The Carolina Panthers could have taken either starting quarterback from the College Football Playoff National Championship Game with the No. 8 overall pick of the 2021 NFL draft.
After all, Ohio State's Justin Fields and Alabama's Mac Jones were both available, but Carolina elected to go with South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn instead. Head coach Matt Rhule explained that the team passed on quarterbacks because it believes in Sam Darnold during an appearance on The Rich Eisen Show (h/t Grant Gordon of NFL.com):
"I love those guys and I think they're gonna be great NFL players. I just think for us, when we got Sam and knowing he's 23-years-old, just turned 24, we just felt like Sam plus another player would be better for the team overall. We're just trying to build the whole team and I just believe in Sam, I believe that he deserves the opportunity to go out and play with us. I think those other young quarterbacks are gonna be fantastic players, but the hit rate on first-round quarterbacks isn't real, real high, and to have a chance to get Jaycee Horn and have Sam Darnold, we just kind of felt like, 'Hey this is two for one.' Now, we just have to make sure Sam's a great player for us."
Carolina underscored that belief by picking up the fifth-year option on Darnold's contract after the first round of the draft.
The Panthers also showed enough belief in the USC product to trade for him and sent a 2021 sixth-round pick and second- and found-round selections in 2022 to the New York Jets in the deal.
While Darnold is just 23 years old, he is yet to live up to expectations after the Jets used the No. 3 overall pick on him in the 2018 draft. He has 45 touchdown passes to 39 interceptions in his career, threw more picks (11) than touchdowns (nine) last season and is just 13-25 as a starter.
Playing in New York wasn't exactly the easiest situation for the signal-caller, as he had two head coaches (Todd Bowles and Adam Gase) in three years and wasn't exactly surrounded by game-changing talent.
That won't necessarily be the case with the Panthers given the presence of Christian McCaffrey, Robby Anderson and DJ Moore in the offense. Perhaps he will thrive with a new coach and weapons to go with the change of scenery, and Rhule seems to think that will be the case.
As for the rookies, Fields went to the Chicago Bears with the No. 11 pick, while the New England Patriots selected Jones at No. 15.
It's a safe bet Darnold will be compared to that pair for the foreseeable future given Carolina's decision.