Scout's Notebook

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Panthers' gamble on Sam Darnold makes sense; Kyle Pitts is the 2021 NFL draft's best player

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

-- The best player in the 2021 NFL Draft class isn't Trevor Lawrence.

-- Three logical matches for free-agent CB Richard Sherman.

But first, a look at the rationale behind a major move on the quarterback front ...

Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.

Not to get all philosophical on everyone, but this well-worn axiom perfectly encapsulates the scouting process for NFL executives, scouts and coaches. Evaluators develop an affinity for prospects during their collegiate years, and that infatuation can encourage some scouts to dismiss a player's ensuing failures with another NFL team.

This immediately came to mind when the Carolina Panthers sent three draft picks (a 2021 sixth-round selection, plus second- and fourth-rounders in 2022) to the New York Jets in exchange for Sam Darnold. It's apparent that the team's belief in the fourth-year pro stems from how its general manager and scouts viewed the former No. 3 overall pick as a prospect.

"Sam is a guy that, going back to when he was coming out of USC, he was a guy I really liked," first-year Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said during Monday's virtual press conference. "Liked the competitor, liked the toughness, his ability to move in the pocket. He can make big plays down the field with his arm. So all those things really stood out about him. I just think in this offense with (coordinator) Joe Brady, with (head coach) Matt Rhule, the weapons we have around him, that he can take that next step with us.

"I was really excited to add someone of Sam's caliber to our team."

The effusive praise from Carolina's new general manager -- who was the Seahawks' co-director of player personnel when Darnold entered the NFL in 2018 -- might draw some quizzical looks from observers, considering Darnold's stat line from his first three seasons as a pro. The quarterback owns a 13-25 career record with 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions. He's completed 59.8 percent of his passes and has never ended a season above 26th in passer rating. In fact, Darnold finished as the NFL's lowest-rated passer in 2020 (72.7), 35th out of 35 qualifying quarterbacks. His career passer rating is 78.6, also dead last among qualifying QBs since 2018. Those putrid numbers are compounded by a checkered injury history that has seen him miss three games as a rookie (sprained foot), three games in 2019 (mononucleosis) and four games in 2020 (sprained throwing shoulder).

Typically, a combination of poor performance and durability concerns would lead most teams to bypass a struggling QB1. But the negative impact of his environment with the Jets -- particularly Adam Gase and his coaching philosophies -- has given Darnold's supporters hope that a change of scenery will help him find his game.

"The kid can play," a former Jets offensive assistant coach told me this week. "He is an alpha with the ability to make all of the throws. ... He is a hard worker who earns the respect of his teammates and he isn't afraid of the stage. We probably put too much on his shoulders and he struggled with all of the responsibility at the line of scrimmage. When we scaled it back at the end of 2019, he flourished as a player and the offense took off. ... If we stayed with that approach last season, he would've played better."

To that last point, Darnold certainly performed at a higher level over the final eight games of 2019. He connected on 163 of 267 passes (61%) for 1,947 yards (243.4 per game) with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. He topped 90.0 passer rating in four games (with two north of 120.0) while helping the Jets win six of the last eight down the stretch. The promise displayed in that span certainly piqued the interest of optimists hoping Darnold can find his way in a new offense in Carolina.

"If Darnold is put in an offense that is run-heavy with traditional play-action passes and bootlegs, he will have success," said the former Jets coach, who was on staff for multiple years with Darnold as the quarterback. "He can play, but he needs to be in an offense that matches his talent and ability. If Carolina plays to his strengths, he is good enough to win in this league."

Prior to my conversation with the coach, I had significant reservations about Darnold upgrading the Panthers' offense. I struggled with Darnold's inconsistencies as a passer -- particularly his turnover woes -- and had a difficult time envisioning him emerging as a mid-level starter. The film study and statistics suggested that Darnold was struggling at the position. In addition, I did not know if a new scheme and better personnel would mask the flaws that limit his game. Sure, Ryan Tannehill left Gase's side and blossomed into a Pro Bowl quarterback, but he had experienced some success in Miami prior to the coach's arrival. Darnold's small sample size makes his evaluation trickier. To have optimism requires having the imagination to focus on his upside and potential, as opposed to his failed Jets tenure. I still have my doubts, but my chat with the former Jets coach was illuminating. And clearly, hope springs in Charlotte.

"I'm more focused on Sam in our offense and what we can do with him here," Fitterer said. "I like the skill set. He's only 23 years old. A lot of these quarterbacks don't mature and hit their prime until 24, 25, 26. If this is a quarterback we can hit on at this price, it's definitely worth the gamble."

Fitterer has a point there. The draft capital Carolina surrendered in exchange for a former top-five pick was pretty minimal. So it does feel like the gamble is a sensible one for a team that features an offense with an A+ offensive weapon in the backfield ( Christian McCaffrey) and a pair of talented pass catchers on the perimeter (D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson).

If Brady can unlock Darnold's potential as a playmaker in a diverse scheme that features a mix of traditional concepts and some of USC's RPO and quick-rhythm tactics, we could see the young passer finally live up to his lofty draft pedigree.

KYLE PITTS: The best player in the entire draft class

The 2021 draft might feature an unprecedented run on quarterbacks at the top, but the best player in the class is tight end Kyle Pitts. The Florida standout is a gold-jacket talent with a combination of size (6-foot-6, 245 pounds), speed (unofficial 4.44-second 40-yard dash) and skill that should make him the top prospect on every draft board in the league.

Before you @ me advocating for Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson or another quarterback as the undisputed No. 1 prospect in the class, I would ask you to view Pitts as a truly rare talent on par with the likes of Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones and A.J. Green in their respective primes. Those three pass catchers were transcendent playmakers who ranked as immediate standard-bearers at the receiver position upon entry into the league. Despite facing marquee cornerbacks and double coverage, they were able to dominate the opposition, and their production reflected it.

That trio's instant success can be attributed to superior physical tools and refined skills. Johnson, Jones and Green dwarfed most defensive backs while also possessing the speed and burst to run past cover men on vertical routes. Also, they all displayed exceptional hand-eye coordination and ball skills to win 50-50 balls down the field, making it impossible to defend them on the island.

As I studied Pitts, I saw similar attributes in the 20-year-old pass catcher. He overwhelms defenders on the perimeter with his size, speed and athleticism. Pitts runs routes like a wide receiver, but he utilizes his NBA power forward-like frame to bully safeties and cornerbacks in space. He renders them helpless in one-on-one matchups, and defensive coordinators are forced to adopt radical tactics to slow him down, particularly in the red zone.

Considering the mismatches Pitts creates out wide and in the slot against second-level defenders (linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks), it is easy to see why creative offensive coordinators would covet his skills as an offensive weapon. Travis Kelce, Darren Waller and George Kittle have given opponents fits over the past few years with their unique talents, and we have seen others -- like Zach Ertz, Jordan Reed and Evan Engram -- earn Pro Bowl honors as jumbo wide receivers playing the "Y" position.

In a position that's rapidly changing due to the extraordinary skill sets of some hybrid pass catchers, it is easy to envision Pitts rewriting the job description as a game-changer with five-star talent and ability.

RICHARD SHERMAN: Ideal fits for free-agent CB

The NFL is a league that can be unkind to veteran players once their skills diminish, but there is always a spot on the roster for an older player with spectacular leadership skills and a winning pedigree. That's why it is only a matter of time before Richard Sherman lands a job with a team in need of a cover corner with the capacity to mentor while thriving in a major role.

At 33, the three-time first-team All-Pro is no longer the shutdown corner who ruled the roost in the mid-2010s, but he remains a solid starter with the instincts, awareness and intelligence to excel in a zone scheme that relies on "eyes" principles (defenders play with eyes on the quarterbacks). Sherman was playing at an extremely high level as recently as 2019 -- when he made the Pro Bowl and posted a fantastic Pro Football Focus grade of 88.9 -- after recovering from a variety of injuries, including a torn Achilles that restricted his athleticism and burst. Although a nagging calf injury limited Sherman to just five games in 2020, opposing quarterbacks posted just a 69.6 passer rating against the vet, per PFF. That was one year after Sherman posted three picks and a 45.3 passer rating against, which is actually shutdown corner territory. But perception doesn't always match reality in NFL circles, and that is why Sherman remains available on the open market.

"Well, apparently we got to wait 'til the draft happens before anything else shakes out, because everybody has their hopes and dreams in the draft, which is understandable," Sherman said recently on his podcast with Cris Collinsworth. "You turn 33, and then it's like, 'We'll wait until we get a young pup; and if we can't get a young pup, we'll take an old fool.' So that's where we're sitting."

Given some time to review Sherman's game and assess his options on the market, here are three potential fits for the cornerback:

Las Vegas Raiders
Las Vegas Raiders
2020 record: 8-8

Jon Gruden's affinity for old heads could result in the Raiders adding Sherman to the secondary to help the young unit find its way. The five-time Pro Bowler not only understands the nuances of new Raiders DC Gus Bradley's scheme based on their time together in Seattle, but he helped cultivate the "Legion of Boom" culture that defined the defense's greatness. Most importantly, Sherman mastered the kick-and-slide technique on the island and fully understands the pressure points within the scheme. That knowledge and expertise could serve the Raiders well with a young secondary that is still figuring out how to play as a unit. Considering Gruden openly courted Sherman during an appearance on The Cris Collinsworth Podcast featuring Richard Sherman, it seems like the pairing could be a match made in heaven -- in Sin City!

Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys
2020 record: 6-10

The Cowboys are in win-now mode, with Dak Prescott entering his prime after signing a massive contract extension. The team added Dan Quinn to the coaching staff to rebuild a defense that grossly underachieved under his predecessor. The secondary, in particular, struggled to adapt to a complex scheme, and the mental errors resulted in opposing passers repeatedly throwing the ball over the secondary's head. DQ will install his version of "Hawk 3" to simplify the game for the young defensive backfield, but he could use a veteran in the secondary with a championship pedigree to show the group the way. Sherman's experience and expertise could come in real handy as Quinn attempts to fix the defense while chasing a championship.

New York Jets
New York Jets
2020 record: 2-14

Robert Saleh wants to change the culture in New York by adding a collection of alpha dogs to the roster on both sides of the ball. The defense, in particular, has upgraded the front seven in free agency by adding Carl Lawson and Sheldon Rankins, among others, but the secondary could benefit from Sherman's presence. Although the 10-year vet has lost a step, he remains a capable cover corner with the skills to handle most receivers in the Jets' new version of Cover 3. Moreover, Sherman's leadership would come in handy as Saleh puts the onus on the defense to keep the score down while the offense develops with a young QB1 at the helm. With another veteran in the meeting room to up the ante on commitment, accountability and trust within the team, the Jets could climb out of the cellar quicker than expected in the AFC East.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter.

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