Is Sam Darnold the next 49ers’ starting quarterback?

By Akiva Wienerkur   August 4, 2023 

Is Sam Darnold the next 49ers’ starting quarterback?

How we got here

Chosen Rosen:

“Nine mistakes were made ahead of me. And I will make sure over the next decade or so that they will know that they made a mistake.” After being selected 10th overall by the Arizona Cardinals, former UCLA quarterback, Josh Rosen was furious that he was not selected earlier. He did not hold back. He let the teams that passed on him know exactly how he felt. Rosen made a fool of himself. Only 5 years later, I can safely say that not a single team regrets passing on “Chosen Rosen”. Rosen went 3-10 in his rookie year with an abysmal passer rating of 66.7. Josh Rosen was so bad that the Cardinals ended up with the worst record in the NFL and the first overall pick. 

Since the top quarterback prospect of the next draft, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, seemed much better than Rosen, the Cardinals elected to start over. Arizona drafted Murray and traded Rosen to the Miami Dolphins for a second-round pick and a fifth-round pick the next year. Rosen only made three starts as a Dolphin and lost all three games. His latest NFL action came in 2021 with the Atlanta Falcons. Rosen attempted 11 passes as a Falcon and only completed 2 of them. Rosen currently does not have a home in the NFL and might be out of the league for good. If he is done, his final NFL stat line will be: 3 wins, 13 losses, 2,864 yards, 12 touchdowns, 21 interceptions, and an embarrassing passer rating of 61.1. It took much less than a “decade or so” for the teams that passed on Rosen to know that they did not make a mistake. 

The Busts:

 In the modern era of the quarterback-driven NFL, teams expect a lot from their young pass throwers. This causes us to be very quick to label young quarterbacks who do not have instant success as “draft busts.” We forget that the quarterback position is the most difficult job in all sports, and it might take young kids some time to adjust.

Josh Rosen is only one example of many college quarterbacks that were labeled as “draft busts” and did not have success on the professional level. Out of the 14 quarterbacks selected in the first round from 2016 through 2019, only 8 played out their entire rookie contract (4 or 5 years) with the team that drafted them. 6 failed to play out their deals and an additional two never became franchise quarterbacks either.

QuarterbackOriginal TeamNumber of Starts for the TeamNumber of Years with the TeamPasser Rating While Playing for the Team (0-158.3)
Jared GoffLos Angeles Rams69591.5
Carson WentzPhiladelphia Eagles68589.2
Paxton LynchDenver Broncos4276.7
Mitchell TrubiskyChicago Bears50487.2
Baker MayfieldCleveland Browns59487.8
Sam DarnoldNew York Jets38376.6
Josh RosenArizona Cardinals13166.7
Dwayne HaskinsWashington Commanders13274.4

Out of that long list of draft busts, I have reason to believe that one of them may have been labeled a “bust” a bit too soon. Sam Darnold might have been written off prematurely and here’s why.

Got a hunch on who will rise and who will fall in the 2023 Draft Class. Make an NFL futures bet today.

Sam Darnold, USC Trojans:   

Sam Darnold played his college ball at USC under offensive guru Clay Helton. With Helton calling the plays, Darnold was terrific. In 24 starts as a Trojan, Darnold’s stat line was as follows: 20 wins, 4 losses, 7,229 passing yards, 57 passing touchdowns, 22 interceptions, and a college passer rating of 153.7 (103.39 on an NFL scale) along with 332 rushing yards and 7 rushing touchdowns. Darnold was one of the top quarterbacks entering the 2018 draft despite the class being stacked with great quarterbacks, such as Heisman winners Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson. Darnold is the best pure thrower of the football in the class. So, prior to the draft I believed that Darnold would be the best NFL quarterback in the group, that was until he was drafted third overall by the New York Jets. The New York Jets’ organization is where quarterback’s careers go to die. The last USC quarterback to be drafted in the first round by the Jets was Mark Sanchez. To say the least, Sanchez’s career didn’t exactly go as planned:

Sam Darnold, New York Jets:

 Upon his arrival in New York, in addition to adjusting to the professional level, Sam Darnold also had to adjust to having a defensive-minded head coach for the first time. Darnold did have the experienced offensive coordinator, Jeremy Bates, to rely on, but he didn’t help very much. On the very first pass of Darnold’s professional career, he threw the ball across the field in a risky fashion. The pass was intercepted and returned for a pick-6 by the Detroit Lions free safety, Quandre Diggs. Not a great start. Even though he did get his act together and the Jets ended up winning the game 48-17, the pick-6 was a sign of things to come. Throughout his rookie year, Sam Darnold only won 4 out of 11 starts and threw 15 interceptions. 

Adam Gase was the Broncos’ OC during Peyton Manning’s record-breaking 2013 campaign and became known as an offensive genius. Gase’s failed short tenure as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins raised speculation that Gase got more credit than he deserved for Manning’s masterful work. Consequently, it was a real head-scratcher when succeeding Sam Darnold’s debut season, the Jets elected to hire him as their head coach. Changing the offensive system early on in their career almost always hurts the development of a young quarterback, even more so when the biggest downside of the quarterback’s game is reading the field, like in Darnold’s case. Gase and Darnold never found a rhythm together. The dreadful HC-QB duo only won 9 of their 25 games together. Under Gase, Darnold threw 24 interceptions with an unremarkable passer rating of 79.06. 

Even though Darnold wasn’t exactly horrible, and was far from the Jets’ biggest issue, they had drafted him in the top-3 to turn the franchise around and he hadn’t done so. After going 13-23 over three years, the Jets had seen enough, and on April 5th, 2021, they traded Darnold to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for a sixth-round pick along with a second-rounder and a fourth-rounder the following year. 

Welcome Bonus
Bet $5, Get $150 in Bonus Bets If Your Bet Wins
Views (7331)

Sam Darnold, Carolina Panthers:

 Sam Darnold’s first year as a Panther was the Panther’s second season under the coaching tandem of head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady. The team went 5-11 the previous season under quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The front office was looking to improve at the position by bringing Sam Darnold and attempting to revamp his career. Carolina did get off to a hot start by winning their first 3 games, but then things took a turn for the worse. The Panthers lost three consecutive one-score games, and it took a mental toll on Darnold. During the Panther’s week 7 matchup against the New York Giants, Darnold simply couldn’t function anymore and got benched in favor of PJ Walker. Darnold and Walker switched off constantly throughout the remainder of the season. The Panthers finished the year with a 5-12 record, 4-7 under Darnold. 

 The next season, the Panther tried to improve at the quarterback position by trading for former first-overall pick, Baker Mayfield. After starting 1-4 the team understood that the source of the problem was the coaching staff and fired Matt Rhule. A few games later, interim head coach Steve Wilks made Sam Darnold the starting quarterback. With not many games remaining the Panthers were a longshot to make the playoffs. Out of their last 6 games, they had to win 2 more than the division-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers to qualify. Now playing for a capable head coach for the first time since college, the NFL got its first taste of the USC version of Sam Darnold.

 In the six-game stretch, Darnold threw 7 touchdown passes and rushed for two more. With a career-high 92.6 passer rating, Darnold led the Panthers to 4 wins. Unfortunately, the Buccaneers won 3 in that stretch and the Panthers fell one win short of a playoff berth. Following the season, Darnold’s contract expired, and he became a free agent.

Meanwhile in the Bay Area:

 Two years removed from falling just short in Super Bowl LIV against the Kansas City Chiefs, the San Francisco 49ers decided that after having Jimmy Garoppolo under center for four years, it was time to lay out the blueprint to replace him.

 In the 2021 NFL draft, the 49ers traded up to the third overall pick to select quarterback Trey Lance out of NDSU. Despite being incredible for NDSU in 2019, Trey Lance was viewed as a bit of a wildcard since he only played one game in 2020, due to COVID-19. The following season, since Lance was still a project, Jimmy G was still the 49ers’ week 1 starter. Jimmy G started 15 games and won 9 of them while Lance only started two and picked up a single win. Heading into the 2022 season, 49ers head coach, Kyle Shanahan, one of the greatest offensive minds of our generation decided it was Trey Lance’s time to shine. However, Lance’s performance to start the season was mediocre. 

Things only got worse for Trey Lance when he fractured his ankle after only two games. Following the injury, Jimmy G stepped in and looked good. Garoppolo went 7-3 with a passer rating of 103.0, but then, got hurt himself. With both of their top quarterbacks on the shelf, the 49ers turned to the man they selected with the very last pick in the past draft, Brock Purdy. Purdy stepped in and quickly made headlines. Between the 49ers’ great offensive line, a barrage of weapons on offense, and Kyle Shanahan’s brilliant play-calling, all Purdy had to do was be patient and find the open man. By coincidence, that’s precisely what Purdy does best. With Brock Purdy under center, the 49ers won all 5 of their remaining games and finished second in the NFC at 13-4. San Francisco destroyed the Seattle Seahawks in the wildcard round before beating the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round. On their first possession of the NFC championship against the Philadelphia Eagles, disaster struck. While Purdy attempted to fling his arm forward to throw a pass, Eagles’ linebacker Haason Reddick while attempting to force a fumble, reached for the ball, and accidentally hit Purdy’s arm. The energy of the separate forces going opposite directions came together in Purdy’s elbow and tore his UCL. The 49ers lost the game and Purdy had to undergo surgery to repair his throwing arm. It was unclear whether Brock Purdy will recover on time for the next season. Meanwhile, Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract had expired.

Sam Darnold, San Francisco 49ers: 

Since the San Francisco 49ers had other quarterback options they didn’t want to overpay for Jimmy G. The 49ers inevitably lost the bidding war to the Las Vegas Raiders, who gave Garoppolo a 3-year deal worth north of 72 million dollars. Meanwhile, it was becoming more and more unclear whether Brock Purdy would be ready for week one. Since Trey Lance’s performance so far has been unimpressive, the 49ers scooped up Sam Darnold via free agency on a cheap, 1-year deal. 

Personally, I would love to see Sam Darnold get an opportunity with the 49ers. During his brief stints playing for capable offensive coaches, Darnold has been brilliant. The 49ers’ head coach, Kyle Shanahan might just be the most capable offensive coach in the NFL and would be fantastic for Darnold. In addition, Darnold has never been on an NFL roster with an above-average offensive line and good weapons. The 49ers’ offensive line ranked 7th in the NFL last year along with an incredible group of offensive weapons. The 49ers have three fantastic pass catchers in receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk along with tight end George Kittle, not to mention Christian McCaffrey who is arguably the best running back in the league. Sam Darnold has a real opportunity on the 49ers to be the player he was expected to be when he first came into the league. 

With training camp underway we now know a bit more about the 49ers quarterback situation. Brock Purdy is set to return earlier than expected, yet still hasn’t been practicing consistently. The narrative has quietly become that out of the three quarterbacks, Sam Darnold is having the best camp so far. On July 27th Kyle Shanahan compared Darnold to hall-of-fame quarterback, Steve Young. When asked about the remarks Shanahan replied: “I don’t like to compare anyone to Steve because of how good he was, but why can’t Sam be like that? He’s got that type of ability. He is that type of person. And I’m just pumped we could get him here.”

Furthermore, Matt Maiocco of NBC went on air and said, “He might be, can I say this, the most talented thrower of the football that the 49ers have ever had.” Maiocco has been a 49ers fan for over 40 years and has watched Joe Montana play live, yet he believes that Darnold throws better. On top of that, many analysts, all over Twitter have been talking about what a pleasant surprise Darnold has been. Marcus Spears of ESPN, tweeted: “Amazing #SamDarnold can actually play football who knew” along with Colin Cowherd who tweeted “He was never truly comfortable in the pocket… The other quarterback that I see this with thus far is Justin Fields.” Darnold was brought in to compete with Lance for the job as the backup, but he might just make the starting quarterback decision a bit more difficult for Shanahan and his staff.

What’s next?

At the end of the day, Brock Purdy does have the best stats out of the three quarterbacks by a landslide. However, Purdy still has a lot of question marks. Will Purdy be ready for week 1? Will Purdy be the same with a surgically repaired throwing arm? Was Purdy a “one-hit-wonder” or will he be able to continue playing well in his sophomore season? Purdy will most likely get most of the playing time, but it is safe to assume that either Darnold or Lance will see some action at some point this season. In my opinion, if Darnold gets his chance, we will see a completely different Sam Darnold. If Darnold gets on the field, I believe he will take off and not look back!

How do you think the 49ers will fair in 2023? Make a bet on NFL futures for the 49ers today.

Share this story

Read more