CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If the Carolina Panthers did not owe Sam Darnold about $18.8 million dollars for next season, the quarterback would likely have finished his tenure with the team in Sunday's 41-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But soon after acquiring Darnold from the New York Jets for a trio of draft picks last spring, Carolina picked up the fifth-year option on Darnold's contract for next season.
For the first time on Monday, General Manager Scott Fitterer explained the move in more detail.
"We wanted to show some confidence in him," Fitterer said, "and we thought he'd come in and play at a consistent level."
But the struggles the former first-round pick dealt with in his first three seasons in New York showed up again after a solid 3-0 start.
Darnold finished the season with 14 total touchdowns (9 passing, 5 rushing) but 17 total turnovers (13 interceptions, 4 fumbles) in 12 games.
The 24-year-old's turnover issues helped lead to the Panthers downward spiral, as Carolina lost 12 of its final 14 games to finish 5-12.
He was sacked 35 times.
But with his contract situation, it's apparent Panthers fans will have to get used to seeing Darnold on the team in 2022 in some capacity.
"Sam will be back," Fitterer said. "When we protect him, and he gets the ball out quick, he looks like a good NFL quarterback."
CAM LIKELY LEAVING FOR GOOD
Meanwhile, it feels like Cam Newton has played his last game in a Panthers uniform.
Signed in November to try and jumpstart the team in Darnold's absence due to injury, Newton served as a backup for the final two games of the season.
In his second stint with the Panthers, Newton was clearly not the same quarterback he was the first go-round, but still scored 9 total touchdowns (4 passing, 5 rushing).
Newton turned the ball over six times (5 interceptions, one fumble).
The former MVP, who will turn 33 this off-season, said he would be willing to accept a reduced role on a contending team.
It didn't sound like he thought that would happen in Carolina.
"I'm not coming back for no 5-12, I can tell you that now," Newton said. "If it's about winning I'm with it. If it's not I won't hitch my wagon to it."
While Fitterer and Rhule admitted offensive line is their top priority going in to the off-season, there is still a chance they would select a quarterback with the No. 6 overall pick.
And it sounds like they are impressed with Pittsburgh QB Kenny Pickett.
The ACC Player of the Year and Heisman finalist played at Bank of America Stadium when Pitt defeated Wake Forest in the league championship game and Pickett was named MVP.
Pickett, who broke several school records, was recruited by Rhule at Temple.
"I went to the game here, really impressed with the competitor," Fitterer said. "Watching his arm strength pre-game, all that checked the box. But there's a long way until the draft so I don't want to commit too much before talking to the guy."
The Panthers haven't picked a quarterback in the first round of the draft since taking Newton, No. 1 overall in 2011.
"From what we're hearing, reports from our scouts, everything's checking the box. This guy sounds like the makeup you want at the position."