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When the Carolina Panthers passed on the opportunity to draft quarterbacks Justin Fields and Mac Jones to select corner Jaycee Horn, their draftee got lost in the shuffle to a certain degree. That theme will repeat here; while I’ll get to Horn and the defense, the more significant part of the pick was that head coach Matt Rhule and his new GM, Scott Fitterer, have cast their lot with quarterback Sam Darnold.
Darnold has posted brutal numbers in three disappointing seasons as a pro, but while there are obviously areas where he needs to improve, he did display some promising traits and remains a viable prospect in my view if offensive coordinator Joe Brady can put him in a system better suited to Darnold’s current abilities. The Jets offense was an unmitigated disaster, and Darnold was unable to thrive in head coach Adam Gase’s offense, but there is a shockingly long list of players who fit that description, and many of them have gone on to do big things in their post-Gase seasons.
We need to look no further than a former Gase quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, and one of Darnold’s draftmates, Baker Mayfield, to find two examples in the past two seasons of quarterbacks who looked dramatically different when placed into proper structure. Does Darnold need to improve his decision-making? Absolutely. But the same was true of Baker Mayfield coming out of his season under head coach Freddie Kitchens. By the second half of the 2020 season under head coach Kevin Stefanski, Mayfield’s poor play from 2019 was an afterthought.
Brady has a short track record as an offensive coordinator, but it’s a strong one, and comes on the heels of an apprenticeship under Saints head coach Sean Payton, who has as good a track record of tailoring offenses to get the most out of quarterbacks as anyone, save perhaps Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. Darnold has shown he has the physical ability to excel in the NFL and has made a number of “wow” throws in his time. Brady helped Joe Burrow become the first overall pick in their year together at LSU, and turned Carolina into a productive offense last season with Teddy Bridgewater, a quarterback with a fraction of Darnold’s physical ability, at the helm.
There are possibilities here. In addition to playing in what should be a better-designed scheme, Darnold will also be working with upgraded weapons in Carolina. Robby Anderson became a deadly target once he got out of Gase’s offense, and D.J. Moore has been one of the league’s premier run-after-catch targets since he entered the league. Christian McCaffery is one of the league’s best backs when right and will hope for a healthier season, and while the departure of Curtis Samuel robs them of a versatile weapon, they’ve added a deep threat in veteran David Moore, a big body in rookie Terrace Marshall Jr., and a potential upgrade at tight end in Tommy Tremble. The offensive line has a number of question marks beyond center Matt Paradis and stud right tackle Taylor Moton, but the unit as a whole is superior to what Darnold worked during his time in New York.
As for the defense, they addressed a glaring need with the Horn pick. The Panthers have a number of playmakers: Derrick Brown is a house of a man on the interior line, and will now have DaQuan Jones, one of the more underrated players in the league, alongside him. Brian Burns is coming off an outstanding sophomore season and should have more support from edge rushers Haason Reddick, who can capitalize on schemed pressures and is rejoining the staff that helped him become a first-round pick at Temple, and Yetur Gross-Matos, who showed promise before an ankle injury derailed his rookie season. Shaq Thompson is an elite player with the top-end range at inside backer, Jeremy Chinn had an outstanding rookie season in a versatile role and will now shift to strong safety full-time, where he will pair with Juston Burris, who was solid as the free safety.
Last year’s defense struggled, in large part because of their corner play, but a return to health for Donte Jackson, who struggled with a foot injury throughout the campaign, and the addition of Horn could shift that narrative. This roster needs the Darnold gamble to pay off for anything to work, but if Darnold does get things on track, this group has the potential to push for a playoff spot, though they likely need another offseason to build the roster to a championship contender level.
QB Passing Projections
QB Rushing Projections
Skill Projections, Rushing
Skill Projections, Receiving
|Terace Marshall Jr.||WR||220||17||60.6||22.2||14.37||319.3||1.1||6.2||7.0||2.92|