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New York Jets vs. Carolina Panthers Prediction and Preview

Sam Darnold, Carolina Panthers

Sam Darnold's brief NFL career comes full circle when his Panthers host the Jets to open the 2021 season

The future and the very recent past of the New York Jets will be on display Sunday afternoon when Gang Green heads down to Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers.

All eyes will be on Zach Wilson as the No. 2 overall draft pick makes his regular-season debut, and his opponent could hardly be more fitting. That, of course, would be Sam Darnold, the Jets' previous supposed franchise QB, drafted third overall in 2018.

In many ways, Sunday's game will be the Adam Gase bowl. Upon his firing after three years in Miami, the Dolphins turned around into a surprise contender and former quarterback Ryan Tannehill became a $118 million man. Will the Jets and Sam Darnold follow suit after two years under Gase? 

New Jets head coach Robert Saleh did not lose a preseason game, but the pressure will be on with the first game of the season being one of the most winnable on a tough schedule.

New York at Carolina

Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 12 at 1 p.m. ET
TV: CBS
Spread: Panthers -4

Three Things to Watch

1. Zach Wilson vs. Sam Darnold
This matchup is inescapable, even if neither player will be on the field at the same time. It's just one game, but this should serve as a symbolic victory for one of the QBs.

The Jets chose to move on from Darnold before he turned 24 because he's been one of the worst statistical quarterbacks during his first two seasons. Among the 35 qualified passers in 2020, he ranked 33rd in completion rate (59.6 percent), 32nd in yards per attempt (6.1), 30th in interception rate (3.0 percent), and dead last in passer rating (72.7).

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Darnold's story isn't written, though, and getting out of New York could be the best thing that's happened to him. He'll have a far superior supporting cast with Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore, former Jets teammate Robby Anderson. And he has one of the best young coordinators to work with in Joe Brady. Darnold looked fairly comfortable during his limited action in the preseason.

Wilson, meanwhile, has sky-high expectations after an electric junior season at BYU. He was a dual-threat signal-caller and rarely turned the ball over, but it remains to be seen how aggressively the Jets will use him out of the gate. The good news is that he should be better protected than Darnold ever was since the Jets have beefed up their offensive line with first-rounder Alijah Vera-Tucker (14th) after taking Bekhi Becton (11th) last year.

2. Which Jets receivers can stick out?
New York's offense will look very different, even beyond the quarterback. Wide receiver Breshad Perriman left in free agency, the Jets traded tight end Chris Herndon to Minnesota at the end of August, and leading receiver Jamison Crowder is out after testing positive for COVID-19.

The good news is that the Jets beefed up their receiving corps by dropping $37.5 million on Corey Davis and drafting Elijah Moore in the second round. Keelan Cole Sr. was brought in to add depth, but he's been limited in practice with a knee injury.

Building a rapport with this almost entirely array of weapons will be key to Wilson's development. Sunday's game could be a good jumping-off point, as the Panthers ranked 25th in passer rating allowed (98.4) and tied for 30th in interceptions (seven) last season.

3. The return of Christian McCaffrey
Running backs are easily replaceable in the NFL, but McCaffrey is no regular running back. When he was last healthy in 2019, he led the team in receptions and put up 2,392 yards from scrimmage. Mike Davis filled in admirably for him last year, but the Panthers are an entirely different team when he's on the field.

With McCaffrey back from ankle and shoulder injuries, Darnold will have the ultimate security blanket. His presence should also take pressure off Moore and Anderson and fully open up the passing game. 

Saleh has faced McCaffrey twice before as the 49ers' defensive coordinator, with mixed results. In his pro debut, McCaffrey was held to 85 rushing yards on 18 touches, and he lit them up for 155 yards on 18 touches in 2019. Of course, Saleh had much more defensive talent to work with in San Francisco than he currently has in New York, especially after Carl Lawson's season-ending Achilles tear.

Final Analysis

There may not be many playoff implications in this game, but both teams have invested a lot of draft capital in their (hopeful) franchise quarterbacks. There could be plenty of lessons learned in this opening game against mediocre defenses. The edge here goes to the team at home with an extra year under its coaching staff, but just getting strong quarterback play for either team will be a victory unto itself.

Prediction: Panthers 23, Jets 20