Sam Darnold's working from the ground up

Sam Darnold

CHARLOTTE — From a moving-to-a-new-place standpoint, Sam Darnold called joining the Panthers "a seamless transition."

That confirms what everyone says about the new quarterback's easygoing nature, because there are definitely a few seams.

While he's enjoying getting to know his new place in the world, he's doing it from a different point of view, and a different elevation. He joked Tuesday that because of COVID-19-related production delays, a lot of his furniture hasn't made it here yet, which means he's sort of living like a college student.

"Yeah, my bed's still on the ground, which is great," he said with a laugh. "So that's been awesome, and I have half a couch right now.

"We're working on it, but there's no rush right now."

Without a proper bed or the other half of his sectional couch, Darnold is free to spend his free time in his new apartment learning a new system, with new expectations.

Gone are the days when he was drafted third overall in the 2018 NFL Draft to be the savior of the New York Jets.

Here, they want him to be part of a greater whole, to fit in, to play comfortably and without the pressure that comes with being such a focal point.

And that sounds fine to him.

"It depends on how you see it," Darnold said of the difference in pressure here in the second act of his professional career. "I've always had high expectations for myself, first and foremost. Expectations outside of that, to be honest, besides my teammates and my coaches, it doesn't mean a whole lot.

"I think for me, it's about what we expect as a team, what we expect to win, and for me, it's about completing the ball and getting the team down the field and scoring touchdowns. That's all I care about. As long as we do that and I do my job, we're all good."

The Panthers believe that Darnold can be a fit for them for a number of reasons, beginning with the fact he's still just 23 and has time to grow into the job.

He's mentioned in the past some similarities to the offense he ran his rookie year in New York, but this offseason has been about starting from scratch.

"He's so young in what we ask him to do," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said Tuesday. "But he's so young and has a great work ethic. He might have experience, but you don't have experience in what we do. Every bit of experience Sam has, he can draw from it, but he's done a great job with us saying 'Hey what's the cadence, how do you want me to drop,' and those things. That's good. That allows us to develop him really from the ground up.

"He's a great guy great arm talent. Very likable, and he works hard. He wants to be good. He doesn't want to not have a good rep. Everything we heard about him is what we're seeing."

The same is true for Darnold. The things he heard about coming to Carolina — namely having more skill position talent around him — is evident. He had the chance to work out with running back Christian McCaffrey before he arrived for the offseason program, and you can tell he enjoys it.

Darnold had a bit of time with late-stage Le'Veon Bell in New York, and sees a younger version of that kind of dual-threat back in his new teammate.

"Christian, he's different," Darnold said. "He can do some freaky things on the field, and he's fast, he can run routes."

And that all helps.

But so much of what the Panthers are building depends on Darnold being a better version than he was in New York, where he threw to the other team too often (39 interceptions in three seasons), and wasn't able to lift that franchise up. That's why they were willing to trade him and cast their lot with a new rookie quarterback savior (Zach Wilson) this year.

So now, he's learning this system, spending time with offensive coordinator Joe Brady going over the things he likes and the things he's less comfortable with. The arm strength is evident, even in the more relaxed atmosphere of an OTA workout, where the the only real heat comes from the unseasonably high temperatures, and not a pass-rush or the glare of the spotlight.

Rhule mentioned particular football things (such as being ready to move in the pocket) as things they want Darnold to focus on. And the way Darnold sidestepped the first volley of questions about opening against the Jets — "a good opportunity against a good opponent" — proved that his pocket awareness is coming along.

But Rhule likes the small steps Darnold is taking to improve.

"We really don't want him holding the ball and letting it rip," he said. "We want him to play in progression and play in timing.

"That's new to him, but you can see a marked difference from the first day of phase two (of the offseason program) until now, from my perspective."

Darnold appears to relish that kind of daily work. If the job is to fit in, then he's doing that so far. Seamlessly, perhaps.

"For me, it's continue to play my game," Darnold said. "When you get out on the field, you've got to have a flow.

"You can't be thinking about doing something a different way. I've got to play my style of ball. That's why they brought me here, play my style of ball and make plays the way I do."

If it works, perhaps they can all get up to the level (in the standings and off the floor of their apartments) they imagined they'd be.

View photos from Tuesday's practice at Carolina's OTAs in Charlotte, N.C.

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