For the second-straight offseason, the Steelers sat idly by and watched an available quarterback with a tremendous pedigree go to another team—and for a bargain of a price.
Almost a full calendar year after former number-one pick Jameis Winston signed a cheap “prove it” one-year contract to be the Saints backup, it was announced on Monday that the Panthers acquired Sam Darnold, the third-overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, from the Jets in exchange for a sixth-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and second and fourth-round picks in the 2022 NFL Draft.
That didn’t seem like a lot of draft capital to give up for a Panthers team that was still searching for its next franchise quarterback after Teddy Bridgewater’s underwhelming one-year audition to replace Cam Newton in that role.
So why couldn’t the Steelers make a similar move to acquire Darnold?
On the surface, that might have seemed like a low-risk transaction, but the Steelers’ situation is a bit different than Carolina’s.
For starters, Pittsburgh still has its franchise quarterback for 2021, after working out a reasonable one-year deal with veteran Ben Roethlisberger.
The Panthers have reportedly granted Bridgewater permission to seek a trade. If a suitable deal isn’t worked out between Carolina and another team, Bridgewater will likely be released or asked to take a sizable pay-cut and be the backup just one year after signing a rather-lucrative contract.
Also, as per various reports, the Panthers have decided to pick up Darnold’s fifth-year option, which guarantees the young quarterback nearly $19 million in 2022.
This all makes sense. The Panthers are giving Darnold two more years to reach his full potential as an NFL quarterback. Darnold has been a starter in the NFL since his rookie season. While the results haven’t been what you’d want from the third-overall pick in the draft, it would make no sense to suddenly park Darnold on the bench for his fourth season and have him miss a year of development.
And this is why Darnold to Pittsburgh became a moot point the moment the Steelers and Roethlisberger worked things out for 2021.
Darnold is owed $4.7 million in 2021, which wouldn’t have been a horrible financial pill for even the cap-compromised Steelers to swallow if it meant they got Roethlisberger’s heir apparent. But what about nearly $19 million in 2022? Had the Steelers traded for Darnold, they likely would have picked up his fifth-year option, even if he rode the bench behind Roethlisberger in 2021. After all, it seems inconceivable to pay a young quarterback nearly $5 million to sit on the bench if you don’t have bigger plans for him the next season.
So, yes, hypothetically speaking, the Steelers likely would have picked up Darnold’s fifth-year option. And that could have been a risky move. Think about, Darnold would have headed into 2022 with three lukewarm years and a totally cold one under his belt before taking over as Pittsburgh’s starter.
$19 million may be well-below the going rate for franchise quarterbacks, these days, but it sure does seem like a lot to pay one who is largely unproven.
Speaking of the going rate for modern franchise quarterbacks, let’s say, under my hypothetical scenario, Darnold has a decent showing in 2022—say, 24 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. If you’re the Steelers, would you franchise tag Darnold for 2023? Would you fully commit to giving him a new contract?
I’m guessing either transaction would include a $30 million base salary, which may be a bridge too far for a Steelers team that has committed a ton of financial resources to the quarterback position over the past decade-plus.
No, it wouldn’t be a lot if Darnold was the real deal, but would anyone know for sure by 2023?
That would be the dilemma.
Yes, it’s also a risk for the Panthers to commit to Darnold past 2021, but at least they’ll have two years of hard data to make a decision on him when the time comes and not just one.
Finally, one of these years, the Steelers may trade for or sign a former high draft pick to be their next quarterback.
But it’s never going to be a year when Ben Roethlisberger is still on the roster.