If former first round pick and New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold is going to revive his career with the Carolina Panthers, he’s already picked the right player to latch onto.
NFL.com reports that Darnold has already built good chemistry with star jack-of-all-trades running back Christian McCaffrey. Darnold’s quarterback coach Jordan Palmer said of the duo, “They’re on the same page about a lot of things already. For Sam, that’s 20-plus snaps every game where the quarterback doesn’t have to manufacture a play.”
Having a security blanket like McCaffrey in the backfield is a major upgrade over the weapons Darnold has played with thus far in his career. McCaffrey played in just three games due to injury last season, but when healthy, he’s one of the best dual threat running backs in the league. In 2019, he ran for nearly 1,400 yards, had over 1,000 receiving yards, and had 19 total rushing and receiving touchdowns.
Last year, playing for the Jets, New York’s leading rusher and receiver combined for fewer yards than McCaffrey just had rushing in 2019. If he returns healthy, he’ll be a huge factor in Darnold’s success or failure in Carolina.
The Panthers acquired Darnold in the offseason for a sixth round pick this year and a second and fourth round pick next season.
This wasn’t how things were supposed to go for Darnold, who was the No. 3 pick in the draft out of USC in 2018. He seemed to handle the pressure of playing quarterback in New York well his first two seasons, improving each year. But he backslid significantly last season, and with a new coach coming in during the offseason in Robert Saleh, the team decided to start fresh.
Last season, Darnold played in 12 games and completed just 59 percent of his passes with 9 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The Jets won just two games, so Darnold was far from the only issue. Leading rusher Frank Gore averaged less than four yards per carry in the running game. Jamison Crowder led the team in receiving, but averaged less than 12 yards per reception. The offense overall lacked big play capabilities and couldn’t score enough points, even with a defense that wasn’t as bad as the team’s record.
Darnold certainly played poorly, but it’s also fair to ask if the Jets gave up on a promising young player too soon. He’s just 23-years-old. The team’s front office and coaching staff have been unstable throughout his career. He’s been sacked 30 or more times each season he’s been in the league, and he’s had serious injuries each of those seasons as a result of the team’s porous offensive line.
He’s also had moments where he’s played pretty well. In his second season, he completed 62 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns in 13 games before his third-season backslide.
Former teammate Ryan Kalil also said that former Jets coach Adam Gase didn’t put Darnold in a position to succeed. He told The Athletic, “It was a system that didn’t allow a lot of individual freedom. It was very, ‘You do it this way and that’s it. A lot of the scheme was pre-determined based on what they thought they were seeing from the sideline. It didn’t give Sam a lot of room to grow, in my opinion, to make decisions on the fly. It worked in some instances, but it handicapped him in the long run. It wasn’t a system that allowed him to evolve and make decisions on his own. I think that was the hardest thing. And I think that’s why ultimately the Jets made some [coaching] changes, too.”
Darnold should have a good environment to succeed in Carolina. There is an established star on offense in McCaffrey, the city has nowhere near the pressure that New York does, and trading for Darnold means the Panthers can use the No. 8 pick to either shore up their defense or add a playmaker on offense.
It’s also not unheard of for a highly touted quarterback to change teams after struggling early in his career. In fact, Carolina has a good example. Kerry Collins, who the Panthers picked fifth overall in 1995, spent 3.5 seasons with the Panthers before the team gave up on him. Collins later caught on with the New York Giants and eventually played in a Super Bowl with them, going on to a long and solid NFL career.
If Darnold can tap into his potential and be even more than just a game manager, he’ll be a steal for what Carolina gave up to get him.