What can Sam Darnold add to the Carolina Panthers’ passing game?

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Doug Farrar
·5 min read
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If you had any question about what the New York Jets were going to do with the quarterback position, wonder no more. Per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Jets have traded former first-round pick Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers for a 2021 sixth-round pick and second- and fourth-round picks in 2022.

“I want to publicly acknowledge the commitment, dedication, and professionalism Sam displayed while with the Jets. He is a tough-minded, talented football player whose NFL story has not been written yet,” Jets general manager Joe Douglas said in a statement. “While all these things are true, this move is in the short- and long-term best interests for both this team and him. We thank Sam for all of his work on behalf of this organization and wish him well as he continues his career.”

The Panthers confirmed the report in their own unique fashion.

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It clearly says that the Jets are all-in on one of the quarterbacks in the 2021 draft class, and it also says — to a point — that the Panthers don’t believe any of their preferred draftable quarterbacks will be there with the eighth overall pick. Either that, or there are no favorable trading partners.

It’s a fascinating move for the Panthers, who signed veteran Teddy Bridgewater to a three-year, $63 million contract with $33 million guaranteed just last season. Bridgewater is on the books for $22,953,125 against the cap this season, so maybe he’s available in a trade. In any event. Darnold is now Carolina’s guy — or, at the very least, will be in a quarterback duel.

From a contractual perspective, Darnold could be no more than a short-term option, and let the word “option” be your guide. The Jets had until May 3 to pick up Darnold’s fifth-year option, and now that decision rests with the Panthers. One assumes they’ll do just that.

Selected with the third overall pick in the 2018 draft out of USC, Darnold was a fairly major disappointment with the Jets over three seasons, though that wasn’t all his fault. Between 2018 offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, 2019-2020 “head coach” and “offensive play-designer” Adam Gase, and an iffy group of targets, Darnold didn’t have a ton to work with. But it’s still Darnold who has completed just 59.8% of his passes and thrown 45 touchdowns to 39 interceptions over his first three NFL seasons.

Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady, in his first NFL season in 2020 fresh off his work with Joe Burrow at LSU, did his level best with Bridgewater’s limitations, and you have to assume that Brady was in on this decision, so Darnold must fit the ideal.

What is that ideal? Brady explained it in January, 2020.

“The most important thing that we do from a system standpoint is we find out what our players do well so we can put them in position to have success. . . Now, it’s critical that we find a vision for each and every player. The offense that we’re looking to have is one that applies pressure… We can do that in multiple ways, whether that’s formations, whether that’s personnel groupings or tempo. It’s our job to exploit mismatches and move guys around to get them the matchups that we want. Applying pressure, getting your speed in space, making defenses defend every blade of grass and just let your players do what they do best.”

Last season, the Panthers were highly successful in both play-action and bootleg concepts, though they didn’t use them too often. Burrow was a plus thrower on the move and in play-action, so perhaps that was more a play to Bridgewater’s preferences. Bridgewater was fairly aggressive with the deep ball, completing 25 of 55 passes of 20 air yards or more for 892 yards, three touchdowns, and four interceptions. Bridgewater has never been an incredible deep-ball guy, so again, that may have been about the quarterback Brady had as opposed to the offensive design he preferred.

As for Darnold, we don’t really know what he is based on three years with the Jets. There wasn’t a lot of aggression in the Jets’ passing game last season; Darnold completed just 11 of 38 deep passes last season for 303 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. In 2020, Darnold was also one of the few starting quarterbacks in the NFL whose efficiency wasn’t improved by play-action — he didn’t throw a single touchdown pass with play-fakes, and managed nine without it.

So, this may be more of a project for Brady than a scheme-fit proposition. In that case, the price is right, though the possibility of jettisoning Bridgewater in favor of a potentially worse player at the game’s most important position doesn’t bode well for his coaching staff’s future.

As for Darnold, he’s now fresh out of excuses, not that he was personally looking for any. Brady has earned more praise as an offensive mind than Gase ever did, and the Panthers have a strong receiver trio in D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson (who caught passes from Darnold in 2018 and 2019), and former Seahawks receiver David Moore. Perhaps this is his redemptive moment with the first half-favorable situation he’s had throughout his NFL career.