You don’t have the season the Carolina Panthers did and come away unscathed in the public eye—especially when that season began with a handful of questionable investments.
Two of those transactions made Pro Football Focus’ list of the “Best and worst 2021 NFL free agent signings,” and they certainly didn’t fit into the former category. The first to be lambasted was the dive for Sam Darnold—which wasn’t technically a signing, but an ill-advised agreement nonetheless.
“OK, technically speaking this wasn’t a free-agent signing, but the Panthers targeting Darnold as their solution at quarterback last offseason and picking up his fifth-year option has been calamitous,” lead analyst Sam Monson writes. “At one point, the Panthers were 3-0, and Darnold was playing as well as he ever has, but he quickly turned back into a pumpkin and finished the season with a worse PFF grade (55.2) than he ever posted with the Jets. Darnold accrued six more turnover-worthy plays than big-time throws despite a 7.6-yard average depth of target. He ended any hope he could be a franchise quarterback going forward, yet the team is still on the hook for his 2022 salary.”
Soon after trading away second and fourth-round picks for the New York Jets’ failed 2018 third overall selection, the Panthers bought into Darnold’s 2022 fifth-year option to a cool $18.9 million. That number will hurt quite badly, as head coach Matt Rhule couldn’t even commit to making the 24-year-old his starter for the upcoming season.
Rhule’s hesitancy was well-earned, as Darnold tossed for 10 interceptions to just four touchdowns over his final eight outings of the campaign. He also went through a five-game stretch in the middle of that span without having reached the end zone.
Accompanying Darnold is the man who he took snaps from for a chunk of 2021 in Pat Elflein.
“Another of the curious moves the Panthers made last offseason was prioritizing Elflein and Cam Erving during the first days of free agency, bringing in two players who had an extensive history of sub-par play along the offensive line,” Monson continued. “Neither player exceeded expectations in Year 1, as Elflein played just 534 snaps and earned a 42.0 PFF pass-blocking grade and a 50.1 overall mark. Elflein accrued multiple games with a PFF grade under 30, and he earned below-average marks as a run-blocker in every game except one.”
Carolina inked the former third-rounder, who’d go on to miss seven games, to a three-year, $13.5 million pact on March 15. After beginning as the starting left guard in Weeks 1 and 2, Elflein moved to the center position after a season-ending knee injury to Matt Paradis. According to PFF, he allowed 12 pressures over those lowly 534 snaps.
Wait, there wasn’t more room on this list for Erving, too?