Making sense of Sam Darnold’s mini-career renaissance in 2022

(Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports) Sam Darnold
(Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports) Sam Darnold /

What should fans make of Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold’s mini-career renaissance since returning to the starting lineup?

Questions surrounding whether Sam Darnold would start in Week 16 after the Carolina Panthers were beaten convincingly by the Pittsburgh Steelers seemed harsh. The quarterback was one of the brightest lights to take from the game, even if the offense didn’t have the balance or physicality needed to overcome a stout defense that’s been prevalent throughout Mike Tomlin’s stint with the franchise.

Darnold played turnover-free football for the third straight week and has yet to throw an interception since replacing Baker Mayfield. The Carolina Panthers didn’t task him with all that much over the opening two contests, but much more was required last weekend and the signal-caller passed with flying colors.

There’s still work to do – most notably in terms of processing and making the right reads on occasion – but there is far more good than bad where Darnold is concerned. Sunday’s game was another positive step forward, which bears special significance given there was no running attack to lean on and a woeful afternoon across the offensive line.

Sam Darnold is making a case to be on the Carolina Panthers in 2023

This represents a mini-career renaissance for Darnold, whose time in the league so far had him labeled as one of the biggest draft busts in recent memory. There seems to be a calmer demeanor to his approach these days, perhaps knowing that opportunities like this might not come along again and savoring every moment as a result.

The longer Darnold’s impressive performances go on, the better his chances will be next spring. Carolina hasn’t ruled out the prospect of bringing him back on a short-term deal, although Steve Wilks made his intentions clear about finding a difference-maker under center if he gets the head coaching job beyond 2022.

According to Spotrac, the projected market value for Darnold is two years and $10.2 million currently. Should the Panthers need a bridge option while someone like Anthony Richardson gets up to speed, then it’s something to consider providing the No. 3 overall selection in 2018 finishes the campaign strongly.

There is also the presence of Matt Corral to consider. The third-round selection endured some rough luck with a serious foot injury during the preseason, so there’s no telling how far along he’ll be after missing so much practice and playing time.

Darnold is also putting himself in the shop window for another team in the event Carolina moves in a different direction. This turnaround is commendable, for sure, but it doesn’t eradicate four years of bad production and careless decision-making when push comes to shove.

Erring on the side of skepticism is probably best for the time being. Darnold deserves credit, obviously, but until this becomes prolonged it has the sense of a flash in the pan until proven otherwise.

Fortunately for Darnold, this weekend’s game against the Detroit Lions represents another opportunity to put up lofty numbers. For all their improvements under Dan Campbell, defending the pass remains a weakness and something the Panthers could exploit despite some freezing conditions expected.

Darnold, much like the Panthers, has fate in his own hands. What comes next will have big ramifications for the organization and the signal-caller, who was written off by almost everyone following an abysmal 2021 season.

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