Subtle movements, improved tight end play needed for Sam Darnold in Joe Brady’s offense

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When Teddy Bridgewater walked into the Carolina Panthers’ facilities last year, offensive coordinator Joe Brady already understood how he thinks and operates as a quarterback.

The pair spent a year together in New Orleans and came from the same system. There was familiarity there; that’s part of how Bridgewater ended up in Carolina to start with.

“I think that’s critical, having a guy that understands a good amount of the system,” Brady said last June.

A year later, the Brady is sitting down in the film room with his new quarterback, Sam Darnold, watching tape of the player who has since been traded away to Denver, along with future Hall of Famer Drew Brees with the Saints, and Joe Burrow’s impressive season at LSU.

Darnold, in turn, was not unfamiliar to Brady, but he wasn’t someone Brady crossed paths with often. He did evaluate Darnold, 24, coming out of USC in 2018, but declined to share what he thought of the quarterback’s play back then.

In regards to the present, he’s where the coordinator wants him to be at the end of organized team’s activities (OTAs) and going into this week’s mandatory minicamp, adding what others in the organization have said, that his young age made him even more enticing to bring in.

“I think he’s doing a great job. Look, whenever you install a new system, there’s going to be good, and there’s going to be bad,” Brady said. “And we’re not trying to win our first game of the season right now. We’re going to have growing pains, just everybody. So there’s going to be a lot of good and there’s going to be bad, but I actually look forward to that, because it’s great learning experiences.”

The new offensive system, which was built for quarterbacks like Bridgewater and Brees to succeed in, requires Darnold to be more mobile and less “static” than he was with the New York Jets.

But some of the same problems that haunted Bridgewater in the offense last year could be issues for Darnold, as well. The Panthers did not do much to improve an offensive line that was a mixture of pieces throughout the year, largely due to injuries, and tight end is still a question mark, despite the position being a key piece in the offensive system.

In 2020, the tight ends on the Panthers roster combined for 27 receptions for 204 yards and two touchdowns.

Players like Dan Arnold, Ian Thomas and rookie Tommy Tremble will need to step up in training camp, especially without wide receiver Curtis Samuel, who left for Washington in free agency. Samuel was Bridgewater’s go-to third down and middle-of-the-field target.

“The (coaching) tree that I grew up in, the tight ends are the most important position on the field,” Brady said. “The matchups that they create, and everything. It’s been a point of emphasis this offseason, just trying to get those guys going in the passing game.”

Having an effective passing attack will, of course, require Darnold also taking a big step forward. During his three years in New York, his numbers ranked among the worst starting quarterbacks in the league. In his career, Darnold has completed 59.8% of passes, thrown 45 touchdowns to 39 interceptions and completed a first down on 31.7% of throws, 37th among players with at least 450 attempts since 2018.

Darnold is now working with new quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan, who has coached the likes of Matthew Stafford and Deshaun Watson. Ryan said that there is always one area he tries to work with quarterbacks on from the beginning.

“Any other quarterback I’ve ever worked with, you start from, in my opinion, always from the feet up. That’s what I believe in,” Ryan said. “I think when you’re feet are right and your lower-half is correct, there’s a really good chance that the ball is going to go in the right spot.”

Ryan pointed to Darnold’s arm strength, along with his toughness and competitiveness, as some of his best skills. When it comes to being more mobile, however, he feels that not enough attention is paid to the smaller movements that quarterbacks make.

“Sometimes people miss, in my opinion, subtle movements, like in-the-pocket movements,” Ryan said. “In other words, to me, less moving parts equals more accuracy.

“... We’ve done a lot of (work on smaller movements) this offseason, where it’s been like, we use ball drills, we use bags, throwing bags at them, and we use directions with our hands. It’s subtle movements here, here. But still being in a great throwing position.”

Mastering that, and the system as a whole, over the next few months will be a key part of Darnold and the offense improving.

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