How far would ‘dark horse’ Panthers go to land Deshaun Watson?

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That would be one way to go from “dark horse” to front-runner.

The Panthers have long been labeled a team to watch in the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes, though not amongst the favorites. NFL Network’s Ian Rapaport recently labeled Carolina a “dark horse” in the race for Watson given their interest in acquiring Matthew Stafford before he was dealt from the Lions to the Rams.

The Watson rumors have been fairly quiet this week, but interest was sparked over comments made by ESPN’s Panthers beat writer David Newton.

Some confused Newton’s bold prediction that Carolina “will do whatever it takes” to get Watson for a sourced report. Newton theorized that if the Panthers went all-in it could involve shipping first-team All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey and three-first round picks to Houston to secure the miserable Texans signal-caller.

”[Panthers] Owner David Tepper wants to win a Super Bowl,” Newton said on ESPN’s NFL Live. “He’s made that clear. He understands it takes a marquee quarterback to do that. If you look at recent history, outside of Patrick Mahomes, the quickest way to do that is to trade for a marquee quarterback and not draft one in the first round. Just ask Tampa Bay.”

CBS Sports reported on Wednesday that Tepper is “beyond smitten with Watson” and is ready to move on from a “game-manager” quarterback, which sounds a lot like current starter Teddy Bridgewater. It lends further credence to the measures the franchise might be willing to go to try and pull off a turnaround similar to their NFC South rival Buccaneers.

Tampa Bay signed Tom Brady during free agency last offseason. Brady, 43, made an immediate impact and helped the team, which had posted just two winning seasons over the previous 11 years, pivot and win Super Bowl 2021 earlier this month.

McCaffrey, 24, is a dual-threat runner and pass-catcher. He has rushed for 3,145 yards and 29 touchdowns and has caught 2,672 yards for 16 touchdowns through 51 regular-season appearances and earned Pro Bowl honors in 2019.

The Stanford product inked a four-year, $64 million extension ahead of the 2020 season which made him the highest-paid running back in NFL history. He appeared in just three games in 2020 due to multiple injuries to his shoulder, ankle, and quad. The deal carries a $12.54 million cap hit and $24.94 million dead cap hit in 2021.

These reports imply that the Panthers don’t view Bridgewater, whom they signed last March to a three-year, $63 million deal to replace Cam Newton, as their future at quarterback. Carolina reportedly attempted to deal Bridgewater plus additional draft picks to Detroit for Stafford, but ultimately came up short to the Rams’ offer.

Bridgewater, 28, went 4-11 and completed 69.1 percent of his passes for 3,733 yards, 15 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, and rushed for 279 yards and five touchdowns through 15 starts in his first season as a Panther. His contract carries a $22.95 million cap hit and $20 million dead cap hit in 2021.

Watson, 25, has three Pro Bowl nominations in four years and is fresh off a fantastic season in which he led the league in passing yards. He completed 70.2 percent of his passes for 4,823 yards, 33 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and posted 444 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns in 16 starts.

Despite Watson’s banner year, the Texans finished with an abysmal 4-12 record, which would have landed them the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft had they not traded it to the Dolphins. The prospect of three first-round picks along with McCaffrey might be attractive to a team whose draft capital and talent were pillaged by former head coach and de facto general manager Bill O’Brien. The franchise maintains it has no plans to trade its quarterback, however, despite the ongoing drama and obviously frayed relationship.

Watson signed a four-year, $156 million extension in September and is under contract through 2025. He carries a $15.94 million cap hit ($67.14 million dead cap) in 2021.

Numerous vacancies could open up heading into what should be an eventful 2021 quarterback shuffle, including the Broncos, Steelers, Patriots, Jets, Colts, Jaguars, Washington, Eagles, Bears and Saints.

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