The Carolina Panthers move one step closer toward a potentially pivotal season Thursday night when the 2022 NFL draft begins in Las Vegas.
The first round might be just as important to the future of Sam Darnold. Carolina owns the sixth-overall pick and could spend it on Darnold's replacement under center -- or add elsewhere with the hope Darnold can still become the Panthers' long-term answer at quarterback.
Panthers owner David Tepper doesn't seem ready to give up on Darnold.
"I just want to say one thing. I do think we have a very good quarterback in Sam Darnold, just as an aside," Tepper said Wednesday when asked about the team's options to improve the position in the draft or free agency. "That wasn't your question, but I'll just say that."
Darnold came to Carolina via a trade in 2021 that was executed with the hope a change of scenery could help the quarterback rejuvenate his career. Instead, it brought more frustration to Darnold and uncertainty to the Panthers.
Darnold simply wasn't good enough in his first season in Carolina to give the Panthers confidence in him moving forward. Injuries didn't help the quarterback, who lost his most important teammate, running back Christian McCaffrey, before suffering his own ailment that forced him out of action.
Ultimately, instead of finding stability at quarterback, the Panthers were forced to spin their carousel, adding Cam Newton and failing to find success. Now, with the draft a day away, and Baker Mayfield still among the available veterans, the Panthers have been forced to consider all options.
Tepper mentioned changes elsewhere that he believes might help Darnold improve in 2022, should he return as the team's starter. Tepper seems to believe Darnold can still turn things around and prove he was worth the acquisition.
"At the time that we made the trade, Sam's compensation was moderate and what the coaching staff and what the scouting staff thought at the time was that he's a very talented young man," Tepper said. "I think he was second or third in that draft class -- in the first round. And that he has incredible skills. And he still does have incredible skills."
Tepper requested some understanding and patience as he attempts to lead the Panthers back to contention, telling reporters, "Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is this team."
If Carolina doesn't show some signs of progress, though, coach Matt Rhule -- whom Tepper said "has my full support" -- could end up on the hot seat.
At this time of year, it's easiest to profess belief in a brighter future for all 32 teams. A new season awaits, and moves are still left to be made, especially in the draft.
Tepper's team likely isn't done making such moves. We'll see if they include the game's most important position: quarterback.
"I want to win now, OK? I want to win now," Tepper said. "But I know that you still have to build the foundation. ... We're gonna be building, and we have built in free agency. ... I'm excited about the new season. What was then is then and what is now is now. And I'm ready to go."