Sam Darnold: What Has Gone Well & Why We Should Still Be Cautious

Photo: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers’ search for a new quarterback led to Sam Darnold, whose career got off to a disappointing start behind the poor offensive infrastructure and coaching with the New York Jets organization. It was a measured choice for the Panthers who were in the trade market for Matthew Stafford and armed with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2021 Draft that saw five quarterbacks drafted among the first 15 selections. Instead, Carolina handed the keys to its offense over to Darnold who was trending toward bust territory.

After parting with three draft selections to acquire Darnold, Carolina promptly picked up the fifth-year option on his contract and essentially made a two-year commitment to him as the starter.

Two games into the 2021 season and there’s no denying Sam Darnold is off to a great start in Carolina. What has made him so successful to this point and are their reasons to be hesitant about fully buying into him as the answer for the Panthers? Let’s examine. 

WHAT HAS GONE WELL

After studying Darnold’s first two starts, a number of things stand out, but first and foremost is how quickly he’s processing coverage and making decisions. He is sharply reading the defense and getting the ball out of his hands. While sometimes that can be a bad thing and quarterbacks need to exhaust progressions, Darnold is identifying clues pre-snap that are leading to post-snap success. It’s evident that he is confident and comfortable with the offensive structure and he’s thriving.

While the ball is mostly coming out of Darnold’s hands timely and on schedule, he’s also done well to hang tough in the pocket under pressure. He is navigating the pocket better than he ever did with the Jets, showcasing the ability to move off his spot to avoid rushers and find throwing windows. He’s doing well to keep his eyes down the field and find answers under duress.

A major contributing factor to Darnold’s improvements under pressure is his understanding of the offense and where to find his outlets. It’s notable that the weaponry and structure of the offense in Carolina significantly trump what Darnold had in New York, which is enabling him to execute at a higher level even when things aren’t perfect around him.

In addition to confidence, processing, decision-making, and handling pressure, Darnold has been consistent with his ball placement and demonstrated a willingness to challenge the entire field. There have been enough deep throws mixed in to keep defenses honest, which has enabled Darnold to work the short to intermediate areas of the field with success. 

HOW OFFENSIVE INFRASTRUCTURE IS ALLOWING DARNOLD TO THRIVE

In studying Darnold’s first two starts with the Panthers, it’s easy to gain an appreciation for the design of offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s scheme and the offensive weapons he has at his disposal. 

A good offensive coordinator knows how to make things easy for his quarterback and that’s exactly what Brady has done. That’s not a slight against Darnold, by the way. He’s done well to embrace operating within the scheme and utilize the answers Brady has baked into every play.

With primarily using five and six-man protections, Brady mostly gets all of his eligibles involved, which enables Carolina to run a concept-based offense that isn’t the west coast style of offense that Darnold ran under Adam Gase in New York that was more route-based. So much of Carolina’s offense is designed to lift coverage and isolate targets, creating easy reads and throws for the quarterback. That’s good offense. 

The other dynamic that can’t be overstated is how valuable Christian McCaffrey is to the design of the offense. His pass-catching ability and how Brady uses it does so much for the spacing of the offense, especially considering how his presence forces defenses to account for him. If opponents use a linebacker to cover McCaffrey, it’s a mismatch. If they use a safety or corner, it pulls them out of coverage down the field which creates more favorable matchups for the other targets.

Speaking of those other targets, D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson complement each other extremely well and add to the spacing options available for Brady. Anderson is a dynamic deep threat and Moore can win at all levels of the field. Add in a potent rookie with size in Terrace Marshall Jr. and the possibilities are endless for the Panthers offensive scheme.

Darnold has wisely gotten McCaffrey involved in the passing game, targeting him on 21% of his passing attempts. McCaffrey has hauled in 93.3% of those targets and should challenge for around 90% for the season. The efficiency of passing the ball to McCaffrey is such an asset to Darnold in terms of keeping things on schedule and providing a reliable answer in a variety of situations. McCaffrey is currently averaging 11 yards per reception which speaks to how the rest of the offense is designed to lift coverage and isolate chances for him to create after the catch. McCaffrey is currently averaging 9.7 yards after the catch per reception.

WHY THERE SHOULD BE CAUTION

Darnold and the Panthers are off to a great start. There’s no reason to be unnecessarily critical of the results to this point, but as we consider the rest of the season, Carolina and Darnold still have a lot to prove. 

In Week 1, Darnold faced his former team that featured a rookie quarterback and a brand new coaching staff. The Jets are a bottom-five roster in the NFL, especially on the defensive side of the football. Given the lack of talent and overall time on task with a new coaching staff, the Jets’ defense is limited in a number of ways. It was a great showcase opportunity for Darnold and he delivered.

In Week 2, Darnold took on a New Orleans Saints team that was significantly undermanned. Star cornerback Marshon Lattimore missed the game with injury along with key nickel defender Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. That forced the newly-acquired Bradley Roby into the lineup at cornerback across from rookie Paulson Adebo.

It’s also noteworthy that both contests were at home for Darnold, where he has historically been a significantly better quarterback than on the road. For his career, Darnold has a 74.6 passer rating in road games and has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns.

The other dynamic that must be considered with Darnold’s early success is that Carolina has been in control of both games and never trailed. Playing from behind is a vantage point we’ve yet to see from Darnold with the Panthers. For Darnold’s career, he has a 67.6 passer rating when trailing with a 56.8% completion percentage, 17 touchdowns, and 25 interceptions. His adjusted net yards per attempt dips to a lowly 4.84. More high-stakes reps are coming for Darnold and it’s in those moments where his decision-making and mechanics have plummeted in the past.

How things evolve moving forward is critical. Defenses will have a greater sample size of film to evaluate Darnold in the Carolina offense. At the same time, Darnold will have more time on task and game reps, which should lead to even more scheme evolution from Brady to keep defenses on their toes.

While the schedule looks quite manageable, nine road dates await Darnold the rest of the way—as do contests against more talented defenses. But all Darnold can do is play the games as they are laid out, and to this point, things could not have gone better.

Written By:

Joe Marino

Senior NFL Draft Analyst

Joe Marino is a Senior NFL Draft Analyst at TDN. Marino comes to TDN after serving as a draft analyst for NDT Scouting, FanRag Sports and Draft Breakdown dating back to 2014. In 2017, Marino became a Huddle Report Mock Draft Champion when he produced the most accurate mock draft in the world.

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