Sam Darnold’s new home is incomplete.
After relocating to Charlotte for his job, he moved into an apartment that is still missing some key furniture. It currently includes a mattress with no bed frame and half of a sectional. Less than two weeks away from his 24th birthday, family and friends have come to town to visit him and he has checked out the local cuisine and some of what the town has to offer.
If not for the specifics of his job, salary and athletic ability, Darnold could be described as going through the same experiences that many young adults have moving to a new place. But entering his fourth year in the NFL, there are a few more eyes and a bit more pressure on the new Carolina Panthers quarterback than can be identified as relatable.
Darnold took the field along with almost all of the Panthers’ 90-man roster Tuesday for the second day of voluntary organized team activities (OTAs) and the first open to the media. After ranking in the bottom portion in the league in almost every statistical category last year, the former New York Jets quarterback and lowest-rated passer over the last three seasons (78.6) isn’t feeling the pressure on him after being traded to Carolina.
“I’ve always kind of had high expectations for myself, first and foremost. Expectations outside of that, to be honest, besides my teammates and my coaches, it just doesn’t really mean a whole lot,” Darnold said. “For me, it’s about what we expect as a team, how much we expect to win.”
There’s only so much that can be taken away from one OTA practice with no pressure in the quarterback’s face, but the 2018 third-overall pick did have zip on the ball throughout the day. There were some standout throws to the likes of DJ Moore (in his new No. 2 jersey).
Over the next couple of months, there is still plenty of work to be done for the quarterback who was known as more of a drop-back, stay in the pocket passer in New York.
“I think the biggest thing for Sam is just to get really comfortable with the way that we move in the pocket,” coach Matt Rhule said. “He comes from a different system where they were kind of static. We’re more of an up in the pocket, slide up in the pocket, throw-on rhythm type of a team. We really don’t want him holding the ball and letting it rip. We want him to play the progression … That’s new to him. You can see a marked difference from the first day of phase two to now, from my perspective.”
Adjusting to the new scheme quickly will be key. Patience hasn’t been part of the approach at the quarterback position for the Panthers and Darnold doesn’t have the benefit of experience in a similar offense like Teddy Bridgewater did last year.
This is the first offseason the coaching staff has had an opportunity to work with players in person prior to training camp after everything was shifted online last year due to COVID-19. The increased opportunities to work together in person, which will continue over the next three weeks, allows the staff to better work with and identify what players do well or need to work on. The significant amount of player present this week, including veterans, shows that the players are buying into what the staff is doing.
That extends to newer additions like Darnold.
“Every bit of experience Sam has, he can draw from it, but I think he’s doing a great job of just starting over with us, saying, ‘Hey, what’s the cadence? How do you want me to drop? How do you want me to do these things?’ ” Rhule said. “That allows us to develop him really from the ground up.”
Some of the belief in Darnold’s ability to perform better in Carolina than he did in New York is the scheme and the improved players around him — although the question mark remaining at left tackle is a concern. A significant part of that is running back Christian McCaffrey, who described himself as 100% healthy after missing 13 games last year due to injury.
Darnold said some of McCaffrey’s skills as a receiver and a rusher compare to former Jets back Le’Veon Bell. The pair of new teammates have known each other dating back to their time in the Pac-12 when USC and Stanford faced off, but they only played in a game against each other in college once (a 27-10 Stanford win in 2016 that Darnold did not start). The pair has also been at workouts together in California multiple times, including this offseason.
“He’s such an easy guy to be around. He’s so laid back, he’s such a great person, and such a good player, too,” McCaffrey said. “When he’s out there throwing, he’s calm, he’s collected, but he has a great sense of urgency to him as well. It shows on the field and like I said, he just wants to win. And that’s I think the main thing you should want in a quarterback is somebody that wants to win games and do it however he can.”
By all accounts, Darnold is off to a solid start, but that’s what is to expect at the end of May with months to go until real football is played. For now, there is still much to be learned. You might even compare it to the half-filled apartment the quarterback is inhabiting.
“We’re working on it but hopefully, those (furnishings) will get here within the next couple of weeks,” Darnold said of his new home. “I got everything I need and again I’m in no rush right now.”
Notes from OTA
▪ While almost all of the team’s starters were in attendance Tuesday, the most notable veteran not practicing was wide receiver Robby Anderson. Defensive tackles Bravvyion Roy and Daviyon Nixon were also not at practice. Roy’s first child was born this week.
“We have a couple guys that are dealing with some family things, one guy dealing with a really positive family thing,” Rhule said, alluding to Roy. “We’re just trying to coach up the guys that are here and meet with the guys that are here.”
The Panthers also had at least nine players wearing red jerseys during practice, recovering from various injuries. Defensive back Myles Hartsfield spent a significant portion of the two-hour session working to the side or on the exercise bike, along with free-agent addition defensive end Kendall Donnerson.
Defensive players Jeremy Chinn and Brian Burns were among the players limited in practice. Both are recovering from offseason procedures. Burns had a cleanup of his shoulder after suffering an injury last year, while Chinn had a minor cleanup procedure on his knee. Chinn suffered some swelling on his knee during the season, which Rhule had linked to an issue dating back to college last year.
▪ While Chinn is recovering, the Panthers are giving him more reps at safety, but he may end up playing a role not dissimilar to what he did last year.
“It really kind of depends on how everyone else comes along, right? Like how does Sam Franklin, how do those guys develop? If you feel like they’re starting safeties, then we can use Chinn in a more hybrid role. If we feel like you know what, he’s just that good at safety, we’ll keep him there,” Rhule said. “I would anticipate us doing what we did last year, moving him around. I think, to me, when you have a chess piece like that, you’ve got to utilize his versatility.”
▪ The Panthers made their return to Wofford College for training camp official Monday, something that the coaches and some of the veteran players are looking forward to. For many on the staff, it will be their first time at the school. Rhule has only been their as an assistant coach at Western Carolina in the early 2000’s.
“I would say that the prevailing feeling on the team from the veterans is they didn’t realize how much they wanted it, needed it, enjoyed it, enjoyed the time together until it was taken away from them last year. I know we’re excited to get down there,” Rhule said.
The team has not yet finalized plans to hold practices with the Indianapolis Colts prior to their preseason matchup in Indiana, but it remains in the works.
“I think we’re such a young team, the youngest team in the league,” Rhule said. “As many full-speed reps as we can get versus other teams, that at the same time aren’t necessarily live, every rep that Sam, PJ (Walker) and Will (Grier) gets where they’re seeing a rush or they’re not getting tackled, accelerates their growth.”
▪ Cornerback Donte Jackson, back to being healthy after a lingering toe injury last year, intercepted a pass in coverage of Ishmael Hyman on the opposite side of the field that the media was standing on. He made a point to run all the way down to the opposite side to make sure everyone made note of his pick.