With the fate of the Panthers firmly in Darnold's hands, let's explore everything about his environment in Carolina and what he needs to do to take the next step as a quarterback.
How Darnold has improved since he was a prospect
These positive developments in a quarterback's game are noteworthy because they indicate the distinct possibility of future growth.
Here's a snippet of what I wrote about Darnold, my QB4 before the 2018 draft. My pro comparison for him was Jameis Winston/Philip Rivers:
Going with a floor and ceiling comparison with Darnold, because he's a volatile quarterback prospect. Not as volatile as Josh Allen, but the second-most volatile quarterback in this draft class. And, even so, his floor being Winston is far from a criticism. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signal-caller exploded onto the scene as a redshirt freshman at Florida State then regressed in his redshirt sophomore season despite demonstrating clear NFL starting quarterback traits. Sound familiar? Darnold had a similar experience in college and, like Winston, proved to be capable of making outstanding anticipation and bucket throws, but his gunslinger attitude got him into trouble by way of bad interceptions. If, somehow, Darnold's forces, misreads, and wayward tosses after poor footwork can be corralled, he can be Rivers-like at the next level ... an unafraid pocket passer with an unorthodox delivery. Darnold is much more athletic than (Rivers).
In his second season with the Jets, Darnold finished with thein my season-long evaluation of all the plays of first- and second-year quarterbacks (out of 17 who played). Darnold had two F grades, three contests in the D range, two B outings, and one A. It was ghastly.
I legitimately believe Darnold has not been consistently better in any one area in the NFL compared to his time as the starting quarterback at USC.
The grass will be greener in Carolina than it was at MetLife Stadium for Darnold when he scans the field for pass-catching targets. D.J. Moore is one of the better, young YAC wideouts in football, Robby Anderson had the strongest, most productive connection with Darnold during his time with the Jets, and second-round selection Terrace Marshall scored the quietest 13 touchdowns in college football history in 2019 with Joe Brady, the Panthers' offensive coordinator, calling the plays at LSU.
And then, of course, there's Christian McCaffrey, the No. 1 pick in many fantasy drafts. Do the Panthers have a premier skill-position group? No. But it's a step ahead of what the Jets trotted out for Darnold after picking him No. 3 overall in the 2018 draft.
Up front is where Darnold will see more noticeable improvement. He was pressured on 42.1% of his drop-backs in 2020, the second-highest rate in the league out of qualifying quarterbacks. Conversely, the ultra-conservative, get-it-out-quickly passer Teddy Bridgewater's pressure rate was just 30.9%.
Taylor Moton is arguably the best young right tackle in the NFL -- after Tristan Wirfs. Matt Paradis is mostly solid at center, and the team heavily invested in the blocking unit during the draft. Brady Christensen was added in Round 3 to compete with Greg Little at left tackle, snowplow Deonte Brown was the team's sixth-round selection, and the best blocking tight end in the class, Tommy Tremble, was a Day 2 pick.
Similar to the receiver group, Carolina's offensive line is respectable but even being respectable is an upgrade for Darnold's supporting cast.
Adam Gase was the worst offensive coordinator in football the past few seasons. Unimaginative. Predictable. Run-heavy. He was the largest impediment on a young quarterback's development we've seen in a while.
And now Darnold gets the youthful Brady in his ear during the huddle. While Brady's unprecedented success at LSU in 2019 didn't directly carry over to the Panthers last season -- Carolina finished 17th in Football Outsiders offensive DVOA -- the Panthers did have the league's seventh-highest pass rate in neutral game situations (score margin within one score), a good indication Brady understands the naturally more efficient way to move the football in the NFL.
Improving his weaknesses
Darnold wasn't good in Year 2 in the NFL, and his 2020 was worse. His completion percentage dropped, so did his touchdown rate, and his quarterback rating of 72.7 was the lowest in the NFL among qualifying quarterbacks. Darnold was downright bad, in a brutal situation.
You're probably expecting a diatribe about Darnold improving against pressure. But that's not a weakness. He was average against pressure last season. It's the clean pocket play -- which is more predictive year over year -- where Darnold fell significantly short in 2020.
His adjusted completion percentage of 74 was the fourth-lowest among qualifying quarterbacks, and his 6.4 yards-per-attempt average was second-lowest. In short, Darnold wasn't taking enough risks downfield when kept clean, and in general, he wasn't very accurate when he should've been.
Producing when his offensive line does its job is the absolute most vital element of Darnold finally emerging from bust status in 2021.
Strengthening his strengths
Strengths? Darnold has managed a quarterback rating over 100 in just seven of his 38 career games, and none of them came in 2020. Pinpointing a clear-cut strength to his game is a major challenge. But the for the second-straight year, Darnold demonstrated the keen ability to not create more pressure for himself.
He was credited with the creation of a pressure on just eight of his 422 drop-backs, a rate of just 1.8%. Comparatively, Baker Mayfield's was 2.7%, Josh Allen's was 3.1%, and, heck, even Patrick Mahomes' was 5.0%. Darnold has established himself as one of the league's better quarterbacks at not making matters more difficult for himself when in comes to pressure.
And with better weapons around him in Carolina, Darnold could conceivably improve in this overlooked but key area.
Darnold is young and talented, but we've now seen him in the NFL for almost 40 games and his raw abilities have rarely generated steady, high-level play.
And many have pointed to the incessant pressure Darnold faced with the Jets as a factor outside of his control when explaining why he flopped to start his NFL career, but the youthful passer was actually much closer to league average under pressure than he was from a clean pocket in 2020.
The improved situation with the Panthers will catalyze a more respectable Darnold than someone who was in the running for the worst starting quarterback in the league last season. He has too much natural ability as an anticipatory thrower to be that bad again.
But I do not believe in Darnold having a Ryan Tannehill-esque revitalization in Carolina. The Panthers' skill-position group, offensive line, and coaching are better than what Darnold was afforded with the Jets, but it's all not enough of a quality upgrade to completely carry Darnold even into top 20 quarterback territory.
He'll move out of the basement of starting quarterbacks, but Darnold is mostly who is he at this point, and while the occasional tantalizing flashes will draw some of us in, his questionable decision-making and inconsistent ball placement will be the roadblocks for him to emerge as a top half of the league passer in 2021.