Four games into the NFL season, Carolina has a 3-1 record with a winnable home game against Philadelphia on Sunday (Oct. 10). Considering the Panthers won just five games last season, the strong start is like a breath of fresh air for their fans.
Carolina made a lot of moves in the offseason, and have added at least eight new starters to this year’s team. The most pivotal player among the new additions is starting quarterback Sam Darnold, who was the third overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft and was written off as a bust by the New York Jets after three disappointing seasons.
But Carolina still gave up a lot to acquire Darnold in a trade — sending the Jets a 2021 6th round pick, as well as a 2022 second round and fourth round pick. Based on the numbers Darnold has posted in his first four games as a Panther, he looks worth it.
Darnold isn’t a dual-threat quarterback, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.85 seconds at the NFL Combine, but he has respectable agility and a sturdy frame (6-foot-3, 225 pounds). Carolina benefits from having Joe Brady — one of the most clever and creative play callers in the NFL — coordinating the offense.
By keeping defenses guessing, Brady makes his players better, and Darnold is among his primary benefactors. Case in point: In 38 career starts with the Jets, Darnold rushed for five touchdowns. In four starts under Brady, Darnold is leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns with five.
Carrying the ball across the goal line is good for any football player’s confidence, and Darnold’s passing statistics reflect a player who is feeling good. Darnold ranks sixth in the NFL in passing yards with 1,189, and he has a chance this Sunday to become the first Panthers QB to ever throw for at least 300 yards in three straight games.
In his 38 starts for the Jets, Darnold threw for more than 300 yards five times; he’s already eclipsed 300 passing yards three times for Carolina.
Carolina’s Brandon Zylstra is another success story under the tutelage of Joe Brady, a 32-year-old football genius who played receiver at William & Mary and broke into the NFL as an assistant for Sean Payton in New Orleans just four years ago.
Brady is on a collision course to be a head coach in the NFL, and Carolina is fortunate to have him.
Zylstra is an overachiever who played Division 3 football and went undrafted in 2016. He played in the CFL for two years before cracking the roster of the Minnesota Vikings in 2018, primarily as a special teams ace. Minnesota cut him the next year, and he’s now in his third season with the Panthers.
Zylstra (6-foot-2, 218 pounds) is still best known for his contribution on special teams, but he’s quietly moved up the depth chart as a receiver, serving as the fourth option behind DJ Moore, Robby Anderson and rookie Terrace Marshall.
The 28-year-old Zylstra caught his first career touchdown pass in a Week 2 win over New Orleans last month. His 107 receiving yards in 2021 are already a career high, and he’s averaging 21.4 yards per catch.
Another young player on the rise for Carolina, this one on the defensive side of the ball, is safety Sean Chandler.
Like Zylstra, Chandler did not get drafted out of college. The 25-year-old Chandler spent two years with the Giants (2018 and 2019) before being signed by the Panthers in 2020.
Chandler has taken advantage of playing at Temple under current head coach Matt Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow.
Chandler made his first NFL start last week in a loss at Dallas, and he’s participated in at least 70% of the defensive snaps over the past three games, according to footballguys.com.
Chandler (5-10, 200 pounds) ranks fourth on the team in tackles with 16; he had a career-high nine tackles against Dallas. He’s expected to get his second career start on Sunday in a home game against Philadelphia.