"As long as I know what we're doing, what the defense is doing, I'm confident I can be one of the best quarterbacks in the league," Darnold said Tuesday, the first time he has spoken to reporters since offseason workouts began.
Coach Matt Rhule, who hasn't ruled out bringing in a veteran at some point, went so far as to say Darnold is practicing with an "edge" he hasn't seen before.
"What Sam has been through this offseason has been very hard," Rhule said. "Your back's against the wall. Everyone's kind of questioning whether you can do this or not. We've seen a guy who has shown up who has a little more edge to him. He's very, very focused."
But going from focused to one of the best quarterbacks in the league would be a big leap.
Since the New York Jets selected him with the third pick of the 2018 draft, Darnold has consistently ranked as one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL. His total QBR of 33.2 in 2021, his first year with Carolina, ranked 29th among qualified quarterbacks.
He ranked 33rd in 2020 with a 32.9 rating, 25th in 2019 at 45.9 and 28th in 2018 at 45.9.
In four seasons, he has thrown almost as many interceptions (52) as he has touchdown passes (54). He has a 59.8% career completion percentage since 2018 that also ranks among the worst in the league.
Such numbers are why the Panthers were willing to give up three first-round picks and players for Watson, ultimately traded by the Houston Texans to the Cleveland Browns. They are why Carolina remains interested in acquiring a veteran quarterback.
Among those the Panthers are keeping an eye on, according to a league source, is Baker Mayfield, if the Browns agree to pay most of his $18.8 million for 2022 or release him.
"Everyone, including myself, knows the situation," Darnold said. "But with that being said, it doesn't change my mindset. I have a great attitude about myself going into every day."
That mindset is focused on improving his footwork, which has been an issue since he arrived in the NFL.
"There were times last year when my feet got very ... just, loose is a good term ... chaotic," Darnold said. "It's just having confidence in my feet and the system to go out there and put the ball where it needs to be."
Darnold stopped short, agreeing this is a make-or-break year for him as he enters the fifth and final year of his rookie deal.
"If I were to think about it like that, I could get caught up in the wash," Darnold said. "When I'm in the meeting room, I'm focused on learning the system. When I'm on the practice field, I'm focused on executing that play.
"And even in the games, you're not focused on: 'This is a contract year, I better ball out.' As a quarterback, you've got to be constant. You've got to be consistent every single day and every single play. So it's tough to think about what if, or what can happen in the future."
Darnold's future now is with new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, the fourth time in his young career that the former Southern California star has had to learn a new system.
"It's really just going out there and playing every play like it's my last," Darnold said. "If I start thinking about that other stuff ... playing quarterback is hard enough."
Darnold confident he can be one of the NFL's best QBs
Sam Darnold gives insight on his offseason work heading into another season with the Panthers.