Three years ago, Sam Darnold was about to be selected third overall by the New York Jets and was one of the most exciting talents around the NFL.
Now, he’s being traded for a sixth-round pick and a future second and fourth after throwing 45 touchdowns to 39 interceptions while completing under 60% of his passes and having only surpassed 3,000 yards in one of his three seasons – and even then by only 24 yards.
While things have clearly not gone to plan with Sam Darnold’s career to this point, he won’t turn 24 years old until June and gets a chance at a fresh start away from a Jets organization that has struggled far beyond the play of their quarterback. This is clearly a gamble for the Panthers as well, if Darnold was a sure thing, the price tag would have been an awful lot higher – but if it does pay off then the Panthers will have got an undeniable bargain paying essentially $24m-ish for two years of a young QB.
To find out what Sam Darnold has done well so far in his career, as well as what he has struggled with, we’ve taken a look at the tape.
So then, just what kind of player is Sam Darnold?
As a pure thrower of the ball Darnold certainly still has appeal, and while he wasn’t regularly dropping dimes over the top of defenses with the Jets in 2020, he did show pretty good velocity on underneath routes:
And has the arm to get the ball there even when throwing off-balance when rolling to his right:
And is an accurate thrower of the ball on underneath routes:
And there are some really special throws mixed in that are easy to get excited about. This is what Scott Fitterer meant when he said one of the things that stood out about Darnold was that “he can make big plays downfield with his arm.”
Darnold was ultimately drafted third overall for a reason, and a big part of that is his arm talent. That hasn’t changed.
However, with that said, there are some intermediate throws in particular that create some hesitancy.
While both of these passes are completed, there were bigger plays to be made if he had been able to put the ball in a place where the receiver didn’t have to adjust quite so drastically to make the catch:
And while his velocity is generally good, there are some throws that really go take a little to long to get there, such as turning this potential big play into an incompletion:
Darnold certainly has arm talent, and while he might not have the kind of easy velocity that some other quarterbacks have, he certainly has the ability to make all the throws, though if the flashes of inaccuracy on intermediate throws become a more consistent feature, they will limit him.
Of course, much of the criticism that Darnold has received since he was drafted has been about his ability to process and make good decisions with the ball. Before looking at this in more detail it is worth getting a couple of significant caveats out of the way.
Yes, the Jets’ offensive line was not good in 2020 nor has it been for a while, and Darnold was consistently facing early pressure in the pocket:
And yes, Adam Gase is unlikely to win a coach of the year award any time soon and often Darnold found himself dropping back to pass with nowhere to go with the ball:
Given this, it is unlikely that any young quarterback would have thrived in the situations that Darnold has consistently been put in. With that said, it is still possible to assess how he does fare as a decision maker at the NFL level.
On the whole, Darnold does a good job of working through reads and importantly does so at a reasonable pace, allowing him to quickly find the open man and make the throw:
He also shows flashes of really encouraging anticipation where he is able to diagnose the coverage and let the ball go before the receiver comes out of his route:
And while the Patriots notoriously were able to rattle him with disguised blitzes, he does actually go a fairly good job of anticipating and attacking the blitz:
While his willingness to get the ball out early to running backs in space is certainly something that has the potential to pair very well with the like of CMC and Reggie Bonnafon:
However, there are also some negatives. After all, there is a reason why the Jets have the second overall pick and why Darnold was available for the price he was.
One of these that is somewhat understandable is his tendency to settle for mediocre options early in his progressions rather than seeing the whole picture – something that doomed Teddy Bridgewater in the eyes of many around Carolina.
Here, he settles for a contested outside throw for minimal gain early rather than waiting for the man to come open over the middle:
Given how much Darnold has been sacked since arriving in New York (98 times in 38 games…) it is somewhat understandable that he might want to get the ball out as fast as he possibly can, but if the Panthers are able to protect him more effectively than the Jets have been able to then it would be good to see him be able to take a larger view of things.
The other issue which has really followed him since college is his tendency to try and force throws that simply aren’t there. While there are certainly times where he was able to justify an aggressive approach with his arm talent and anticipation:
There are decisions that are bad by any standard:
Darnold will unquestionably benefit from being in a situation where he isn’t being sacked before he even reaches the bottom of his drop and where there are open receivers every now and then, but it’s these really bad decisions that are going to limit his future with the Panthers if he is unable to make further improvement.
One thing Scott Fitterer did mention about Darnold when speaking to the media on Monday was his mobility in the pocket, and Darnold does do a pretty good job of escaping from pressure and looking to find somebody open downfield:
And while he isn’t going to be a regular contributor to the rushing game, he can pick up some yards with his feet if there is nobody open and the play breaks down:
This likely won’t make for a radical departure from how Teddy was able to contribute with his feet at times, but it’s certainly not a negative.
For the Panthers, the trade for Sam Darnold is similar to the approach that Seattle took early on under John Schneider and Pete Carroll. While this is a move that ultimately has a reasonable chance of not working out, the Panthers didn’t offer so much that it will cripple them if that does happen, and if it does pay off then it looks like a bargain. Importantly, this move doesn’t preclude them from taking another quarterback in the draft, though that is now unlikely to happen in the first round.
In Darnold himself, the Panthers get a player with the arm talent to succeed at the NFL level and who shows enough on tape to think that he is not completely out of his depth from a decision-making standpoint. With that said, he will need to eliminate the really poor decisions that have been a feature of his career dating back to his USC days, as well as proving that his limitations in New York were mostly those of supporting cast and coaching.
It’s a roll of the dice, and a reasonably expensive one, but it has a chance of paying off.
(Top photo via Michael Reaves/Getty Images)