Panthers’ gamble on Sam Darnold makes sense; Kyle Pitts is the 2021 NFL draft’s best player

Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.

Not to get all philosophical on everyone, but this well-worn axiom perfectly encapsulates the scouting process for NFL executives, scouts and coaches. Evaluators develop an affinity for prospects during their collegiate years, and that infatuation can encourage some scouts to dismiss a player’s ensuing failures with another NFL team.

This immediately came to mind when the Carolina Panthers sent three draft picks (a 2021 sixth-round selection plus second- and fourth-rounders in 2022) to the New York Jets in exchange for Sam Darnold. It’s apparent that the team’s belief in the fourth-year pro stems from how its general manager and scouts viewed the former No. 3 overall pick as a prospect.

“Sam is a guy that, going back to when he was coming out of USC, he was a guy I really liked,” first-year Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said during Monday’s virtual press conference. “Liked the competitor, liked the toughness, his ability to move in the pocket. He can make big plays down the field with his arm. So all those things really stood out about him. I just think in this offense with (coordinator) Joe Brady, with (head coach) Matt Rhule, the weapons we have around him, that he can take that next step with us.

“I was really excited to add someone of Sam’s caliber to our team.”

The effusive praise from Carolina’s new general manager — who was the Seahawks’ co-director of player personnel when Darnold entered the NFL in 2018 — might draw some quizzical looks from observers, considering Darnold’s stat line from his first three seasons as a pro. The quarterback owns a 13-25 career record with 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions. He’s completed 59.8 percent of his passes and has never ended a season above 26th in passer rating. In fact, Darnold finished as the NFL’s lowest-rated passer in 2020 (72.7), 35th out of 35 qualifying quarterbacks. His career passer rating is 78.6, also dead last among qualifying QBs since 2018. Those putrid numbers are compounded by a checkered injury history that has seen him miss three games as a rookie (sprained foot), three games in 2019 (mononucleosis) and four games in 2020 (sprained throwing shoulder).

Typically, a combination of poor performance and durability concerns would lead most teams to bypass a struggling QB1. But the negative impact of his environment with the Jets — particularly Adam Gase and his coaching philosophies — has given Darnold’s supporters hope that a change of scenery will help him find his game.

“The kid can play,” a former Jets offensive assistant coach told me this week. “He is an alpha with the ability to make all of the throws. … He is a hard worker who earns the respect of his teammates and he isn’t afraid of the stage. We probably put too much on his shoulders and he struggled with all of the responsibility at the line of scrimmage. When we scaled it back at the end of 2019, he flourished as a player and the offense took off. … If we stayed with that approach last season, he would’ve played better.”

To that last point, Darnold certainly performed at a higher level over the final eight games of 2019. He connected on 163 of 267 passes (61%) for 1,947 yards (243.4 per game) with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. He topped 90.0 passer rating in four games (with two north of 120.0) while helping the Jets win six of the last eight down the stretch. The promise displayed in that span certainly piqued the interest of optimists hoping Darnold can find his way in a new offense in Carolina.

“If Darnold is put in an offense that is run-heavy with traditional play-action passes and bootlegs, he will have success,” said the former Jets coach, who was on staff for multiple years with Darnold as the quarterback. “He can play, but he needs to be in an offense that matches his talent and ability. If Carolina plays to his strengths, he is good enough to win in this league.”

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