If we haven’t seen the true potential of a quarterback by his third year, chances are we won’t see it at all. Therein lies the predicament that Sam Darnold faces as he enters his third year in the NFL as the quarterback of the New York Jets.
Darnold took a fast track to the NFL. He redshirted in his freshman year at USC, but entered the Draft at the nearest possible opportunity in 2018. In two years as a Trojan, Darnold showed traits that every NFL GM looks for in their quarterback of the future. He lost in his first start, but followed up by going unbeaten for the remainder of 2016. He became the first freshman to win the Archie Griffin award, an accolade previously handed to Deshaun Watson and Andrew Luck.
His second season under centre in Southern California wasn’t as impressive as his first. Although he threw for over 4,000 yards, his completion percentage fell and interception numbers rose to 13. This didn’t affect his draft stock significantly, and he was still most analysts’ QB1 heading into the 2018 NFL Draft.
New York, New York
The Cleveland Browns upset most predictions by taking Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield a former walk-on who had risen to notoriety at Oklahoma. Mayfield, two years Darnold’s senior, was taken #1 overall. The youngster from USC fell into the lap of the New York Jets, who had traded up three spots to #3 to get their quarterback of the future.
When he suited up for the Jets against the Detroit Lions in the season curtain raiser, he became the youngest starting quarterback since the NFL-AFL merger (52 years). He is six months younger than the first pick in the 2020 Draft, Joe Burrow. Though Jets fans continue to point to his age as an indication of future potential, it may also point to a mistake on Darnold’s part by coming out of college too soon.
Both Darnold and fans of New York would have been expecting more in his first two years, it’s far too soon to label him a “bust”. In a world of social media, where players are put in the “elite” or “trash” category, Darnold is without a home.
Decent start, bad spot
New York was a bad landing spot for Darnold. A franchise so desperate for a long term solution in the sport’s most important position added to the pressure. The media attention that comes with playing in New York intensified the spotlight further. Josh McCown was quite clearly past his best (whatever that was), and Todd Bowles was already one foot out the door. In the end, Darnold threw for less than 3,000 yards in 2018, and 17 touchdowns to 15 interceptions. At the same time, Baker Mayfield broke rookie records in Cleveland.
2019 didn’t bring the change Darnold or his fans would have hoped for. Adam Gase, who lost the title of “quarterback whisperer” long ago, hadn’t been able to bring out the best in him. Le’Veon Bell, fresh from a year on the sidelines, was supposed to take the pressure off Darnold by boosting the Jets’ run game. Darnold took baby steps forward in almost every aspect of his game. In the same amount of starts (13), he threw for more yards, more touchdowns and less interceptions. His QBR improved from 77.6 to 84.3.
However, the abysmal Jets offensive line also led to his total number of sacks rising from 30 to 33. The O line ranked 31st in the NFL, and was responsible for Darnold bring the 4th most hurried QB in the league. Despite this, Darnold took the Jets 6-2 down the stretch. He ranked 10th in the NFL in that time. Was this the sign of better things to come in year three?
Things could be set to change for Gang Green in 2020. The offensive line has had a long overdue overhaul under new GM Joe Douglas. Douglas, a former lineman himself, appears determined to protect his quarterback at all costs.
Mekhi Becton and Denzel Mims were the Jets’ first two selections in the 2020 Draft. The Becton pick signals that Douglas wants to keep Darnold upright. Selecting Mims was a way to surround him with young talent in seasons to come.
Darnold’s ADP is currently 163.4, making him QB24 in the league. For those players who rely primarily on what the stats tell them rather than their gut, it makes sense. The numbers suggest that Darnold should not be your QB1 in this fantasy season.
However, when Darnold has a rare opportunity to stand in the pocket, he shows flashes of brilliance. In a superflex league, he rises to QB18. Again, this makes sense. It is a high-risk high-reward pick, exactly what you’re looking for in the middle rounds of your draft.
If popular rumour is to be believed, and Adam Gase faces the sack should the Jets fail to post a winning record, Darnold’s future may be brighter. A lot depends on who replaces him, and how highly he rates Darnold in the fourth year of his rookie deal. His dynasty ADP rises even further to 130.2 (QB16).
Path to greatness
If you take Darnold in your dynasty team, you’re banking on a certain set of circumstances:
1) he progresses in year three
2) current HC Adam Gase loses his job at some point in the 2020 season
3) the Jets make the right hire in replacing Gase
4) the new HC likes what he sees from Darnold
5) the WR room improves
If those things happen, you might bag yourself a valuable long-term option in your dynasty team. If one or a combination of the above factors doesn’t occur, Darnold’s talent could go to waste.
-Tom Scott @downthemannyrd