Even before the Carolina Panthers completed their trade for Baker Mayfield, one of their starting wide receivers had expressed apparent displeasure with the move.
In April, Robbie Anderson responded to an NFL Network report that Carolina was a potential landing spot for the then-Cleveland Browns quarterback with an emphatic "Nooooo" on Instagram before deleting the comment. Anderson told local reporters in June that he was trying to be a "good teammate" to Sam Darnold, Carolina's incumbent starter and Anderson's longtime quarterback dating back to their two seasons together with the New York Jets.
In a sit-down with the I AM ATHLETE podcast taped before Wednesday's trade, Anderson doubled down on his response to Mayfield's then-impending arrival.
"What I was doing, that was in defense of Sam, you know what I'm saying?" Anderson said. "Because I feel like, at the end of the day, me and Sam do have chemistry, but it's like I gotta start all over again, you know what I'm saying? It wasn't no disrespect to him. It was really in defense of who my quarterback is right now."
"Right now" may be no longer. Darnold and Mayfield are slated to face off in a training camp quarterback competition, now that Carolina has brought the former No. 1 overall selection in via trade. While Darnold has a year under his belt in Charlotte and experience with coach Matt Rhule, Mayfield brings with him playoff experience and a better on-field track record.
To Anderson's point, Darnold benefits from an established chemistry with the starting Panthers wideout. In their three seasons together (2018, 2019, 2021), Anderson has been on the receiving end of 14 Darnold passing TDs, including three last year. No receiver in Darnold's career has hauled in more of his TDs.
While there's no guarantee Darnold will be Anderson's starting QB in 2022, that isn't stopping the receiver from defending him. Anderson said on I AM ATHLETE that Darnold's lack of success in New York and Carolina isn't all his fault -- he just wasn't set up to succeed out of the gate.
"I will say this with Sam though. I feel like his development was all messed up coming into the league," Anderson explained. "Look at (Patrick Mahomes), look at Lamar (Jackson), they didn't play right away. I don't feel like Sam should've played right away. I feel like his career got jumpstarted the wrong way. I feel, being in the building, the coaches, I was there, you know what I'm saying? It was all, it wasn't right. So, in his defense, I don't feel like he was developed 100 percent correctly."
Darnold was drafted No. 3 overall in the 2018 draft, two spots behind Mayfield, by Jets coach Todd Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan. The USC product beat out Teddy Bridgewater and Josh McCown in training camp and started under center Week 1, memorably throwing a pick-six on his first NFL pass attempt. Darnold went 4-9 in his first season, throwing 17 TDs to 15 INTs and closing strong. However, Bowles was fired following the campaign and Adam Gase was brought in to replace him as head coach. Within months, Maccagnan was ousted as well and replaced by Joe Douglas.
The quarterback went 9-16, threw 28 TDs to 24 INTs and struggled with illness and injuries in two seasons under Gase, who was fired following the 2020 season. Robert Saleh was hired in the 2021 offseason, and one of the Saleh-Douglas regime's first moves was to ship Darnold to Carolina and replace him with Zach Wilson. During the 2021 campaign, Darnold was then briefly sidelined by injury and sporadically supplanted by P.J. Walker and Cam Newton, who was signed midseason.
Now Darnold is at risk of being replaced again, this time by a draft classmate. Anderson has his quarterback's back, but it'll be up to Rhule and Co. to determine who will be throwing him TD passes in 2022.