that a top quarterback prospect is available when Detroit is on the clock. And should the Falcons pass on a QB at No. 4, it’s very much in play given the Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins, who hold the fifth- and sixth-overall picks, respectively, already have starting QBs in place.

Monday’s Darnold-to-the-Panthers deal means Carolina is no longer one of those teams that could be looking to move up on draft day, but it also means the Falcons and Lions picks are more valuable than they’ve ever been should the right quarterback be available when it’s their time to select.

Which teams could trade up for a QB?

With Carolina out of the picture to jump up the draft board, here’s a quick look at teams that could be in the mix to move up.

Denver Broncos: Drew Lock did not have the sophomore season the Broncos were hoping for and new GM George Paton could move up to select a QB he’s more willing to be the future on.

New England Patriots: Despite the team’s spending spree, quarterback is very much unsettled with Cam Newton back on a one-year deal. Could Bill Belichick cap a wild off-season with a move up the draft?

New Orleans Saints: Neither Jameis Winston nor Taysom Hill feel like long-term solutions to Drew Brees’ retirement, so if GM Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton love one of these QB prospects could they be in play to go get one?

Other QB-needy teams we’re watching ahead of the draft: The Washington Football Team, Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers.

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