Sam Darnold never had a chance in New York.
During his time as quarterback of the Jets, Darnold's supporting cast was among the worst in the league. The lack of receiving help, competent pass protection and a scheme that could put him in a good situation left Darnold with very little chance of success, and he was ultimately cast aside for the Jets to start anew with Zach Wilson.
Darnold has always had a strong and vocal corner of support because of that situation. He's backed by a group that will point to the one or two flashy plays he makes per game as evidence of a special player who was buried underneath the mediocrity he was stuck with in New York.
At least one team seems to have been in agreement, as the Carolina Panthers traded a sixth-round pick in the 2021 draft, as well as more consequential second- and fourth-rounders in next year’s draft, to secure his services before picking up his fifth-year option.
On paper, Carolina represents by far the best situation Darnold has ever been in, at least in two of the three most critical areas.
The Panthers' receiving corps is better than any he had with the Jets, and instead of the much-maligned Adam Gase, Darnold will be working with offensive coordinator Joe Brady, one of the best young minds in the game.
However, the third part of that supporting-cast tripod is the offensive line, and that doesn’t look good for the Panthers right now despite — or, rather, because of — the moves they made to address the problem this offseason.
If the Panthers can’t get viable offensive line play then it won’t matter how good the scheme or receivers are. And when you look at the group right now, it’s not easy to see how they are going to.
Taylor Moton is the one member of the unit who we can safely classify as an excellent player. The now fifth-year right tackle hasn’t had a bad season in his NFL career, earning four consecutive PFF overall grades of at least 73.0, and he is coming off a career-best 81.6. His pass blocking has always been his best facet of play, but his PFF run-blocking grades have improved in each of the last two seasons.
Moton should be the high watermark of this offensive line, but the other four spots aren’t even in the same ballpark.
The Panthers brought in two potential starters in free agency, signing Pat Elflein and Cameron Erving. Each player has experience at multiple positions in their NFL careers, but they most likely seem to form a new left side of the line, with Erving playing left tackle and Elflein left guard.
Starting both players is a fairly wild proposition in itself, but what makes these moves baffling is that the Panthers had both deals locked in within 90 minutes of free agency opening. These were not moves made after all of the players the team had targeted were signed; these were moves prioritized by the team and successfully pushed over the line minutes after the free-agency period was officially open. Which begs the question, why?
Elflein is a former third-round pick who washed out of the Minnesota Vikings — a team desperate for viable linemen. The fifth-year pro earned a PFF pass-blocking grade of 30.5 playing mostly for the Jets last season. He has a career-high overall grade of 66.6, which came in his rookie year.
Elflein has done nothing to suggest he can form part of an even average offensive line for multiple teams that would have benefited significantly from him proving otherwise.