Why young Panthers need offseason work with Sam Darnold

The Panthers feel Sam Darnold will take advantage of the best supporting cast he's had around him in his career. Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- While some teams are pulling back on offseason workouts, coach Matt Rhule says they hold added importance for the Carolina Panthers.

It's because the Panthers had the sixth-youngest roster in the league, behind the Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, Minnesota Vikings and Indianapolis Colts, at the time Rhule made the comment. They fell to ninth over the weekend after some bottom-of-the-roster moves around the league, but will likely be among the youngest once rosters are finalized after training camp.

Rhule doesn’t believe the young roster is a recipe for disaster. Statistics support him. According to research by Elias Sports Bureau, of the six youngest teams entering each of the previous three seasons:

  • Six of the 18 teams made the playoffs (including three last season)

  • Eight had winning records (including four last season)

  • Only the 2020 Jaguars won fewer than four games (finished 1-15)

The eight that had winning records were:

  • 2020: Packers 13-3, Browns 11-5, Dolphins 10-6, Rams 10-6

  • 2019: Seahawks 11-5

  • 2018: Texans 11-5, Cowboys 10-6, Vikings 8-7-1

A closer look at those teams show they had either stability at quarterback, a top-10 defense in points allowed or both.

The Rams, for example, had the league’s stingiest scoring defense in 2020 and a proven quarterback in Jared Goff en route to a playoff berth. Say what you want about Goff, who was traded to Detroit in exchange for Matthew Stafford this offseason, but he is a two-time Pro Bowl selection and got the Rams to the Super Bowl in 2018.

The 2018 Vikings finished ninth in scoring defense and had veteran Kirk Cousins at quarterback. Last year, despite Cousins finishing in the top 10 in passing yards, TD passes and passer rating, Minnesota couldn’t overcome a defense that ranked 29th in points allowed and finished 7-9.

Cleveland was 6-10 in 2019, but when quarterback Baker Mayfield upped his game in 2020 -- 10th in ESPN’s Total QBR compared to 19th the previous year -- the Browns went 11-5.

Seattle was one of the youngest teams in 2019 but went 11-5 thanks to quarterback Russell Wilson and the ninth-highest scoring offense. Wilson ranked fifth in Total QBR.

On the other end of the spectrum, Jacksonville was a disaster at quarterback last season -- Gardner Minshew was 27th in Total QBR -- and had the league’s 31st-ranked defense in points allowed. That resulted in a 1-15 record and paved the path for them to correct the quarterback situation with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, the first overall pick.

The Panthers had two things working against them last season when they had the 10th-youngest roster. They had a defense that ranked 18th in points allowed and inconsistency at quarterback with Teddy Bridgewater.

That’s one reason they traded for Sam Darnold. Despite a 13-45 record in three seasons with the Jets and a Total QBR that ranked 33rd last season, Rhule believes the third pick of the 2018 draft is an upgrade and gives Carolina a chance to win now.

That’s why the Panthers used the eighth pick on cornerback Jaycee Horn instead of a quarterback such as Ohio State’s Justin Fields.

“I just believe in Sam," Rhule said. “Those other young quarterbacks are gonna be fantastic players, but the hit rate on first-round quarterbacks isn’t real, real high."

Rhule understands the importance of having a great quarterback when it comes to winning. He also understands the importance of offseason workouts and getting past the growing pains experienced a year ago with little offseason work due to the pandemic.

ESPN recently reported about 15 teams initiated changes to their offseason and minicamp programs after conversations between players and coaches. Carolina wasn’t among them.

“We have a young team,’’ Rhule said. “It’s a chance for us to develop some just very basic skills for a lot of guys, basic knowledge of our system, then try to grow from there."

Rhule didn’t get a real feel for where many players fit into his system until the regular season began last year because of the limited offseason programs. He didn’t get a chance to take advantage of his sports science team and the variables it measures because so much was done virtually.

He didn’t meet most of the players in person until August.

A 5-11 record was the result.

“We came out of the first game and we were like, ‘Oh, no, this guy doesn’t do this as well,'" Rhule said. “When we look back on it, we see how valuable it is where you can really train guys to see exactly what they can do."