Week 12 preview: Can Panthers QB Sam Darnold hold on to the starting job?

Rusty Jones/AP

Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold has a lot to prove against the Denver Broncos.

The former 2018 No. 3 overall pick missed the first 10 weeks of the season as he recovered from a high ankle sprain and has yet to play a regular-season snap this season. That changes on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium as Darnold is set to start at quarterback for the first time since Week 18 of last season.

Interim head coach Steve Wilks turned to Darnold after Baker Mayfield threw two fourth-quarter interceptions in a 13-3 loss to the Ravens last week. Mayfield will serve as the backup against the Broncos. Quarterback PJ Walker is doubtful as he recovers from an ankle injury that kept him out versus Baltimore.

Darnold is playing on the fifth year of his rookie contract. He’ll hit free agency when the season ends. The Panthers (3-8) are interested in retaining Darnold, who could serve as a veteran backup for a 2023 Panthers quarterback room that will include rookie Matt Corral and potentially a first-round quarterback, according to a source with direct knowledge of the situation.

Darnold potentially has a six-game tryout, starting against Denver.

Sunday will not be easy for Darnold. The Broncos (3-7) have the third-ranked defense in the NFL, led by second-year shutdown cornerback Pat Surtain II. Denver’s defense ranks third in opponent scoring, third in yards per play allowed, and is the fourth-best third-down defense.

Regardless of who plays quarterback, the Panthers must run the ball effectively and convert third-and-short situations. The team is not explosive or cohesive enough to win in other ways.

Darnold could provide some juice with his legs. He is the most elusive and athletic quarterback the Panthers have started this season. Do not expect designed runs for Darnold but he will have the option to keep a few run-pass options or scramble in passing situations.

Offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo should ease Darnold back into action, which means running back D’Onta Foreman and the offensive line must generate chunk gains on the ground.

Similarly to last week, Denver features a confident secondary that will physically challenge receivers DJ Moore and Terrace Marshall Jr. at the line of scrimmage. On Monday, Wilks challenged his star players to “play like star players”. His pointed message should motivate both Moore and Marshall.

The Broncos have six one-score losses this season but do not let that stat fool you. Denver is not dangerous, especially with Russell Wilson —who signed a five-year, $245 million quarterback extension with Denver last offseason — limited.

Denver averages 14.7 points per game, last in the NFL. The Broncos’ offense is stagnant, disorderly, and one-dimensional (Wilson prefers throwing outside the numbers). That does not mean Carolina can overlook him. Like a dead clock, the 33-year-old quarterback can still be right a few times but rarely is he making more than one or two explosive plays per game.

Broncos punter Corliss Waitman leads the NFL with 58 punts. Denver averages a league-high 5.8 punts per game. Carolina also punts about five times per game. Sunday should be busy for both punters considering the Las Vegas point total is 36, which is the lowest point total for an NFL game this season.