“Robby’s one of a kind,” said Darnold, who completed 88 passes to Anderson for 1,341 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2018-19, the most to any Jets pass-catcher in that span. “If he sees a play or a route a certain way, he’s going to let you know. And he’s not afraid to hear some criticism back. Robby’s a great teammate and I’m glad I’m back with him.”
But for how long?
This brings us to the NFL draft and what the Panthers will do with the eighth pick. It appears unlikely that Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell or Florida tight end Kyle Pitts will fall that far, and with Carolina having secured its next quarterback with the trade for Darnold, the best available player on the team’s board could very well be a wide receiver.
With Anderson entering the final season of a two-year, $20 million deal and fellow receiver DJ Moore entering the final year of a his rookie contract, keeping both of 1,000-yard receivers from last season beyond 2021 will be difficult financially.
Carolina can use the fifth-year option on Moore up until May 3, but that will cost the team $11.1 million in 2022 and increases the odds it will have to move on from Anderson.
So the best way to ensure Darnold has a chance to succeed long term is to select a receiver in the draft.
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“He’s my No. 1 receiver,” Kiper said. “Smith would be a great guy to put in the slot. Fifty percent of his catches came in the slot. He can play inside or outside. He can return punts. He will give Darnold another weapon.”
ESPN analyst Todd McShay went with Northwestern offensive tackle Rashawn Slater for Carolina at No. 8 in a mock where he and Kiper alternated picks. However, Kiper likes a receiver there because Slater isn’t a lock to play left tackle.
Kiper also likes Darnold and believes surrounding him with Smith, Moore and Anderson, in addition to running back Christian McCaffrey, gives the No. 3 pick of the 2018 draft a chance to live up to the lofty expectations that came with him from USC.
“If you’re going to move forward with Smith, you’re guaranteeing him for four or five years,” Kiper reminded. “You’re not going to find a receiver like that in next year’s draft.”
But after signing cornerback A.J. Bouye to a two-year, $7 million deal in free agency and spending two picks on corners last season in fourth-rounder Troy Pride Jr. and seventh-rounder Stantley Thomas-Oliver III, the focus is expected to be on offense.
Quarterback also could be an option if one of the top four is still available at 8, but Kiper doesn’t believe the Panthers would have traded for Darnold if they planned to use this pick on a signal-caller.
Neither does ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, who would rank Darnold second among this year’s quarterback class just behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence.
He believes Darnold is a player the Panthers can win with now because of the players around him.
“If you’re looking at all the things that make a quarterback really good in the NFL — leadership, intellectually, toughness, athleticism, arm — all that stuff he’s got,’’ Orlovsky said. “This will be far and away the best skill group that Sam Darnold has ever had the opportunity to play with.
“They need to add another pass-catching weapon.”
Here are the arguments for taking each of the top three receivers and how each would fit Carolina’s scheme:
DeVonta Smith | Alabama | 6-1, 175
In case you missed the national championship game, Smith caught 12 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns — in two quarters — before dislocating a finger that is doing just fine now. Need more? Smith set SEC single-season records for receiving yards (1,856) and touchdowns (23) on 117 catches this past season. Put Smith in the slot with Anderson and Moore outside and Darnold would have no excuses if he fails in his second stop. Smith’s a perfect fit for Joe Brady’s pass-happy scheme. Beyond these things, he can return punts.
Ja’Marr Chase | LSU | 6-1, 208
Chase was Brady’s star receiver in 2019 when Brady was the pass-game coordinator at LSU, so he knows the system. If available, he’s a logical choice. For that same reason, it may be hard for Chase to fall beyond Cincinnati at No. 5, where he would be reunited with former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. Chase opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, but his pro day showed he still deserves to be near the top of this draft. McShay ranks him as the third-best prospect regardless of position. His athleticism and speed are off the charts. He led the FBS with 24 deep catches in 2019, when he totaled 84 receptions for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns. And again, he played in Brady’s system.
Jaylen Waddle | Alabama | 5-9, 190
If Smith and Chase are gone, or even if one of them isn’t gone and Waddle is on the board, you could make the case for Carolina to trade down a few spots for extra draft picks and take Waddle. Like Smith, he can line up anywhere. Many considered him Alabama’s best receiver before an ankle injury derailed his 2020 season after four games. And in those games, Waddle had 25 catches for 557 yards and four touchdowns. He’s also fast, clocked at 4.37 seconds in the 40 before arriving at Bama. Speed in Brady’s scheme is a must.
Detroit Lions release former second-round running back Kerryon Johnson
Detroit drafted the former Auburn standout in the second round in 2018. Johnson became expendable after the team drafted D’Andre Swift No. 35 overall in 2020, signed free-agent running back Jamaal Williams in March and drafted Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson last week.
Johnson ran for 1,225 yards and eight touchdowns over three seasons. He also has 61 career receptions for 527 yards and three scores.
Last year, he had 181 yards rushing and two scores on 52 carries, and had 19 receptions for 187 yards receiving and a touchdown.
The Lions also added a player in free agency, signing tight end Darren Fells on Wednesday. The move gives the team a veteran at the position it can put on the field with Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson.
The 35-year-old Fells has 123 career catches with 1,483 yards receiving and 21 touchdowns. The previous two years in Houston, he had a combined 55 catches for 653 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Fells has started 76 games — including 13 with the Lions in 2017 — and played in 102 games with Arizona, Detroit, Cleveland and the Texans. He was a rebounding standout at UC Irvine and played basketball in Argentina, Mexico, Belgium, Finland and France before playing in the NFL.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
John Kuhn says Aaron Rodgers ‘conflicted’ about future with Green Bay Packers
During an appearance Wednesday night on CBS Radio, Kuhn said he wouldn’t disclose the exact details of their conversation but painted a picture of a quarterback who is evaluating all aspects of the situation and hasn’t made up his mind for certain.
“He’s conflicted because this man loves to play the game of football, this man loves to be a Green Bay Packer and this man truly sees careers,” Kuhn said during the interview. “He’s watched friends leave, he watched Brett Favre’s career toward the end. He’s watched all these things play out in front of his eyes; he’s taken notes throughout his career. He’s seen some situations that didn’t feel were done or finished the way that they could or should have.
“He’s just trying to take his earned destiny within his own hands. To that effect, I actually admire him because not many players in the NFL have that opportunity. I sure as heck didn’t. I played until everybody told me ‘you can’t play anymore,’ and it’s a humbling feeling. Aaron Rodgers has an opportunity to take a little bit of that power.”
Kuhn, a regular golf partner of Rodgers’, played for the Packers from 2007 to 2015 before returning to the organization to do some media work after his retirement. The former fan favorite offered a more optimistic outlook for Rodgers’ return than a suggestion earlier Wednesday from Favre, who said his gut told him that “if there’s not a trade … [Rodgers would] rather sit out than play.”
“If I used my gut and I used everything that I hear from the Packers organization, it makes me feel really, really good,” Kuhn said. “If I used the football business acumen and see the tough spot that the Packers are in right now with that first-round pick that they used last year on Jordan Love, that’s what makes me pull back a little bit. I still think it’s somewhere around 70, 75% that Aaron Rodgers is the starting quarterback for the Packers this year.”
Kuhn said he does not believe the report that said Rodgers would not return if Brian Gutekunst remained as general manager.
“I really don’t think Aaron is that cynical of a person, no matter what differences they have,” Kuhn said. “He’s proven to the Packers brass that just because he has differences with the head coach or a general manager, it doesn’t necessarily affect his play and his professionalism. I can’t see that being a direct quote from Aaron Rodgers.
“I still believe there’s an opportunity at a resolution here. I just think it’s going to take two men that are dug in right now and try to meet in the middle somewhere they’re both happy.”
Pro Football Hall of Fame creates behavioral health program for players
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is forming a behavioral health program seeking to address the mental and behavioral health of current and former athletes and their families.
The program, announced Thursday in Canton, Ohio, is supported by such Hall members as Ronnie Lott, Brian Dawkins, Steve Atwater, Andre Reed and Tim Brown; current players Adrian Peterson and Calais Campbell; and David Baker, president of the Hall of Fame.
“We have to end the stigma surrounding mental health, and that includes athletes,” Dawkins said. “It’s OK to ask for help and to reach out if you are having issues. It’s OK not to be OK. But it’s not OK to stay that way — because our silence is killing us and damaging our families.”
Hall of Fame Behavioral Health will offer a concierge call center and crisis line to match treatment and counseling services with an accredited network of providers nationwide. Providers are trained to handle topics such as post-career transition, identity, addiction, performance anxiety, mindfulness and the culture of sports. Such services will complement existing programs and assistance available to players through the NFL and NFLPA.
“The Pro Football Hall of Fame has always been about protecting the most important part of the game of football: the players,” Baker said. “With Hall of Fame Behavioral Health, our mission is to make mental and behavioral health services that meet the Hall of Fame’s standards of excellence easily accessible and available not only to Hall of Famers but to every player of this game, the people who support them, and the kids dreaming about one day playing in the league. The Pro Football Hall of Fame is committed to ending the stigma that surrounds asking for help and protecting our family of athletes for generations to come.”
Partners with Hall of Fame Behavioral Health will be Ashley Addiction Treatment of Baltimore; Aultman Health Foundation of Canton; Baylor Scott & White Health of Dallas; Emory Healthcare of Atlanta; Lindner Center of Hope of Cincinnati; Nashville Recovery Center in Tennessee; New Method Wellness of Southern California; Sabino Recovery of Tucson, Arizona; The Becoming Counseling & Wellness, a national company; The Menninger Clinic of Houston; UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences of San Francisco; and Vanderbilt Health of Nashville.
Early last year, the Hall created Hall of Fame Health.
“Hall of Fame Behavioral Health is the latest development in this growing initiative, and it might be the one addressing the greatest need,” said Jeremy Hogue, CEO of Hall of Fame Health.
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