What the Panthers are Getting in Sam Darnold

We just recently wrote about why the Jets should move on from Sam Darnold. With Darnold now on his way to the Panthers, it appears GM Joe Douglas was thinking the same thing.

It’s unfair to put all of the blame on Darnold for his underwhelming 3-year Jets career. He was in arguably the worst situation of any quarterback in the league during the last two seasons – no weapons, terrible pass protection, and an offensive system leaving a lot to be desired. That’s not exactly a recipe for success or development.

So what exactly are the Panthers getting in Darnold, then? They’re getting a quarterback with good tools, but a quarterback who is currently broken. Our recently-posted analysis is below:

During the last two seasons, we’ve seen Darnold regress substantially. He looks more like a rookie than he did at the end of his actual rookie season. Several red flags to his game were exacerbated in 2020. He was slow to recognize coverage and move from one receiver to the next. This led to lots of forced passes to well-covered receivers. His decision-making was atrocious at times as he struggled to identify when to take a chance and when to live to play another down. Most concerning, however, was his frenetic play in the face of pressure. Darnold has consistently been overreactive to pressure, especially during the last two seasons. This has led to potential big plays being left on the field. It also, of course, has led to too many negative plays.

Below is a perfect illustration of these issues. This was a 3rd-and-8 against the Dolphins. Darnold looked right initially. When his first read wasn’t open, he took off despite having a clean pocket. Had he stayed calm and worked through his reads to his other receivers, he would have seen a wide-open crossing route right in front of him.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

From the end zone angle, you can see that Darnold left the pocket almost immediately despite minimal pressure. He never set his feet at the top of his drop, which makes it clear he was anticipating pressure. Then he made a terrible and costly decision.

There has always been a bit of a frenetic element to Darnold’s game. The disconcerting thing is that at the end of his rookie season, his game seemed to calm down a bit. He looked like an improving young quarterback. However, by the end of 2020, Darnold often looked downright frantic in the pocket. That’s not something that will be easy to overcome.

The below interception against the Bills was a microcosm of another concerning aspect to Darnold’s game. He doesn’t see the field well. On this play, Buffalo spun out from a single-high look into cover-2 at the snap. This was a disguise, but a pretty common one. Darnold didn’t seem to account for it, though.

I have a hard time believing Darnold didn’t see the safety rotation here. In fact, he was making this throw to his receiver based on his leverage against the deep safety to that side. So he should have known that a cover-2 cornerback would be lurking somewhere close by. But he stared down his target and didn’t account for other defenders dropping into the area. Tunnel vision.

This type of mistake wasn’t an anomaly last season. Darnold threw multiple interceptions where he didn’t account for defenders ahead of the throw, which suggests there is a real vision issue there.

So why would the Panthers trade for a broken quarterback with so many flaws? Because he’s talented and still very young (He’ll be 24 at the start of next season). There was a reason he was drafted 3rd overall in 2018:

Harnessing Darnold’s skills will be the challenge for Carolina. Having one of the most versatile threats in the game in Christian McCaffrey should help ease his transition and turn some of those safe throws into big, confidence-building plays. Darnold will also get to reconnect with a familiar face in wide receiver Robby Anderson. An upgraded offensive line will be a welcomed site for the young quarterback as well.

More importantly, he’ll find Joe Brady’s system to be a better fit. Brady’s passing game is based more on schemed throws and defined reads than what Darnold experienced in New York. Darnold needs more of that. He needs some of the noise and clutter removed from his decision-making process so the game can calm down for him and his talent can take over.

If Darnold does end up winning the starting job, he’ll find himself with a much better opportunity in Carolina than he had at any point during his 3 years in New York.

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