2021 NFL Preview: Sam Darnold did nothing with the Jets, but the Panthers have a lot of faith in him

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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

The Carolina Panthers didn’t make a huge mistake trading for Sam Darnold. It might have been a bit of an overpay based on what Darnold has done in the pros, but his draft pedigree is still fresh.

The problem might be assuming Darnold fixes the quarterback position.

The Panthers didn’t get aggressive to move up and draft a quarterback. They didn’t take Justin Fields or Mac Jones when they had the chance at the No. 8 overall pick. Maybe they didn’t like Fields, who was fantastic at Ohio State but fell in the first round a bit. It just seemed like an endorsement of Darnold, as did dumping Teddy Bridgewater and paying $7 million of his salary to do so. So was picking up Darnold’s fifth-year option, which is worth about $18.6 million. 

The Panthers are putting a lot of chips in the middle of the table for Darnold, with plenty of blind faith that he'll be a totally different quarterback than he was with the New York Jets. 

Any and every defense of Darnold comes with the tagline that Adam Gase was a terrible coach for him with the Jets. Gase was a terrible coach. That doesn’t completely let Darnold off the hook. He was bad too.

Darnold posted a 78.6 passer rating in three seasons with the Jets. He threw 39 interceptions in 38 games. In his final season with the Jets, he had nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions, averaging 184 yards per game. He showed no positive progress. 

Many have tried comparing Darnold to Ryan Tannehill, who got much better after escaping Gase. The difference is that Tannehill wasn’t terrible with the Miami Dolphins, he just wasn’t great. Darnold was terrible with the Jets. He has a long way to go to be a viable NFL starter. He has been a bad decision maker and hasn't been able to operate within an offensive system at an NFL level. There are examples of quarterbacks being bad when they were young — Darnold is just 24 years old — and then going on to good careers. But it’s rare. And it’s a heck of a risk for the Panthers to make.

The Panthers had a lot to be excited about in Matt Rhule’s first season, The Panthers were competitive during a 3-2 start last season and their next four losses came by a combined 20 points. That included a 33-31 loss at the Kansas City Chiefs. There are playmakers like Christian McCaffrey (who barely played last season due to injury, and could have helped Carolina to more wins), D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson. The defense was incredibly young last season and it showed at times, but that group was better than expected and should improve.

The Panthers might just need to find a quarterback. All of their decisions in the offseason indicated they think Darnold is the guy. They clearly see something that wasn't happening in New York.

Can Sam Darnold turn around his career in Carolina? (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Can Sam Darnold turn around his career in Carolina? (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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It had to be hard for the Panthers to watch receiver Curtis Samuel leave in free agency after he had his long-awaited breakout season. Carolina is hoping second-round pick Terrace Marshall Jr. can help replace Samuel’s production. The Panthers tried to help the offensive line by giving right tackle Taylor Moton the franchise tag, signing guard Pat Elflein and tackle Cameron Erving, and then drafting BYU tackle Brady Christensen in the third round. However, questions still remain on the offensive line and at safety too. Pass rusher Haason Reddick, defensive tackle DaQuan Jones and linebacker Denzel Perryman were smart low-cost additions. First-round pick Jaycee Horn will help at cornerback, but the Panthers passed on a couple quarterbacks (and cornerback Patrick Surtain II) to take him, and that could be mentioned a time or two if the Sam Darnold trade doesn't work out. 

GRADE: C

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It’s hard to build a case for Sam Darnold that revolves around positive statements, and not just a rehash of how bad the Jets are. But it is true he was in an awful situation with the Jets. The offensive line was below average at best, there was no run game and there weren’t any playmaking targets for him to throw to. And yes, he had a bad coach. You’d have to think back to Darnold’s USC days (and probably back to his redshirt freshman year, because his sophomore season had warts) and remember why he was picked third overall. He has a good arm, and he has shown that on some improvised throws in the NFL. He’s a good enough athlete to move around and buy time. The Panthers will have to coach him hard, and there should be some faith that offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s scheme and a new set of playmakers will help. If the Panthers are right, the decision to trade for Darnold and give him 2021 to prove himself would be a franchise changer. 

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The Panthers’ season win total at BetMGM is 7.5. I like a lot of the Panthers’ roster and early indications are that Matt Rhule was a good hire, but I can’t take the over. Simply put, I don’t trust Sam Darnold to be a middle-of-the-road NFL starter. Maybe he surprises me, but there’s been nothing in his NFL track record to indicate he can be a top 15 or so quarterback. Let's go under 7.5. 

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From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Early Yahoo drafters are getting a nifty opportunity with Panthers receiver Robby Anderson. His current Yahoo ADP is 101, more than a round cheaper than his NFFC price (86). You should scoop up the discount, for as long as it lasts.

"Anderson knew what he was doing when he signed with Carolina, reuniting with Matt Rhule, his college coach. And now Anderson is reunited with Sam Darnold, and don't laugh that off; the pair showed exciting chemistry in the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Heck, 11 of Anderson's 23 NFL touchdowns have come from Darnold passes. And it's certainly too early to say Darnold can't play, given the comical run of bad luck he had in New York.

"My point is not to sell you on Darnold, however. The thrust is that Anderson, screened behind Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore, is well-slotted to be a fantasy profit in 2021. The Panthers don't have a target-gobbling tight end or a second mouth to feed in the backfield. This is a fairly narrow usage tree, and this offense can support three impact players."

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In Matt Rhule’s first season at Temple, he went 2-10. In his second season the Owls went 6-6, and the third season was 10-4.

At Baylor, Rhule went 1-11 in his first season. The second season brought a 7-6 record. In year three the Bears were 11-3. See a pattern?

Rhule is a program builder. That challenge is different in the NFL, but Rhule had his team competing early in the season before a thin team lost some steam late. Given his history, an improvement in his second Panthers season would lead people to wonder if he has a huge season in 2022. It has happened before.

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Can Christian McCaffrey bounce back?

Christian McCaffrey had just 374 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns last season. Considering he did all of that in three games, it wasn’t bad. He's still one of the most explosive, dynamic players in the league when healthy. McCaffrey had a high ankle sprain, then a shoulder issue before a quad injury finished his season. McCaffrey played every game his first three seasons and did so with one of the heaviest workloads of the past decade, so we should chalk up 2020 to some bad injury luck and not a sign that his durability is waning already at age 25. But it’ll be something to keep an eye on going forward. 

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There are people who believe in Sam Darnold, and many of them apparently work in the Panthers' front office. Carolina traded a sixth-round pick this year and second- and fourth-round picks next year for Darnold. If Darnold suddenly looks like the player who was once the third pick of the draft, the Panthers will look very smart. And if Darnold is that player, there’s reason to believe Carolina could be in playoff contention. If you put an above-average quarterback with that offensive talent, and the offensive line is a little better and a young defense improves, the Panthers could make a big leap. 

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The quarterback merry-go-round is not a fun ride for NFL teams. The Panthers have gone from Cam Newton to Teddy Bridgewater to Sam Darnold in a little more than a calendar year. They have committed three picks and an $18.6 million salary next year to a quarterback with a sub-80 career rating. If Darnold shows he’s the same quarterback he was for 38 Jets starts, then what? The Panthers were 5-11 last season and there’s no guarantee Darnold is even as good as Bridgewater. Owner David Tepper doesn’t seem to be a patient person and if the Panthers take a step back in 2021, it could be a tumultuous offseason in Carolina.

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I liked Sam Darnold coming out of the draft, but there were questions about him by the end of his USC career and he was not good with the Jets. It would be a great story if he resurrected his career, but I need to see it before I believe it. There are a lot of good pieces on the roster and Matt Rhule has a history of improvement in his second and third seasons. But I don’t believe in Darnold yet, and I think the Panthers preview next season will spend plenty of time discussing the team's new quarterback. 

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32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles

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