Passing on a quarterback in the draft could indicate that the team intends to land the Browns star.
Why the Panthers passed on a top quarterback
Countless times, it has been noted that the 2022 quarterback class is not an elite one. That is why defensive players flew off the board right away.
So the Panthers played it safe and took a foundational piece in Ekwonu with the sixth overall pick. If he flops, it will be hard to fault Carolina, given his high rating in nearly every mock draft.
But there is another reason why Carolina passed on the likes of Willis and Pickett. Darnold is set to play on his fifth-year option in 2022. The team traded for him a year ago, investing draft capital in the hopes he could turn into something extraordinary.
Drafting a young quarterback in 2022 would prove that decision was a failure. In that scenario, jobs could be lost.
A trade for Mayfield is a more wide-open situation for all sides involved. He, too, is set to play on a fifth-year option in 2022. The Panthers can swing a deal where the Browns may have to take on much of the quarterback's salary. This creates a low-risk, high-reward situation where two of the top signal-callers from the 2018 NFL Draft compete to be the future in Carolina.
If both fail? The team has a top offensive lineman and can rely on a stacked 2023 quarterback class to land a franchise cornerstone.
Passing on a quarterback does not ensure that the Panthers will go after Mayfield. However, it keeps the possibility alive because it is hard to imagine the team opening up the season with Darnold as the starting quarterback. This is a scenario where Matt Rhule could lose his job, regardless of how well Ekwonu plays.