Panthers trade Dan Arnold and get a first-round cornerback. How and why it happened

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The Carolina Panthers are in win-now mode, and they showed that when they traded their starting tight end for a former top-10 pick Monday morning.

The Panthers will send tight end Dan Arnold and a third-round draft pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and in return they’ll receive cornerback C.J. Henderson and a fifth-round pick.

The move gives the Panthers depth at cornerback after they lost rookie corner Jaycee Horn to a broken foot in Thursday’s win over Houston.

The Panthers have been actively looking for help at the position since Horn’s injury. This past weekend, they reached out to former Seattle Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, a league source said. Sherman, 33, is a free agent and has familiarity with Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer.

They reached out to other corners but kept coming back to Henderson, who played college football at Florida. The Panthers first contacted the Jaguars about Henderson on Friday. Trade talks cooled off Saturday before heating back up and getting the deal done Monday.

The Panthers’ organization believes they can win this year, and Henderson is a piece they can plug in right away as a starter. If he passes his physical, Carolina is hopeful he will play Sunday at Dallas.

The Panthers like Henderson’s athleticism, as well as his favorable rookie contract that runs through the 2023 season with a potential fifth-year option. Henderson also had a good relationship with cornerbacks coach Evan Cooper.

The Panthers and cornerback Donte Jackson spoke by phone after the trade for Henderson, but they assured him that the deal was to replace Horn this year and was not indicative of Jackson’s future with the Panthers. His contract expires at the end of the 2021 season.

The Panthers want Jackson back, and Jackson has said he wants to return.

But Henderson does provide insurance in case the Panthers and Jackson cannot reach a deal.

Why the Panthers traded Arnold

The Panthers signed Arnold in March to a two-year, $6 million deal to give them help in the red zone after they struggled there in 2020. However, tight end remains one of the Panthers’ deepest positions and rookie tight end Tommy Tremble recently emerged as a playmaker.

Tremble had one catch for 30 yards against the Texans, and a seven-yard rushing touchdown.

Panthers coach Matt Rhule called Tremble “this year’s Jeremy Chinn.”

“A guy who we thought could do a lot of different things,” Rhule said Friday. “After the draft, we got more phone calls from other team’s tight end coaches and special teams’ coordinators to our guys about Tommy.

“We need Tommy to continue to develop because he’s a lot of talent.”

Arnold had seven catches for 84 yards in three games this season. He also had 11 targets, which is tied for fourth-most on the team. The Panthers didn’t want to trade Arnold. He had become one of the team’s leaders and a reliable target for quarterback Sam Darnold.

But Jacksonville was insistent that the Panthers add him in the deal.

“That was obviously a very difficult thing to do,” Rhule said Monday. “He’s really a special person. At the end of the day, this just comes down to position and just feeling like, as we move down the stretch, having a young corner with (Henderson’s) talent to go with the room that we already have is an opportunity we’re excited about.”

Henderson at Jacksonville

The Panthers were interested in acquiring Henderson as early as August.

The Jaguars took Henderson, 22, No. 9 overall in the 2020 draft, two picks after the Panthers chose defensive tackle Derrick Brown. It’s unclear why the Jaguars were willing to part ways with such a highly coveted cornerback.

“He’s an outstanding bump-and-run, cover corner,” Rhule said. “Great change-of-direction skills. Hasn’t played a ton of off... Can sit on routes. From my experience with him, really good football IQ.”

Henderson, who is 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds, played and started in eight games last season for the Jaguars, and had 36 tackles, one interception and a forced fumble. However, opponents had a 110.2 passer rating when targeting him, according to Pro Football Reference. He allowed four touchdown passes, and opponents completed 64.7% of the passes thrown his way.

He was placed on injured reserve in November with a groin injury.

Henderson has eight tackles in two games this season. He was inactive for the Jaguars’ game against the Cardinals on Sunday as he dealt with another groin injury.

Henderson missed a large portion of training camp — participating in two of the team’s 11 practices — after he was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list July 23.

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