Sam Darnold has been upstaged at times during his NFL career.
The new quarterback for the Carolina Panthers might be falling into that category again going into the season opener against the New York Jets on Sunday afternoon in Charlotte, N.C.
That’s because Darnold’s replacement with the Jets is Zach Wilson, who’ll make his pro debut after being selected No. 2 overall in the 2021 draft.
The Panthers acquired Darnold, who played his first three seasons with the Jets, during an offseason move. That resulted in the departure of Teddy Bridgewater, who spent one season with Carolina.
“With Sam, it’s a new beginning,” said Panthers receiver Robby Anderson, a sixth-year pro who spent his first four seasons with the Jets. “Lots of time, new beginnings is what a lot of us need. Turning that page to a new chapter.”
For Wilson, it might be even more special as he makes the leap from BYU to Jets starter as one of the team’s captains.
“For Zach, it’s about him and his process and it’s about him getting ready to play the best he possibly can,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said, noting this shouldn’t be a case of judging Wilson vs. Darnold.
There’s plenty new in this matchup.
Saleh makes his NFL coaching debut with the Jets after arriving from the San Francisco 49ers staff.
“I’m sure I’ll be as amped up as all heck on Sunday,” said Saleh, who was San Francisco’s defensive coordinator.
Matt Rhule is in his second season with Carolina after a 5-11 record in 2020, and, with the Jets’ new coaching staff and rookie QB, he’s facing a challenge.
“We have to prepare for everything right now,” Rhule said. “We’re preparing for a lot of different looks, a lot of different personnel. There are just so many unknowns.”
Even with the attention Wilson is receiving, the Jets could be stout on the other side despite a young defensive backfield.
“They are put together really well defensively,” Rhule said.
With a more conventional offseason, the Panthers should be much more comfortable in establishing what they want to do going into this season.
“It’s night and day from last year,” Rhule said. “We have a much more collective sense of how we want to win, how we want to do things. I think we’re way farther ahead. How much that is, we’ll see on Sunday.”
It’s also the return in many ways of versatile Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, who was one of the most productive players in the league in 2019. Last season, he appeared in just three games because of injuries. McCaffrey racked up 97 yards of total offense against the Jets as a rookie in 2017.
“To have him, I’ve been waiting for this moment,” Rhule said. “We’re excited to get him back involved.”
The Panthers also have turned to Ryan Santoso, a former New York Giant, as the kicker, replacing Joey Slye, who became too inconsistent to keep.
The Jets are waiting on word regarding the status of receiver Jamison Crowder, who remained in COVID protocol Wednesday.
With all the roster adjustments for both teams, it’s time to see how they stack up.
“It’s the real season now, real games,” Anderson said. “Play time is over with.”
The Panthers are 4-3 all-time against the Jets, winning three of four home games. Carolina’s first victory in franchise history came against the Jets in its first season in 1995 when home games were played in Clemson, S.C.
–Field Level Media