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What the Sam Darnold trade means for the Patriots’ draft strategy

Sam Darnold may be a former No. 3 pick and only 23 years old, but he hasn’t done much in three seasons.
Sam Darnold may be a former No. 3 pick and only 23 years old, but he hasn’t done much in three seasons.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

The NFL’s quarterback carousel took another spin on Monday when the Jets traded Sam Darnold to the Panthers for a sixth-round pick in 2021 and second- and fourth-round picks in 2022.

Darnold is now the man in Carolina. Brigham Young’s Zach Wilson is the favorite to go to the Jets with the No. 2 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. And former Panthers starter Teddy Bridgewater is now looking for a new team.

The trade creates a ripple effect not just for the two teams but for several others across the league. Let’s take a look at how this trade affects the quarterback market, starting with the Patriots:

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Teddy Bridgewater landed in Carolina last season after moving on from the Saints. It looks like he'll be on the move again.
Teddy Bridgewater landed in Carolina last season after moving on from the Saints. It looks like he'll be on the move again.Jared C. Tilton/Getty

▪ Cam Newton probably doesn’t have to be worried about another veteran coming in and taking his job. Bridgewater, who is owed $10 million fully guaranteed this season, won’t be coming to Foxborough. He’s not an upgrade over Newton, and the Patriots would never pay a backup more than the starter.

And I don’t see the 49ers choosing Bridgewater over Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers will be taking a quarterback with the No. 3 pick, but they seem adamant about sitting him as a rookie, as they believe they have a Super Bowl-contending roster. While Bridgewater is $15 million cheaper than Garoppolo, he’s also a significant downgrade, and would be new to their system. There’s no way the 49ers believe Bridgewater gives them a better chance to win than does Garoppolo.

▪ But Newton should be more worried about the Patriots drafting a quarterback in the first round. There are five quarterbacks likely to be drafted in the first round, and we know the Jaguars, Jets, and 49ers are taking QBs 1-2-3. But the Patriots pick 15th, and the competition for the other two first-round-worthy quarterbacks has dwindled.

The Panthers at No. 8 have all but taken themselves out of the first-round quarterback market after trading for Darnold and picking up the fifth-year option on his contract, which guarantees him about $24 million over the next two years. The Panthers could draft a QB in 2022, but they want to give Darnold a shot first.

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The only other teams ahead of the Patriots that could conceivably draft a quarterback are the Falcons at No. 4, Broncos at No. 9, and Eagles at No. 12. But the Falcons are likelier to trade out of that pick and stick with Matt Ryan for another year, and the Eagles are probably sticking with Jalen Hurts and Joe Flacco. The Broncos also might not be in the market for a first-round QB, as coach Vic Fangio is on the hot seat and needs to win now.

Pick Team
1 Jaguars Likely to take Trevor Lawrence
2 Jets Likely to take Zach Wilson
3 49ers Will definitely draft a QB
4 Falcons Likelier to trade out than draft a QB
8 Pathers Probably won't draft one now
9 Broncos Likelier to trade for Teddy Bridgewater than draft a QB
12 Eagles Probably will stick with Jalen Hurts and Nick Foles
15 Patriots Need a long-term quarterback beyond Cam Newton
19 Washington Has Ryan Fitzpatrick but no long-term answer
20 Bears Desparate for a long-term answer
24 Steelers Need to find an heir to Big Ben
28 Saints May just go with Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston for a year
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Other teams ahead of the Patriots who aren’t drafting a QB: No. 5 Bengals (committed to Joe Burrow), No. 6 Miami (Tua Tagovailoa), No. 7 Lions (Jared Goff), No. 10 Dallas (Dak Prescott), No. 11 Giants (Daniel Jones), No. 13 Chargers (Justin Herbert), and No. 14 Vikings (Kirk Cousins).

The Patriots may be able to sit at No. 15 and have one of the quarterbacks fall to them. Or they may have to trade up only a few spots to prevent No. 19 Washington, No. 20 Bears, No. 24 Steelers or No. 28 Saints from jumping them in line. But the number of QB-needy teams ahead of the Patriots has shrunk, and it may not cost them a lot to trade up and get one.

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▪ Trading for Darnold was not exactly the bold quarterback move many people expected from the Panthers. But they got leapfrogged by the 49ers for the No. 3 pick, and with this trade they made it clear that they either don’t love Mac Jones, Justin Fields, and Trey Lance, or were worried about getting shut out completely. Darnold gives them certainty heading into this season.

▪ The Panthers didn’t give up major assets to get Darnold, but they still made a surprisingly significant investment — in draft picks and cash — in a quarterback who has struggled. Giving up three picks, including next year’s second-rounder, was probably an overpay. Darnold may be a former No. 3 pick and only 23 years old, but he hasn’t done much in three seasons — 45 touchdown passes against 39 interceptions, and a 78.6 passer rating that ranks 42 out of 43 QBs in that time frame.

Plus, the Panthers traded for Darnold knowing that they have to trigger his fifth-year option for 2022 by May 3, which fully guarantees him a salary of $18.858 million. The Panthers aren’t making this trade for Darnold to be one-and-done, even if it means paying a lot of money to a struggling QB.

The Panthers hope that a change of scenery will do Darnold good, and when you factor in Darnold’s $4.77 million salary this year, it really becomes a two-year, $23.6 million investment, which is a little easier to swallow.

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“A lot of these quarterbacks don’t mature and hit their prime until 24, 25, 26,” Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said. “If this is a quarterback we can hit on at this price, it’s definitely worth the gamble.”

▪ Assuming Darnold starts all 17 games this year, he will face the Patriots in Charlotte in 2021. Darnold is 0-3 against the Patriots with one touchdown, six interceptions, a 46.4 passer rating, and many ghosts seen.

▪ The Jets are likely turning the team over to Wilson, who was barely on the draft radar before 2020 but had a tremendous season at BYU. Wilson will have a solid left tackle in Mekhi Becton, and has some decent weapons in receivers Corey Davis, Jamison Crowder, Denzel Mims, and tight end Chris Herndon. But the Jets still need to get Wilson more help.

Fortunately, GM Joe Douglas has the Jets in a great spot to do so. The Jets have four other picks in the top 100 in addition to No. 2 (Nos. 23, 34, 66 and 87), plus two first-rounders and two second-rounders in 2022. Douglas got a nice haul for Darnold considering everyone in the league knew the Jets wanted to dump him.

▪ What’s next for Bridgewater, who went 4-11 as the Panthers’ starter last year with 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions? He has an $18 million salary with $10 million of it fully guaranteed, so the Panthers will almost certainly trade him (and his new team will ask Bridgewater to negotiate his contract down to $10 million). But the Panthers may have to split some of the cost with an acquiring team if they want to get more than a fourth- or fifth-round pick for him.

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Unfortunately for Bridgewater, his options are limited because most of the QB seats have been filled. The Saints are already crowded with Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston. Washington is probably good with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Taylor Heinicke. The Texans already have Tyrod Taylor, and Bridgewater isn’t an upgrade. The Patriots chose Newton. The Colts, Falcons, Eagles, and Steelers could use backups but don’t have the money.

The team to watch is the Broncos, who haven’t made many moves yet in free agency and need better competition for Drew Lock. Other teams that could use better backups are the Bengals, Titans, Giants, and Vikings, while the Buccaneers don’t have a backup to Tom Brady. But the Broncos make the most sense by far.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.