Sam Darnold was traded from the New York Jets to the Carolina Panthers this off-season. The Panthers are perceived to be the better team. Will the change in scenery help Sam Darnold live up to those #3 overall expectations?
Sam Darnold has had a bad start to his NFL career. Many have written him off based on his time under Adam Gase. Now that he has been jettisoned from the Jets to the Panthers, are better days in store for the league’s fifth-youngest quarterback?
Draft day 2018, many experts projected Sam Darnold to go #1 overall to the Browns. Instead, the Browns took Baker Mayfield, and Darnold slid to number 3. Coming out of college he had everything going his way. He took a USC team expected to be 6-7 and turned it into a 9-3 Rose Bowl-winning team. Not only did he carry USC to a Rose Bowl victory, but he also set or tied not one, but three records in the process. Darnold tied the record for touchdowns in the Rose Bowl at 5. He scored the most points in a game by an individual player with 36. Lastly and most notably, he broke Vince Young‘s passing yards record of 467 by throwing for 473 yards.
Headed into the draft, he was compared to quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, Tony Romo, and even Brett Favre. Which is no surprise since he has the size, 6’3″ and 221lbs, the big hands, and the Olympic blood (his grandfather, Dick Hammer, was an Olympic volleyball player, played basketball for USC, and was a Marlboro Man). In 2017, Darnold was voted first-team all-pro by college coaches. Darnold’s breakout age was 19.3, and for QBs a breakout age under 20 is considered phenomenal. Sam Darnold came into the league with all the tools to be successful. He just needed a good coach and a good team around him.
This section could just be the heading “The Jets” and most football fans would understand. In case you didn’t know, the jets were truly awful during Sam Darnold’s tenure. Darnold was drafted by Adam Gase, who holds a 32-49 career record as a head coach.
The only success Gase has ever had was when he was offensive coordinator for Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning. The famed “I’m seeing ghosts” quote from Sam Darnold was a product of Gase not properly preparing his QB for the game, at least according to Le’veon Bell.
Coming into the 2020 season we expected a step forward from Darnold. However, hanging in the pocket behind the 29th ranked offensive line (PFF) would be difficult. Jetswire called that line “putrid”, and they were, allowing just 2.5 seconds before the pocket would collapse around Darnold. Not even superstar Patrick Mahomes can make magic happen with such a short time period, as evidenced by his Super Bowl LV performance.
Under pressure in 2.5s or less:— PFF (@PFF) February 8, 2021
🔺 Mahomes: 24 plays (43%)
🔺 Brady: 3 plays (10%) pic.twitter.com/c2eOrWl2ZQ
Darnold was pressured on 27.3% of dropbacks, which was better than the 28% the Jets offensive line allowed in 2019. For comparison, Aaron Rodgers was pressured on 14% of his dropbacks, Baker Mayfield on 18%, and Andy Dalton on 17%. Teddy Bridgewater, the QB Darnold is replacing in Carolina, was pressured on just 19% of his dropbacks.
The running game that year did Darnold zero favors. Frank Gore, 37 years young, was the team-leading rusher averaging less than 50 yards a game and just 3.5 ypc. The WR core was equally garbage (view a more in-depth preseason valuation here) Veterans Jamison Crowder and Breshad Perriman missed games due to injuries, as did rookie Denzel Mims. Top receiver Jamison Crowder had an average depth of target of just 7.9 yards, good for 62nd best in the NFL. The Jets had clear deficiencies. Darnold never had the tools that even the most competent of QBs need to be successful.
Not all news about Darnold is bad. Unlike the Jet’s QBs before him, Darnold has increased his yards per target every year. In 2018 his average depth of target was just 6.1 yards. Then in 2019, it ticked up to 6.4 yards. Finally, in 2020 we saw a huge jump to 7.2 yards. This indicates that even though his protection is breaking down, he still works through his progressions. Darnold still needs to work on deep-ball accuracy, and interceptions. Both of those were concerning coming out of college. We have to remember that he is still the youngest opening day starter since the NFL merger in 1970. He probably would have benefited from carrying a clipboard for a season behind an aging veteran. At 24 years old, only Justin Herbert (22), Tua Tagovailoa (22), Jalen Hurts (22), and Trevor Lawrence (21) are younger than Darnold.
The trade to the Panthers gives Darnold the fresh start he needs. Carolina is a team worlds ahead of the Jets. He will have huge upgrades over the weapons he had last year. For starters, D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson at WR, and Christian McCaffrey at RB. There is still concern over his protection. There are experts who believe the Panther’s O-line will be as bad as the jets were last year. This is where I believe the coaching change will be the biggest benefit to Sam Darnold.
New second-year NFL head coach Matt Rhule should bring all of the things that made Darnold successful in college with him to the NFL. Darnold was most successful at running the RPO at USC. Matt Rhule utilized the QB sneak at Baylor. In fact, it was one of his favorite plays. He used the QB sneak on 2nd and short twice as much as any other college coach. Rhule has stated he wants his tailback to get 100 rushing yards a game, his WRs to have 50 rushing yards, and his QB to have 50 rushing yards.
Another tendency from his days at Baylor is the way he runs 10 personnel. He often used the solo side WR to run a “shallow cross” or under route, which keeps the WR within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, while also opening up the deep ball. This play keeps a WR in the short-range pass that Darnold throws well, while simultaneously giving him the deep ball option We also saw a ton of Rhule using a QB rollout. Darnold was at his best when he was rolling out. Many of his best plays were while rolling out and in rhythm.
The Bottom Line
Sam Darnold has struggled. He played on bad teams with bad coaching. What he needed was a coach who could develop him, and play to his strengths. What he got was one of the worst coaches in the fantasy football era. Darnold is a developing player. He played WR and LB in high school. His time in New York hampered his development. However, a fresh start with a full off-season is just what he needs. In Carolina, he will get a coach that runs an offense more suited to his strengths and offensive weapons that are worlds above anything he has had since college, where he had JuJu Smith-Schuster.
To see what the Jets are doing differently for their new QB Zach Wilson check out BHaye’s article here.
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