CHARLOTTE — When the Panthers traded for quarterback Sam Darnold in April, head coach Matt Rhule emphasized that the fourth-year quarterback was an important piece of the puzzle, but still just a piece nonetheless.
After free agency signings and draft selections that added dynamic play-makers at wide receiver, tight end and running back, the potential upside of Darnold's "piece" has appeared to have grown.
On Monday, NFL Network's Cynthia Frelund named Darnold one of her top candidates for a breakout season in 2021 during the network's NFL All Access show.
Her argument: "Sam Darnold could be poised for an uptick. He's coming back. I think he's going to be the guy we thought he was going to be. [...] Sam Darnold does know how to throw the deep ball; we did see it before. Last year, OK, it didn't work out so well. But let's move it down south, get that blue uniform on instead of the green one, and see what happens here when you have some great receivers […] and I think you're going to have a resurgent Sam Darnold."
Breaking it down: As Frelund and others have pointed out over the last few months, Darnold's situation and surrounding cast is vastly different in Carolina than it was with the Jets. He'll have one of the NFL's two WR pairs to top 1,000 receiving yards in 2020 (DJ Moore, Robby Anderson), the return of the NFL's scrimmage yards leader in 2019 (Christian McCaffrey) along with the aforementioned new weapons acquired this offseason.
That's a far cry from a Jets' offense that had just one player (Le'Veon Bell, 2019) reach 1,000 scrimmage yards in Darnold's three years.
Frelund speaks to the "video game" nature of Joe Brady's LSU offense in 2019 and believes Panthers fans could see a lot of fireworks with Darnold at the helm this year.
The verdict: Last year's 72.7 passer rating and 9-to-11 TD-interception ratio aren't stats the Panthers or Darnold are hiding from or ignoring. Significant year-over-year improvement will be required for him to have the kind of season Frelund predicts.
During OTAs and minicamp, the Panthers' staff worked extensively on Darnold's footwork, his comfort with teammates and his knowledge of the playbook. When Carolina heads to training camp this month, it'll mark the next step in applying more physical and mental pressure to see how he responds.
With joint practices and live games coming in August, we'll see soon enough how much difference the change from green to blue will truly make.
Check out select photos of new quarterback Sam Darnold at the production day shoot.