It was only a matter of time before the Carolina Panthers made a move at quarterback. All of the tea leaves suggested the Panthers wanted to make a splash for a top-tier quarterback but after attempts for some of the bigger names fell short, the Panthers moved on to New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold.
While the attempts to acquire Matthew Stafford and Deshaun Watson were made in an attempt to significantly upgrade the talent and the production at the position, the move for Darnold feels like a move to make a move.
In trading for Darnold, the Panthers gave up a 2021 sixth-round pick along with a 2022 second-round pick and 2022 fourth-round pick. Carolina will also reportedly pick up Darnold’s fifth-year option, which will be a fully-guaranteed $18 million for 2022. With the old CBA, the Panthers could have picked up the option but it wouldn’t be guaranteed except for injury. But under the new CBA, that figure is guaranteed as soon as the option is picked up.
With the heavier draft capital and guaranteed money set in 2022, this deal is much more of a bet on getting the most out of Darnold in 2021 than a buy-low on a former highly-drafted prospect. If Darnold works out, the Panthers can claim they underpaid for a competent starting quarterback but if Darnold continues to struggle, Carolina will give up a valuable high second-round pick with that $18 million guaranteed while they search for another new quarterback for 2022.
This isn’t a low-risk, high-reward type deal. With a decent amount now invested already in 2022, the Panthers must have a high level of confidence they can get the most out of Darnold in 2021.
That argument for that is going to go something like this:
Last year, offensive coordinator Joe Brady got the most out of every aspect of the Carolina offense. All three starting receivers — Robby Anderson, D.J. Moore, and Curtis Samuel — had career years as they all worked more through the slot and the middle of the field. As late as after Week 15, the Panthers ranked inside the top-10 of offensive DVOA. They did that with up-and-down play from Teddy Bridgewater, just three games of Christian McCaffrey, and an offensive line that ranked 23rd in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate.
Darnold brings more raw talent and upside than Bridgewater and adding him into that system after struggling through an Adam Gase offense with the Jets will bring him the best supporting cast and coaching staff he’s had in his career.
But to fully believe that takes some leaps that just might be too far to reach safely.
The Gase factor is something to point to, as many will use Ryan Tannehill as an example but Tannehill’s Miami tenure with Gase was already much better than Darnold’s. It’s possible there is more to unlock in Darnold but there have already been three seasons of near league-worst quarterback play.
In his first three years, Darnold has ranked 28th of 33, 25th of 30, and 33rd of 33 quarterbacks by QBR.
Darnold’s peripherals aren’t much better to suggest there is a breakout on the way. Over the past three seasons Darnold has ranked 34th of 38, 21st of 37, and 28th of 38 in on-target percentage from a clean pocket among quarterbacks with at least 100 such attempts, per Sports Info Solutions.
If Darnold has that untapped potential, it would show up somewhere more often than just a play or two at a time. Quarterbacks in worse situations have been able to overcome their surroundings with more success. Two things can be true — the Jets were an awful situation for a quarterback and Darnold did little to showcase an ability to be an above-average quarterback when he was on the field.
It also doesn’t help that Darnold’s 2020 season might have been his worst. He was one of three quarterbacks, along with Nick Foles and Dwayne Haskins, to have negative Expected Points Added from a clean pocket in 2020. It’s hard to blame coaching and a supporting cast for not succeeding where just about every other quarterback succeeds without pressure in the pocket.
The intermediate area of the field has been the most valuable in the NFL but Darnold was among the worst on those throws last season. Among 30 quarterbacks with at least 40 attempts of 11-19 air yards outside of the red zone, Darnold was the only one with negative EPA.
There was the idea floated by Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer in his post-trade press conference that Darnold could bring more downfield and big play ability. But Darnold hasn’t outperformed Bridgewater in that area, either. Here are Darnold’s rates on throws of at least 20 air yards from a clean pocket over the past three seasons against Bridgewater from last year:
|2018||Sam Darnold||10/31 (32.3%)||358||4/0|
|2019||Sam Darnold||7/26 (26.9%)||204||1/2|
|2020||Sam Darnold||8/23 (34.8%)||222||1/2|
|2020||Teddy Bridgewater||15/32 (46.9%)||593||3/0|
Last year, there was only a half-yard difference between the average depth of target from Bridgewater (7.3) and Darnold (7.8), according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Bridgewater’s average depth of completion (5.1 yards) was higher than Darnold’s (4.9).
If the coaching staff and front office believe they can get so much improvement out of Darnold, why not believe they could continue to get the best out of Bridgewater, who had a top-5 on-target rate from a clean pocket last season? Or why not take an actual low-risk high-reward shot on a player such as Gardner Minshew, who will also be displaced by a rookie but has already proven the ability to perform in the NFL? Minshew was 14th in EPA per attempt from a clean pocket last season on a team that pulled off the No. 1 pick and would cost a total of $1.9 million over the next two seasons.
It’s clear the Panthers wanted to make a move at quarterback and when they were shopping in the Stafford-Watson aisle, it made sense as an improvement. But as those options disappeared, Carolina panicked and didn’t want to leave the store empty-handed even though they didn’t come away with something significantly better than what they already had at home.