The quarterback, who has helped the team to a 3-1 start, has shown the potential many NFL coaches and executives saw when the New York Jets made him the third pick of the 2018 draft.
Heading into Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles (1 p.m. ET, FOX), he ranks sixth in ESPN’s total quarterback rating (62.6) after finishing last in 2020 among 33 qualified quarterbacks with a 33.1 QBR. His three-year average (40.3) with the Jets also was among the worst.
The 24-year-old ranks 14th in completion percentage (67.8) after averaging 59.8 in New York. His five rushing touchdowns are as many as he had the past three seasons and more than any quarterback in NFL history through four games.
The rebuild isn’t complete, though. Darnold’s two interceptions in the second half Sunday at Dallas were costly in Carolina’s first loss and conjured up memories of the mistakes -- 39 picks, seven fumbles lost -- he had in New York.
But the solid overall numbers are enough to suggest the Panthers made the right decision in sending three draft picks -- sixth-rounder in 2021, second- and fourth-rounder in 2022 -- to the Jets for a player deemed a failure.
“Sam is certainly ahead of where I would think a guy in the first year in the system would be,’’ Carolina coach Matt Rhule said.
ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, a former NFL quarterback, agreed.
“He has a very solid chance to be their guy for the long haul,’’ Orlovsky said.
Let’s take a closer look, with help from ESPN Stats and Information, at where Darnold has improved and where he still needs to get better.
Big improvement in handling pressure
Darnold was dreadful under pressure in New York, particularly the past two seasons when he ranked 31st in completion percentage (38.8), 31st in yards per attempt (4.6) and 16th in sack rate (20.9%). It got so bad in a 2019 prime-time game against the New England Patriots where Darnold said "I'm seeing ghosts'' after tying a career-high in interceptions with four.
He currently ranks fourth in completion percentage when under pressure (59.5) and second in yards per attempt (8.7).
And he’s still under a lot of pressure. After being pressured on 36.1% of his dropbacks (second most in the NFL) the past two seasons, he’s been pressured the eighth most so far in 2021 (34.2%).
But because of offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s quarterback-friendly system and having better talent around him, Darnold is understanding the pressure better and getting rid of the ball faster.
“Coaching and choice matter,’’ Orlovsky said. “Joe’s done an outstanding job of playing to Sam’s strength -- keeping him on the move, utilizing his legs, way more play-action passes.’’
Having one of the league’s best all-around backs in Christian McCaffrey, who missed Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury and is questionable for Sunday, helps. The Jets ranked 25th, 31st and 22nd in rushing with Darnold.
Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety and now ESPN analyst, says Brady’s system and better talent are key.
“Darnold can see the field faster, understand where the windows are going to be and how to anticipate where the windows are going to be,’’ Bowen said. “You can scheme throws for him and define reads for him and put him in a position where he plays more in the structure of the offense.’’
Red zone and running
Darnold had four designed runs in the red zone in three years with New York compared to five in four games with Carolina, so Brady is utilizing the quarterback’s athleticism.
Darnold has improved in the red zone overall. He had only a 45.1 completion percentage with the Jets, compared to 58.8% at Carolina.
Orlovsky sees confidence, something he questioned would return for Darnold.
“After the three years he had in New York, you would understand if he had zero confidence in his own ability,’’ he said.
The Christian McCaffrey factor
While Darnold has been good under pressure, his sack rate isn’t good. He ranks 21st.
This is where McCaffrey is a big factor. With the Pro Bowl back on the field, Darnold has taken two sacks on 69 dropbacks (2.9%). Without McCaffrey, he’s taken nine sacks on 92 dropbacks (9.8 %).
All three of his interceptions have come without McCaffrey on the field. With McCaffrey? Darnold has two touchdown passes and no interceptions.
Darnold has been blitzed less without McCaffrey (27% vs. 36%). However, he’s been pressured more (37% to 30%).
So protecting Darnold is key. Carolina did a decent job the first three games with McCaffrey. Without him Sunday, they allowed a season-high five sacks, one fewer than they gave up the first three weeks combined.
“When I look at us overall, I have a lot of confidence when we have the ball in Sam’s hands,’’ Rhule said. “We’ve just got to keep finding ways to protect him. The more time he has, the better and better and better he’ll be.’’
Don’t forget DJ Moore
Darnold has the second-best percentage in the NFL (82.9%) on passes of 1 to 10 yards. He ranked 24th on those throws (69.7%) with the Jets.
Part of the credit goes to wide receiver DJ Moore. He is tied for third in the NFL with 30 receptions and is fourth in receiving yards (398). But his biggest impact is yards after the catch. His 155 ranks ninth.
McCaffrey ranks 10th in YAC with 151, and the Panthers ranks seventh overall.
Darnold hasn’t had to throw deep to get big plays like he did in New York. Many of them have been like Sunday’s short pass to Moore that turned into a 29-yard gain.
Orlovsky also was impressed with a pass Darnold made against Houston, when Moore was third on his progressions. Darnold was criticized in New York for not going through his progressions.
“I always said this when they said he’s not going through his progressions: ‘How do you guys want him to get through his progressions when he’s running for his life? Would you go from your No. 1 receiver, who is probably the No. 4 receiver on most offenses, to your second or third, who are probably on the street?’’’ Orlovsky said.
“When you have choices it’s easier to work through progressions.’’
Room for improvement
Darnold ranks 28th on passes that travel 11 to 20 yards (46.9%) and 15th on passes that travel 21-plus yards (38.5 %).
The past two seasons, he ranked 32nd (48.9%) and 33rd (26.4%), respectively, on passes.
Both Orlovsky and Bowen believe this will improve, though Darnold struggled on some of those same passes in college.
“The next step in his confidence is to scheme more vertical shot plays for Robby Anderson,’’ Bowen said of Darnold’s favorite target in New York, who has only 10 catches on 22 targets this season.
Between the numbers
Darnold still struggles on deep balls outside the numbers. But Carolina hasn’t forced him to make those passes as often.
On passes of at least 10 yards downfield and outside the numbers, Darnold is 9-of-26 for 194 yards. That’s the third-worst completion percentage (34.6) among qualified quarterbacks.
Darnold has attempted 53% of his total passes between the numbers with Carolina, compared to 44% with the Jets. He’s completing 77.9% of those passes, compared to 67.8% the past three years.
Again, surrounding Darnold with better talent in a system that plays to his strengths has helped.
“And it’s just the beginning for Sam,’’ Orlovsky said. “You can see a second year in this system, and maybe a better piece on the offensive line, and if Christian is able to stay healthy -- you go, ‘Man, we’ve got the chance to be really good offensively.’ ’’