In what’s fast become a yearly tradition, the Panthers are looking for a new quarterback. Teddy Bridgewater took over for Cam Newton, Sam Darnold took over for Bridgewater, and now there appears to be some teeth to the idea that Carolina will find a way to trade for or sign Jimmy Garoppolo to take over for Darnold.
The Panthers have emerged as being the last and best opportunity for Garoppolo this season. They’re a team with a dire need at QB, the cap space to absorb his contract, and at least on the surface it seems like a natural fit. While you can applaud the Panthers for wanting to do something to get better, trading or signing Garoppolo feels like another attempt to gain speed on a rudderless ship careening towards the rocks.
It’s a complicated mess, because under the veneer of failure, and the film of filth left by trying to trade for Deshaun Watson, the Panthers have actually had a really good offseason. GM Scott Fitterer filled many of Carolina’s most pressing needs in free agency with smart, low-money deals that offers the team flexibility for the future — while retaining two of its best young players in receiver D.J. Moore and cornerback Donte Jackson, both of whom agreed to extensions. Reconciling this smart, stable approach with a desperation move for a quarterback is where this all goes off the rails.
A move for Garoppolo would show a tacit lack of understanding of who the Panthers are, what they could be, and what the future direction of this team is. To make matters worse, it’s coming at the worst possible time. On the back of a 5-11 season, the 2022 NFL Draft is incredibly deep at talent, just not at the quarterback position. Passers are a weakness in this class, and while I personally believe Malik Willis could develop into an elite QB, I also understand there’s just as much risk that he could bust.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, in a draft this deep they also lack assets. Carolina gave up their 2nd round pick as part of the deal for Sam Darnold, their 3rd rounder went to Jacksonville for C.J. Henderson — and neither player has panned out. Normally these would have been middling, low-impact deals, but in 2022 those Day 2 picks could be tantamount to two solid, starting players, rather than the reclamation projects they got in return.
So we have a bad team, in a draft without a clear quarterback, without the assets to add talent at multiple positions. It’s a recipe for another down year, a return to drafting high in the Top 10, and another reset. That’s what the team should do with the 2023 NFL Draft already on the horizon, but the front office seems destined not to accept that reality.
Garoppolo would instantly make the Panthers better. There is absolutely no doubt about it. With a returning Christian McCaffrey (assuming he stays healthy), the influx of free agents, and a solid WR corps that couldn’t be utilized by Darnold in 2021, there’s every belief Carolina would take a step forward — but there’s a definite ceiling in place, too. How much better could this team really get with Jimmy G, and what would be acceptable?
Would 8-9 be enough? Would 10-7? Is there any combination of numbers that doesn’t just result in the Panthers making the playoffs and then running into an NFC buzzsaw like Tampa Bay, Los Angeles or San Francisco? I don’t think so, and that’s what makes this scenario infuriating, because of what would be lost in a quest for a one-and-done playoff pyrrhic victory — namely, the 2023 NFL Draft.
Look at other teams around the NFL with a dire need at QB. They all understand what’s coming around the corner. The Seahawks are content playing Drew Lock, the Falcons are going to start Marcus Mariota, the Steelers went with Mitch Trubisky, the Saints re-signed Jameis Winston. Why are these teams, especially the Seahawks, Steelers and Saints, who are inherently better than Carolina, not making a deal for Garoppolo? They know he might make them too good.
The 2023 NFL Draft is the aligning of planets we see happen once every handful of years where numerous promising quarterbacks are destined to hit the league at the same time. It’s conceivable that as many as five quarterbacks are taken in the first round, with potentially three going in the Top 5 (Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Spencer Rattler). Adding Garoppolo to a 5-11 team, as the Panthers might be on the precipice of doing, would take them out of that range. The only way back in would be trading considerable future assets to move back into a position they deserve to be in anyway, and kicking their problems down the road.
If the Panthers don’t believe in Malik Willis or one of the quarterbacks in 2022, that’s fine. The response to this should be to play Sam Darnold, get through another season, and hold the expectation that they can find a top-tier QB in a year. Not that they should rally around a deal for Jimmy Garoppolo, play for a wild card, then get trapped in passer purgatory for another three years. Garoppolo is the perfect bridge QB, and he performed amazingly well for the 49ers last year, but with the Panthers it would be like buying a bridge, and having no clue where you’re building to, or what would be on the other side.
Getting better right now at the expense of the future is not a luxury Carolina has. At least it’s not one if they want to build sustained success in the NFL. Instead it would be another floundering move out of desperation, that hurts the future, all in the hopes of earning a little fan confidence. It would not be worth it in the long run.