Trade for newest cornerback a worthy risk for 3-0 Panthers, who want to win right now

·4 min read

The Carolina Panthers are pushing their chips to the center of the table, going all in on a season that has begun with such great promise.

Carolina made a surprising trade Monday with Jacksonville for cornerback C.J. Henderson, who was the No. 9 overall pick in the 2020 draft, but has been only OK in the NFL so far.

The price wasn’t that steep, but this also wasn’t a fire sale. The Panthers had to give up a nice pass-catching tight end in Dan Arnold as well as their third-round draft pick in 2022 for Henderson, while also receiving a fifth-round pick from the Jaguars in the 2022 draft.

I think the deal was worth the risk for the Panthers, who have boasted one of the best defenses in the NFL so far. And it’s also a symbol that the Panthers are in “win now” mode, willing to gamble future draft picks and players to make sure this 3-0 start doesn’t go to waste.

Assuming Henderson passes his physical, he may play right away this Sunday at Dallas (1 p.m., FOX). The Panthers — now one of only five unbeaten teams in the NFL and alone in first place in the NFC South — will face a major challenge in the Cowboys’ explosive offense.

Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said trading for Henderson wasn’t meant just as a short-term solution, however, but would be more important as a long-term fix to the team’s cornerback depth. The team had even thought about choosing Henderson with their No. 7 overall pick in 2020, although the Panthers eventually wound up picking defensive tackle Derrick Brown.

Said Rhule of Henderson: “He’s somebody we seriously considered at our pick. He has a tremendous upside…. To me this isn’t like a Band-Aid, ‘get-him-in-here’ type of deal. It was an opportunity that came open and we took it.”

It’s undeniable that Henderson plays a bigger position of need than Arnold does. And Rhule noted that of the Panthers’ top five players in the secondary on Week 1, only two remain unhurt: cornerback Donte Jackson and safety Jeremy Chinn.

This wasn’t a blockbuster on the order of the Sam Darnold trade in April, but it’s easy to see the similarities. Like Darnold, Henderson is a depressed asset who was a former Top-10 NFL draft pick. The previous regime in Jacksonville invested that No. 9 overall pick in him in 2020, but new coach Urban Meyer didn’t seem as hot on him.

In Jacksonville, Henderson had been plagued by a groin injury and had given up too many receptions when he did play. Still, he’s long and fast and affordable, given that he’s still on his rookie deal. Carolina was interested enough that the Panthers had been in trade talks with Jacksonville way back in August about him.

Carolina Panthers cornerback Jaycee Horn (8) is helped off the field after an injury in Houston Thursday night. Horn broke three bones in his foot and may be sidelined the rest of the season.
Carolina Panthers cornerback Jaycee Horn (8) is helped off the field after an injury in Houston Thursday night. Horn broke three bones in his foot and may be sidelined the rest of the season.

The Panthers finally made the deal after they lost their own Top-10-in-the-draft cornerback, rookie Jaycee Horn, to a foot injury Thursday night. It was quite literally a horrible break for Horn — he broke three bones in his foot in an awkward, non-contact fall on the artificial turf at Houston. Rhule called it “a freak injury” and said it “breaks your heart.” Horn may be out the rest of the season.

The Panthers had several options after that, and they had directly approached former star cornerback Richard Sherman, now a free agent, two times about coming to Charlotte, a league source said.

Sherman would have only cost money, not a player and a draft pick. But Sherman is 33 and Henderson doesn’t turn 23 until later this week. Sherman was fantastic in his prime, but there aren’t too many 33-year-old cornerbacks.

Henderson, who played collegiately at Florida, had the advantage of youth, and the Panthers have confidence that he could be another successful reclamation project.

So Carolina contacted Jacksonville on Friday about Henderson, and the deal came together Sunday night and Monday morning. He will also provide some insurance if the Panthers never come to terms on a contract extension with Jackson, their best current cornerback and a player who becomes an unrestricted free agent in the spring of 2022.

Arnold is a significant loss, as Darnold had grown comfortable with him during training camp. I thought at one point Arnold might have a chance to have a Greg Olsen-type year this season. (Interesting side note: Olsen will be the TV analyst for Fox Sports for Sunday’s Panthers-Cowboys game.)

But Arnold has caught a modest number of balls so far this season — seven for 84 yards through three games, as Darnold has thrown mostly to DJ Moore and Christian McCaffrey. And the Panthers have also seen some success at tight end with veteran Ian Thomas and rookie Tommy Tremble, who didn’t get a lot of chances at Notre Dame but has impressed the Panthers with his pass-catching ability.

The Henderson deal is the sort of mid-tier move that winning teams make. It’s a gamble, yes, as all trades are. But it’s a worthy one.

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