When the Carolina Panthers were on the clock with the eighth overall pick in last week's NFL Draft, top-tier quarterbacks Justin Fields and Mac Jones were still on the board, and in a prime position to be selected.
But neither prospect heard his name called at the podium during that time on Thursday night. Instead, Carolina drafted cornerback Jaycee Horn, and ultimately concluded that newly acquired Sam Darnold is the young quarterback most worthy of investment.
"When I watched the tape of Sam play his first three years, I always felt like I saw moments where he made great plays," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule told The Zach Gelb Show on Tuesday. "Whether it was with his legs, whether it was making tight throws, whether it was making crucial throws, I could tell his toughness. I could tell his competitiveness. But I always saw him in every game making those plays. So, to me, he's still such a young player. He's 23 years old. He's the age that most quarterbacks 10 to 15 years ago were coming out of college.
"So, to have a young player with his competitiveness, with his toughness, we just feel like we can continue to coach him, continue to help him grow. And those flashes of excellence, we want to turn into streaks of excellence..."
Darnold, who was traded to Carolina in exchange for a package of draft picks nearly a month ago, encountered a perfect storm of instability as the Jets' quarterback. In three seasons, the former first-round pick went just 13-25 as a starter, and finished the 2020 season as the league's lowest-rated passer (72.7). Dating back to 2018 -- his rookie year -- Darnold's career passer rating of 78.6 ranks dead last among qualifying quarterbacks (39 of 39).
To make matters worse, Darnold has also struggled mightily to stay healthy since joining the NFL. He missed three games as a rookie with a sprained foot, three games in 2019 due to mononucleosis, and four games last season with a sprained throwing shoulder.
Despite these clear concerns, Rhule isn't of the opinion that Darnold's confidence has ever wavered. He believes the 23-year-old has the mental makeup and physical attributes to remain a pro-level starter and rejuvenate his career. And because of this evaluation, a top draft prospect in Fields is the newest member of the Chicago Bears, rather than the Panthers.
"I think [Fields] is an unbelievable quarterback. I think he's going to have a ton of success. But, we made the decision that we're going to have Sam be our quarterback," Rhule said. "I look at it real simply. Had we drafted a quarterback, we would've had a quarterback. By taking another position player, we had Sam plus now Jaycee. So, to me, it was two-for-one, an opportunity to continue to build the team while also having a quarterback in Sam, who we believe can do it.
"That doesn't mean I don't believe that Justin or Mac are any of those other quarterbacks aren't going to be franchise quarterbacks. I think they're going to be really special. But, this was a chance for us to get a corner and also move into the future with Sam."
Last week, Carolina picked up the fifth-year option on Darnold's contract. According to Spotrac.com, he's due to count $4.7 million against the cap this upcoming season, and $18.8 million against the cap in 2022.
The entire conversation between Rhule and Gelb can be accessed in the audio player above.