Panthers’ Darnold ‘staying focused’ amid uncertain future

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold took notice of the team’s pursuit of Deshaun Watson earlier this offseason.

He watched as the Panthers drafted Mississippi QB Matt Corral in the third round. And, he’s heard the rumors about the team’s potential interest in Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo.

Darnold said through it all his mindset has remained the same.

“You have to stay focused and block everything out,” Darnold said following Tuesday’s OTAs. “There’s different ways to go about it, but I don’t pay attention much to any of that stuff. But you hear rumors.”

For now, the Panthers view Darnold as their starting quarterback.

But his hold on that job is tenuous at best given his struggles last season and team owner David Tepper’s desire to stabilize the quarterback position. Darnold went 4-7 as a starter in 2021, throwing nine touchdown passes and 13 interceptions while finishing with a QB rating of 71.9.

Carolina finished the season 5-12.

“Sam going through this offseason has been hard, right?” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said. “It’s like your back is against the wall and everyone is kind of questioning, ‘hey, can you do this or not?’ I think Sam has to have confidence in himself and his ability to work through and grind and develop, and at the same time identify the things he has to improve upon.”

For Darnold, that means two things — learning a new offensive system and improving his footwork.

The Panthers hired coordinator Ben McAdoo to run the offense and players say the scheme and verbiage is radically different than it was under Joe Brady a year ago. Rhule said Darnold has embraced the changes and had a good offseason so far.

“From a technical standpoint I think you see the development happening with him,” Rhule said.

Darnold looked sharp throwing passes at practice Tuesday, but that came against no pass rush. Handling pressure has been a big issue for him going back to his first three seasons with the New York Jets.

The 24-year-old QB is hoping that will improve with better footwork.

“It starts with watching tape and fundamentals,” Darnold said. “There were times last year where I think my feet got really loose. … and chaotic. I think focusing on calming my feet down and really understanding the footwork that goes into every single play.”

Regardless of how hard Darnold works, there’s always the chance the Panthers try acquire Mayfield or Garoppolo. That would almost certainly require the Browns or 49ers agreeing to take on a large portion of their salary before Carolina would even consider such a move.

The Panthers already committed $18.9 million to Darnold in 2022 after picking up the fifth year of his contract.

This is a huge year for Darnold — and perhaps his last chance to prove he deserves to be an NFL starter. Rhule said Darnold is “focused” and has developed a “little edge to him” this offseason, seemingly eager to prove doubters wrong.

“I’m confident I can be one of the best quarterbacks in the league,” Darnold said.

NOTES: The Panthers will look into changing their approach to how much Christian McCaffrey does in practice this year in hopes of keeping the injury-prone running back healthy. McCaffrey has missed 23 of the past 33 games because of injuries. Rhule also said he anticipates holding McCaffrey out of all preseason games for the second straight year to prevent wear and tear. … Cornerback Jaycee Horn said he feels 100% healthy after missing the final 14 games of his rookie season with a broken foot. … Wide receiver Robbie Anderson was a no-show at the voluntary OTAs, but Rhule said he’s not concerned about him falling behind. … Defensive end Marquis Haynes recently had surgery to repair a ligament in his hand, but is expected to be back soon.

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