WEEK 1: Darnold faces his replacement Wilson when Panthers host Jets

CHARLOTTE — All eyes will be on the quarterbacks Sunday as the New York Jets’ past clashes with its future when Sam Darnold faces his rookie replacement Zach Wilson in the season opener.

Darnold was once viewed as the Jets’ franchise QB after being selected No. 3 overall in the 2018 draft, but after going 13-25 in three seasons the team traded him to the Carolina Panthers and replaced him with Wilson, the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft.

Both QBs are now in charge of restoring hope to their respective franchises following years of on-field struggles.

The Panthers were 5-11 last season and haven’t won a playoff game since the 2015 season. The Jets were 2-14 and haven’t been to the postseason since losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game in the 2010 season.

Wilson has been touted by several NFL analysts as a future star in the league, but Tony Romo recently took it to the next level.

The former Dallas Cowboys quarterback who’s currently the lead color analyst on CBS’ NFL broadcasts told reporters during a conference call that he believes Wilson will be one of the top three to five quarterbacks in the league shortly. He called Wilson “unbelievable” and compared him favorably to Kansas City star Patrick Mahomes.

“I actually think Zach Wilson with the Jets is going to turn that franchise around,” Romo said.

Wilson appreciates the high praise, but doesn’t want buy into any of it.

“I mean, it’s cool obviously, of course,” he said. “But Romo can’t tell the future and everything that’s going on. I think it’s very nice of him to say that stuff. I think Tony was a great quarterback in his day when he played and so it’s awesome.

“It kind of goes back to what I’ve always said, ‘You can’t take the highs too high and the lows too low.’ You can’t let things like that disrupt you.”

Darnold, on the other hand, is looking to rebuild his career in Carolina where he has more playmakers to work with and different coaching. The fourth-year QB has downplayed any notion of revenge in facing his former team, calling it just another game.

He’s also gone out of his way not to bash his former team, taking the high road by saying this week “I didn’t do my job to the best of my abilities (in New York). That’s really all there is to it.”

Clearly this is a golden opportunity for Darnold to win over a Panthers fanbase that is still lukewarm on his arrival, as well as to bury some of his past demons from playing in New York, where he was sacked 98 times in three seasons.

“I think Sam is just in a new beginning,” said Panthers wide receiver Robby Anderson, who was also teammates with Darnold for two seasons with the Jets. “A lot of times, new beginnings are what a lot of us need. Just sometimes turning that page to a new chapter.”

McCAFFREY’S RETURN

Christian McCaffrey was an All-Pro running back in 2019, but injuries limited him to three games last season. Coach Matt Rhule said McCaffrey is healthy physically and mentally and feels he’s ready for a big season.

Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady said he has to be “smart” with McCaffrey’s touches. McCaffrey had 403 touches in 2019 when he became only the third player in NFL history to have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season.

McCaffrey did not play in the preseason.

“We’re not sitting there with the mindset of ‘it’s 300 touches (or) it’s 400 touches,’” Brady said. “It’s a game to game and it’s more situationally and we evaluate it week to week.”

CORNER CONCERNS

Perhaps the biggest concern for the Jets heading into the regular season is their youth at cornerback.

After surprisingly cutting Bless Austin last week, New York will have second-year cornerback Bryce Hall at one starting spot with first-year head coach Robert Saleh keeping the other starter close to the vest. The candidates include second-year defensive back Javelin Guidry and rookies Jason Pinnock (fifth-round pick), Michael Carter II (fifth-rounder), Brandin Echols (sixth-rounder) and Isaiah Dunn (undrafted).

“Obviously, we’re very young, but I have complete confidence in this group,” Hall said. “I love this group. I’m excited for what our potential is and the pieces we have. Even though we’re young, we’re very hungry.”

MOORE TO SEE

While much of the attention will be on Wilson, rookie wide receiver Elijah Moore is expected to have a major role in New York’s offense right away.

The second-round pick out of Ole Miss was one of the standouts of offseason workouts, minicamp and training camp while consistently making plays and becoming a favorite playmaker for Wilson. A quadriceps injury sidelined him for nearly two weeks, but picked up where he left off — and the Jets think that will carry into the regular season.

“He’s kind of like an old soul, (like) he’s been here for five or six years already,” Saleh said. “... He doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He’s a quick learner. He’s always trying to find an edge.”

SETTING THE EDGE

By all accounts Panthers defensive end Brian Burns appears on the verge of a breakout season. Burns had nine sacks last year despite seeing plenty of double teams. Carolina added Haason Reddick, who had 12 sacks last year for Arizona, and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones to take some of the pressure off the guy Panthers fans call “Spiderman” because of his post-sack poses.

KICKING QUESTIONS

The game could be decided by two rookie kickers.

The Panthers made a dramatic change at kicker after the final preseason game, replacing slumping veteran Joey Slye with 6-foot-5, 258-pound rookie Ryan Santoso, who was acquired in a trade with the New York Giants.

Likewise, the Jets went with rookie Matt Ammendola after cutting Sam Ficken, who had struggled last season on long distance field goals.

(WATCH BELOW: Panthers react to fans returning to stadium with 100% capacity)

NEW YORK JETS (2-14) at CAROLINA (5-11)

Sunday, 1 p.m. EDT, Fox

OPENING LINE: Panthers by 3, according to FanDuel SportsBook

SERIES RECORD: Panthers lead 4-3

LAST MEETING: Panthers beat Jets 35-27 on Nov. 26, 2017 at New York

JETS OFFENSE: OVERALL (32), RUSH (24), PASS (31), SCORING (32).

JETS DEFENSE: OVERALL (24), RUSH (12), PASS (28), SCORING (26).

PANTHERS OFFENSE: OVERALL (21), RUSH (22), PASS (18), SCORING (24).

PANTHERS DEFENSE: OVERALL (18), RUSH (20), PASS (18), SCORING (18).

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL: Jets 0; Panthers plus-1.

JETS PLAYER TO WATCH: All eyes will be on Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson, the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft, who makes his first career start. He had a breakout season last year at BYU, throwing for 3,692 yards, 33 touchdowns and three interceptions, while running for 10 touchdowns. That was enough to convince management to make a change and trade 2018 No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold to Carolina.

PANTHERS PLAYER TO WATCH: Rookie wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. had three solid preseason games, leading the NFL in yards receiving (181). With the Jets expected to pay close attention to starters D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson, Marshall could benefit from 1-on-1 coverage.

KEY MATCHUP: Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey vs. New York front seven. McCaffrey returns after missing 13 games last season due to injury and will once again be the focal point of Carolina’s offense. McCaffrey will be used frequently in the passing game. His 320 catches through 51 career games are the fourth most by an NFL player in the Super Bowl era.

KEY INJURIES: Neither team has any major injuries, but the Jets are monitoring the health of WR Jamison Crowder, who is dealing with COVID-19 issues. The Panthers have ruled out starting RG John Miller due to a positive COVID-19 test, which means Dennis Daley will get the start.

SERIES NOTES: Jets free safety Marcus Maye and Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson are the only two starters who remain from the last matchup in 2017. ... In the last meeting Panthers LB Luke Kuechly had a 34-yard fumble return for a touchdown and Kaelin Clay returned a punt 60 yards for a score in the Carolina win. Josh McCown was Jets quarterback at the time. ... One of the stranger moments of the series came in 1998 when Panthers running back Fred Lane celebrated one touchdown by grabbing his crotch and another by doing “The Worm” during a lopsided 48-21 loss to the Jets. A day later then-Panthers head coach Dom Capers suspended Lane for what he deemed inappropriate gestures, marking the first time in franchise history a Carolina player was suspended for on-field actions.

STATS AND STUFF: The Panthers have not won a playoff game since 2015, while the Jets have not been in, let alone won, a postseason game since 2010. New York’s playoff drought is the league’s longest. ... Darnold was 13-25 as a starter in three seasons with the Jets prior to being traded to the Panthers for three draft picks. ... Jets LB C.J. Mosely makes his return after opting out last season. ... The Panthers are tied for the youngest team in the NFL with an average age of 25.67 years old, while the Jets rank third with an average age of 25.71, according to Elias Sports Bureau. ... Panthers WR Moore has 2,368 yards receiving since 2019, sixth most in the league over that span. Anderson had 95 catches for 1,096 yards last year after being signed away from the Jets as a free agent. ... Panthers S Jeremy Chinn led all rookies last season with 116 tackles and also had two fumble returns for touchdowns.

FANTASY TIP: The Jets will lean heavily on RB Tevin Coleman, who in 2019 ran for 105 yards and scored four touchdowns in 51-13 win over the Panthers while a member of the San Francisco 49ers. Carolina allowed 4.8 yards per carry last season.

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