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Why the Panthers Should Start Matt Corral Over Sam Darnold

Matt Corral

The Carolina Panthers continue to be connected to veteran quarterbacks as they start preparations for the 2022 season despite Matt Corral's arrival.

Carolina was one of the teams that invested in a member of an underwhelming quarterback draft class. However, they did not do so until the third round, making the prospect of Corral starting seem an unlikely one.

Yet Sam Darnold is an uninspiring option for a coaching staff likely trying to stay in a job. With moves for Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo not on the horizon for now, could Corral represent the Panthers' best hope of a positive 2022 season?

There is precedent of a third-round rookie quarterback being catapulted straight into the starting job. Russell Wilson started his glittering career in that fashion in 2012 and, while nobody is expecting Corral to emulate Wilson, there are several reasons why giving him the job could be the best course of action.

Corral's superior decisiveness

There is no shortage of issues with the concept of rolling out Darnold as the Week 1 starter. One of the foremost is his continued struggles as a processor heading into his fifth season in the NFL.

Only eight quarterbacks held the ball longer on average from snap to pass in 2021, according to the NFL's NextGen Stats. Darnold's average time to throw was 2.88 seconds, which is unlikely to lead to success given Carolina's offensive line issues.

Indeed, the Panthers ranked a lowly 27th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate last season. The arrival of Ickey Ekwonu may help matters, but Carolina's quarterback will still need to get the ball out quickly.

Corral could be an asset in that sense. Ole Miss' RPO-heavy system facilitated his decisiveness by giving him wide-open looks, but his aggressiveness in letting the ball rip was still worthy of praise.

Unafraid to attack tight windows in college, Corral's willingness to be decisive and aggressive could help the Panthers mitigate protection problems and produce more explosive plays.

A big-play boost

Carolina was one of the worst teams in the NFL last season at creating explosive passing plays downfield.

Indeed, the Panthers ended the season with just 36 completions of 20 yards or more. Only the Tennessee Titans (35) and New York Giants (31) recorded fewer.

Darnold accounted for 30 of those across his 12 appearances in 2021, yet it may be difficult for the Panthers to add to that tally in 2022. The former New York Jets first-round pick was not aggressive in going deep, averaging 7.4 air yards per attempt, tied for the eighth-fewest in the NFL.

A decision to go with Corral could offer Carolina significantly more upside in that regard.

Pro Football Focus credited Corral with 41 big-time throws since 2020. A big-time throw is a downfield pass or a throw into a tight window that creates a high-value play opportunity for the offense and shows excellent timing and accuracy. Corral's tally gave him the most big-time throws among SEC quarterbacks over the last two seasons.

Immediately producing such throws at a high rate in the NFL with a team ill-equipped to compete will be an entirely different challenge. However, Corral's plus-athleticism, borne out in his ability to make plays with his legs, and his poise under pressure were both significant factors in him racking up such a high number of big-time throws and should translate well at the next level.

The latter trait could give Corral a decisive edge over Darnold in a quarterback competition.

Corral's poise under pressure

Despite flashes of promise early in the year, Darnold did not excel under pressure in 2021.

Per Ryan McCrystal of Sharp Football Analysis, he was 26th among 31 quarterbacks with at least 50 under-pressure dropbacks in Expected Points Added (EPA) per dropback under duress.

To expect Corral to start and immediately thrive with the pass rush in his face may be naïve. However, he demonstrated his promise in this area against top-tier college competition.

The 33rd Team scouting report on Corral said he "Doesn't panic against pressure and shows creativity on the fly, such as using off hand to throw away ball when pinned. Poised against pressure, showing feel in the pocket."

Though Ole Miss was blown out by Alabama last year, Corral produced several examples of his poise against pressure in that game. He moved around the pocket well and used his athleticism to evade rushers. Additionally, Corral did an excellent job of keeping his eyes downfield in those instances to find the open receiver.

Corral the best bet for embattled coach

It is unlikely Corral will come in and serve as an instant upgrade on Darnold in every aspect of the game. Yet, operating behind what the Panthers hope will be an improved offensive line, there is a chance he could realize the potential he displayed in areas such as his play under pressure.

Darnold's 2022 salary of $18.58 million is equal to his dead cap charge. That means the Panthers are essentially locked into the final year of his contract, but they are not tied into playing a quarterback who will not be on the team beyond this season.

Corral is under a rookie contract for four years after the Panthers traded into the third round to land him. Matt Rhule, fighting to save his job, should relish the opportunity to build on his positive attributes and turn him into a viable starter whose development he can present to the franchise hierarchy as a reason to stick with this coaching staff.

The odds are slim that the Panthers will compete this year regardless of who plays at quarterback. For the long-term future of the head coach and the team, it is better to try to make a success of the signal-caller they have on a cost-controlled rookie deal to allow them to address other areas of the roster next year.

Carolina's bid to revive Darnold's career has already failed. There is no guarantee Corral will be a success but, with the desire to pursue other options apparently lacking, the Panthers should make him the subject of another starting quarterback experiment for a franchise in desperate need of a positive result under center.