Sam Darnold to Panthers confirms key 49ers question for NFL Draft
By Peter Panacy
While the 49ers likely knew this would be the case, the Jets are essentially guaranteed to draft a quarterback after trading Sam Darnold to the Panthers.
Truthfully, the San Francisco 49ers were probably aware the New York Jets had every intent to use the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft on a quarterback despite first-year head coach Robert Saleh and his staff being notably quiet on the future of their former franchise signal-caller, Sam Darnold.
But any doubts whether or not that would happen were all but erased on Monday when news broke that the Jets would trade Darnold, the third overall pick from the 2018 draft, to the Carolina Panthers.
Carolina will send off a sixth-round pick this year along with a second- and fourth-round pick in 2022, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.
The move has a pretty clear indicator for the 49ers now, as they’ll be looking at one of the high-profile prospects in what’s considered a top-heavy quarterbacking class. Armed with the No. 3 overall pick, the Niners no longer need to wonder about whether the Jets will go after another position player instead.
And the overwhelming consensus is Gang Green will take BYU quarterback Zach Wilson at No. 2 overall, likely leaving one of the three other big names — Ohio State’s Justin Fields, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance or Alabama’s Mac Jones — right in San Francisco’s collective lap.
Does Panthers’ move for Sam Darnold indicate the 49ers aren’t drafting Mac Jones?
Despite being widely viewed as a late first-round pick, perhaps ascending no higher than the early teens, Jones has somehow emerged as a favorite for the 49ers’ top pick in this year’s draft.
If this is the case, both Lance and Fields are going to be pushed down the draft order and potentially in the range where the Panthers, owners of the No. 8 overall pick, could have found their long-term replacement for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The four teams picking between the Niners and Panthers — the Atlanta Falcons, Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions — aren’t likely to take quarterbacks early this year, meaning the Panthers could have likely had a good shot at grabbing either Lance or Fields, both of whom are considered prospects with significantly higher ceilings than Jones.
By trading for Darnold and essentially penciling him in as a starter and electing to pick up his fifth-year option, it would appear as if Carolina no longer thinks someone like Fields will be available.
This doesn’t rule out a trade-up with one of those other four teams, of course, but perhaps it’s a modest indicator the Panthers aren’t buying the idea San Francisco is going to select Jones, a would-be massive reach, at No. 3 overall.
No, one might guess Carolina is thinking that player winds up being someone like Fields instead.
Of course, we won’t know that until draft night on April 29.