Realistic Expectations for Sam Darnold in 2021

Looking into how well the Panthers' new starting quarterback could perform this upcoming season.
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The Panthers made the decision to make a change at quarterback this offseason by trading for Sam Darnold and then trading away 2020 starter Teddy Bridgewater to the Denver Broncos.

The narrative on Darnold is that he didn't have good protection, had a lack of weapons, and poor coaching during his time as a New York Jet. All he needed was a fresh start with an organization that would commit to him and that surrounds him with a roster that can help him taste success for the first time in his NFL career.

Although Carolina has an abundance of talent at wide receiver and running back, it doesn't necessarily mean that Darnold is going to transform into one of the top 10 or 15 quarterbacks in the league. Could he do so at some point in his career? Sure, but not in 2021.

Learning a new offense and gaining chemistry/timing with new teammates isn't something that just happens overnight - it's a process that can't be rushed. Not to mention, the Panthers are also entering the upcoming season as the youngest team in the entire NFL with an average age of 24.2 years old. Young teams typically don't have a ton of success and with still a relatively new head coach, it doesn't make things any easier. 

From a talent standpoint, the Panthers have a good enough offense that could potentially push for a spot in the playoffs. Christian McCaffrey is one of the top running backs in the league, Taylor Moton is considered one of the best right tackles in the league, and DJ Moore and Robby Anderson are budding young stars coming off of 1,000-yard seasons. 

Unfortunately, there's a big hole at left tackle - the most important position on the offensive line, and there could be up to as many as three new starters on that line (Cameron Erving, Pat Elflein, Deonte Brown/Brady Christensen). The offensive line was in shambles a year ago and it's going to take a few games or maybe even an entire season before that group really gels and feels good playing with each other. 

Christian McCaffrey is coming off a season in which he missed 13 of 16 games due to several injuries so is he going to be available on a weekly basis? If not, the Panthers are going to have some trouble running the ball consistently. Rookie Chuba Hubbard will be able to step up but he's no McCaffrey.

There's a lot of question marks all over the offense that gives you cause for concern. The good thing for Darnold is that he will have Matt Rhule and Joe Brady working with him every single day - two coaches that are well-documented elite developers. Darnold has a career completion percentage of 59.8% but look for that to take a healthy jump in 2021. The Panthers love to run crossers, screens, and slants which helps get the ball out quickly. Teddy Bridgewater benefited from it greatly by finishing 5th in the league in completion percentage (69.1%). I'm not sure if Darnold can make a near 10-point percentage jump in his first year as a Panther but I would expect it to be somewhere around the neighborhood of 62-65%.

Coming into this year, Darnold is averaging 2,699 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions per season. With the massive upgrade in weapons that he will have in his arsenal, I would like to believe that Darnold could shatter his career averages but we have to remain somewhat realistic. The more reps Darnold takes, the better he will become. Give him a year to learn the system, learn his receivers and offensive line, and then the judging process can begin in 2022.

My projected stats for Darnold:

Completion %: 63%

Yards: 3,650

Touchdowns: 23

Interceptions: 13

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