Sam Darnold: Any 2021 Fantasy Upside with Panthers and Joe Brady (and Not Gase)? - Roto Street Journal
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Sam Darnold: Any 2021 Fantasy Upside with Panthers and Joe Brady (and Not Gase)?

Sam Darnold has been a disaster through three NFL seasons. Across 12 starts last year, the former third-overall selection threw more interceptions (11) than TDs (9, lol). Any glimpses of his “promise” have been few and far between.

Yet, Darnold couldn’t have been dealt a worse hand: a talentless weapons cabinet, and the league’s worst play caller in Adam Gase.

Now shipped to the Panthers, Darnold finds himself in much greener pastures, both for his career and 2021 fantasy outlook. Indeed, Carolina offers a much more explosive supporting cast. More important, however, might be the tutelage and scheme of one of the NFL’s fastest rising coaching stars in Joe Brady.

Can Darnold, who’s younger than Joe Burrow, revitalize his career in a new situation? Or has Gase fully devoured Darnold’s NFL soul?

What does Sam Darnold bring to the table?

Darnold the prospect and Darnold the product have been polar opposites thus far.

Entering the league, scouts drooled over Darnold’s size, playmaking, arm strength, and improvisation. Sure, his mechanics and decision-making needed improvement, but Darnold could make all the throws, from the pocket and, even better, on the move. In many well-respected eyes, including a personal favorite Dane Brugler, Darnold was the number one prospect among Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson.  

That type of ceiling existed, and perhaps still does.

Rarely, if ever, have we seen it. Darnold has been inaccurate, skittish, and overly sensitive to perceived pressure. Those mechanics and decision-making have barely improved. He’s now 13-25 as a starter, with a paltry 59.8% completion rate and just six more career TDs (45) than interceptions (39). He’s never finished above 26th in passer rating, ranking dead-last in 2020 (72.7). Yes, 36th of 36 qualifiers in 2020, and 39th of 39 across his career.

Nightmarish.

In most cases, the towel could be safely tossed in by now.

However, the New York Jets and Adam Gase may be the lone exception to hold out any hope.

Panthers Situation = 1,000,000x Better than the Jets

For his entire career, Darnold has played behind the league’s worst offensive line, throwing to the league’s worst weapons cabinet.

Worse, he’s played under Adam Gase for two of those three seasons.

If you need a quick refresher, Gase murders talent:

Moreover, when Jamison Crowder is the top weapon at your disposal, poor results aren’t shocking.

With the Panthers, Darnold will reunite with Robby Anderson, next to the explosive DJ Moore, providing, by far, the strongest 1-2 WR punch he’s had yet. Stir in Christian McCaffrey, the NFL’s top pass-catching threat, and Darnold has infinitely more firepower than he ever sniffed in New York.

Darnold will also play under his best coaching staff, ever. At USC, Clay Helton was abysmal, and was bailed out by Darnold’s improvisational skills — just look at the Trojans’ recent records before and after Darnold. Gase needs no explanation.

Darnold has not experienced competent coaching his entire career, despite desperately needing it. As a pre-draft prospect, the great Greg Cosell labeled Darnold “tantalizing,” but in need of retooling:

Darnold’s delivery, from top to bottom, needs retooling. His mechanics and fundamentals need work. His balance needs major adjusting to play with disciplined feet and a consistently firm base.

An offensive coordinator will have to work with his scheme to mitigate Darnold’s cavalier decision-making and, at times, inaccuracy. In that way, Darnold could be comparable to Jameis Winston’s sometimes loose and undisciplined tendencies (or perhaps Darnold could be a bigger, more talented Tony Romo?).

With Darnold, you’re not banking on his precision, because there’s not a lot there, but his size, the movement ability and developing more of the pocket throws in which you did see outstanding intuition. Darnold is an exciting, tantalizing prospect, but you’re drafting him on what you can believe he can become, not on his inconsistent USC tape from last season.”

Enter Joe Brady and Matt Rhule.

Yes, overreacting to a coach can prove foolish. In fact, this same Brady had us all-in on Teddy Bridgewater in 2020. Whoops.

Still, with a case like Darnold, the importance can’t be overstated.

For one, the scheme should be glorious. Brady is deservedly regarded as the next potential wunderkind.

No, he didn’t light the NFL on fire in his debut; the Panthers ranked 23rd in PPG (22.9) and 21st in yards (349.5) in 2020. Yet, Bridgewater was painfully conservative, and abysmal in the Red Zone, yet the Panthers remained competitive almost every week.

Brady is one season removed from orchestrating the NCAA’s most explosive offense of 2019, and perhaps all time: LSU ranked first in 48.4 points and 585.5 yards per game, and second in passing yards (401.6). The year prior, the Tigers were 69th and 65th in scoring and passing respectively.

Moreover, Burrow leapt from unspectacular to unstoppable. Burrow threw for for the NCAA’s third most yards (5671) and most TDs (60); this was 2,777 yards and 44 TDs more than the year prior.

I provide a more detailed breakdown here, but Brady’s offense is rooted in attacking all over the field, from every position, with high-pace and pressure. Brady used a variety of motions and formations to generate mismatches, and helped Burrow grow immensely in his ability to read defenses pre and post-snap. Darnold could experience similar growth.

Beyond the scheme, Rhule and Brady will truly teach and coach, down to the basics:

As silly as that sounds, Darnold, rawer than most realize, has been in the least nurturing of environments. In Carolina, he joins an organization and staff that feels far more stable and fertile for growth.

Granted, Darnold isn’t a lock to take to their tutelage, nor have ability worth saving. Despite their promise, these coaches aren’t exactly surefire yet, either.

Still, the marriage could be perfect, and unlock the tools that had Darnold ranked No.1 by many within a deep QB class.

Summary: Sam Darnold’s Updated 2021 Fantasy Outlook

Up for debate: Is Sam Darnold actually any good?

Undebatable: He’ll be in a far better situation to succeed in 2021.

Darnold entered the NFL with all the arm talent and playmaking ability in the world; however, he’s fallen victim to poor mechanics and decision-making without the proper coaching to correct it, or supporting cast to help compensate.

We know the Panthers’ weapons represent tremendous upgrades. If Rhule and Brady are as advertised, they may just salvage Darnold, who’s still only 23.

Darnold is no guarantee to be the “next Ryan Tannehill,” escaping Gase for the perfect scheme and right weapons to emerge as a Top-10 Fantasy QB. Still, the parallels are there. Should Darnold fail, there’ll be little else to blame besides himself.

For a late round QB2 sleeper pick, Darnold makes perfect sense. As of now, I prefer Ryan Fitzpatrick or Jameis Winston, but Darnold’s ceiling is limitless. He slides in as my QB22, just above Daniel Jones, Kirk Cousins, and Tua Tagovailoa.

Check out The Wolf’s latest 2021 Fantasy Football Big Board & Rankings to see where all these players and more fall after 2021 NFL Free Agency!

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  • Founder of Roto Street Journal. Lover of workhorse backs, target hog wideouts, and Game of Thrones. Aspiring to be the "Brady" and "Leo" of the fantasy universe.

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