INDIA

Panthers have found the missing piece to their offense. Get used to hearing this name.

It’s a tongue-twister, but one that Carolina Panther fans may as well get used to saying:

Darnold to Arnold.

New Panther quarterback Sam Darnold has already found a third-down security blanket in this training camp in Dan Arnold — a rangy, 6-foot-6 tight end who was once a skinny Division III wide receiver from Wisconsin-Platteville.

Dan Arnold isn’t a familiar name to Panther fans yet. He’s new around these parts, too.

Arnold’s blocking is a work in progress. But in pass-catching situations, Arnold is the nearest thing the Panthers have had to Greg Olsen since the team’s former Pro Bowl tight end traded in his cleats for a Fox Sports microphone.

As for the Darnold-to-Arnold tongue twister, Arnold kind of gets a kick out of it.

“Hopefully people are going to be saying that one often,” he said in our recent interview.

After several days spent watching training camp in Spartanburg, Darnold has been one of the most positive signs of the Panthers’ offseason. He’s not a surprise, exactly, because you don’t pay a guy $6 million over two years as the Panthers did (with a robust $4.5 million of that money guaranteed, according to Spotrac) and get surprised that he’s performing well.

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Carolina Panthers tight end Dan Arnold reaches to catch a ball on the field. Arnold has quickly become one of new quarterback Sam Darnold’s favorite targets in practice. Jeff Siner [email protected]

But Arnold has caught everything within reach for months now. And in red-zone situations inside the 20, his ability to high-point the football will give Carolina another option when teams focus too much attention on Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore and Robby Anderson.

“Dan Arnold had a great (offseason),” Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer told reporters before training camp started. “He showed a lot of ability to get down the field and catch the ball. It looks like he’ll be a threat in the passing game.”

Said Matt Rhule after watching Darnold through two weeks of practices in Spartanburg: “I think Dan has had an excellent camp. He’s an excellent receiver. We see him as being a red-zone threat, a third-down threat, a vertical passing game threat at the tight end position. He’s a grinder. He’s a worker. And he finds ways to get his hands on footballs.”

Can Arnold ‘Moss’ people in Carolina?

Arnold, 26, has earned his money the hard way in the NFL. He went to high school in North Dakota. He was undrafted. New Orleans kept him on the fringes — cutting him, playing him, putting him on the practice squad, cutting him again. He’s no longer in danger of being waived, but he remembers the years that he was.

I asked him to describe his style of play.

“I’m always going to be hustling,” Arnold said. “I’m always going to be trying to do everything I can to scratch and claw and to make plays, because I started out as a D-3 guy with a tryout, and then I got sent home.”

The Panthers had a tight end problem last year. Ian Thomas has shown occasional flashes of potential for the past three years, but he has never blossomed into a natural receiver. Because of Thomas’s extremely low numbers as a starting tight end in 2020 (20 catches, 145 yards, one TD), the Panthers got less pass-catching yardage from the tight end position than any other team in the NFL last season (204).

Carolina also had trouble scoring in the red zone. Some of that was due to McCaffrey missing 13 of 16 games in 2020 with three separate injuries, but not all of it. The Panthers scored a touchdown on only 50.9% of their red-zone trips in 2020, which was fifth-worst in the NFL.

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Carolina Panthers tight end Dan Arnold reaches up to catch a pass during practice. The Panthers need more production from the position, as they had an NFL-worst 204 receiving yards from tight ends in 2020. Jeff Siner [email protected]

Arnold had four TDs in 2020 and 438 receiving yards, when he had his best NFL season for Arizona. He had a modest 31 catches last year, but 24 of those went for first downs.

Arnold, who will wear Wesley Walls’ old No. 85 for the Panthers, landed with the Cardinals after the Saints had released him in late 2019. Arizona picked Arnold up, and he immediately started lighting up the Cardinals’ practices, especially in the end zone where he was able to use his 6-foot-6 height to his advantage in the same way that Hall of Famer Randy Moss used to.

As Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said in 2019: “He was on the scout team and going up and just ‘Mossing’ people, and everybody’s kind of ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing,’ and we didn’t even know his name.”

Looking for number 85

Why did Arnold leave Arizona for Carolina?

“Really it was Coach Brady,” said Arnold, referring to Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady. The two had been together in New Orleans.

“He’s a smart guy,” Arnold said of Brady. “He called me up and says, ‘Hey, you want to come here?’ And I was like: ‘I know the offense. And I know what tight ends can do in that offense.’”

What can they do?

“They can catch a lot of balls,” Arnold said. “And they need to make great blocks, too. The biggest thing in this offense is the tight end has to be versatile, and I think that’s exactly what I am and what I want to be. That will open up a lot of doorways.”

Arnold doesn’t want to be known only for his hands. When I asked him if he was comfortable being labeled just as a pass-catching tight end, he responded: “Hell no.”

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Carolina Panthers tight end Dan Arnold, right, was a skinny wide receiver at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville in college. Jeff Siner [email protected]

Although Thomas outweighs him by 20 pounds and rookie tight end Tommy Tremble by 10, Arnold doesn’t want to only have a niche as a guy who comes in on passing situations. Old internet rosters still sometimes list him as 220 pounds, but he has bulked up to 240 and wants to better his blocking.

“Obviously, I’m going to be that pass-catching guy,” Arnold said, “and people are going to look at me that way. But my mentality is I’m going to get better at something with the block game, Just a little bit each and every day.”

Arnold was a receiver throughout his college career at Wisconsin-Platteville, as well as an All-American Division III hurdler.

NFL players just don’t come from Platteville. The school’s most well-known sports figure was basketball coach Bo Ryan, who led Wisconsin-Platteville to four D-III NCAA national championships before eventually becoming the head coach at Wisconsin.

Arnold, though, has made it, and now he’s ready to make Panther fans understand who he is.

If you want to spot him, just look for No. 85.

Sam Darnold certainly will be.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. Fowler has won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing and has earned 15 national APSE awards. He hosted The Observer’s 8-part podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named 2018’s “Podcast of the Year.”
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