Ever since they reached the AFC Championship game nearly a decade ago, the New York Jets have been longing to discover and groom their next franchise quarterback. After a disappointing and uneventful rebuild attempt with Geno Smith that lasted four seasons, the Jets were back on the lookout once again in hopes of ending their long-awaited pursuit. And in 2018, their time had finally arrived.
With the third overall pick in the draft, the Jets selected USC standout Sam Darnold to be their new face of their offense. Posting strong numbers over his collegiate career, including 25+ TDs with a passer rating well over 140 in each of his two seasons, the Jets felt that Darnold had the talent to generate an immediate impact for an offense that was in desperate need for leadership and success (ESPN).
But in 2018, that didn’t prove to be the case. Throwing for 17 TDs and 15 INTs along with 2,865 yards and a measly 57.7 completion percentage, Darnold struggled to prove his worth and couldn’t establish any sort of rhythm (ESPN).
Once Todd Bowles was let go and head coach Adam Gase was hired to replace him last year, Darnold did improve and showed some signs of growth, completing 61.9% of his passes and collecting 19 TDs with 13 INTs along with 3,024 yards (ESPN). Although he had a difficult time maintaining a level of consistency, Darnold’s talent could be seen in bursts last season. Executing a great performance against Dallas in week #6 where he threw for 338 yards and 2 TDs, Darnold delivered another impressive start in week #11 against Washington, passing for 293 yards and 4 TDs, and then followed that up a week later against Oakland with 315 passing yards and 2 TDs on the day (ESPN).
That being said, Darnold’s first two seasons have certainly not replicated the same output he was producing in college, and as a result, he has drawn quite a bit of skepticism and doubt regarding his future. What’s important to note is that his leap in talent from his rookie season to his sophomore year, was not that significant either, considering he was the 3rd overall pick in his draft.
Moreover, Darnold has struggled with ball security, coughing up a total of 11 fumbles last season after only having 5 the year before (ESPN). Essentially, Darnold has not been able to fully elevate his level of play and execute mistake-free football on a regular basis. And as he enters his third season with the Jets, the pressure for him to produce and shine has reached its peak; another poor season could jeopardize Darnold’s starting position and career in New York. Although the Jets implemented a lot of roster changes over the offseason, it’s still unclear if everything will fall in place, and ultimately, whether Darnold can reignite the level of play we once saw at USC.
However, for the very first time since he’s set foot into the league, Darnold has a strong supporting cast this season, a luxury he never had before in the NFL. For the last two years, the Jets offense has been one, big mess, finishing the 2018 season as the 29th ranked offense and ending last season as the worst in the league (ESPN). And at the forefront of their struggles, has been none other than their offensive line, a unit that’s supposed to serve as the foundation for any successful offensive system, but over the last two seasons, has simply failed to do so for the Jets.
Although this has impacted almost every offensive player the Jets have started, Darnold has certainly felt it the most out of everyone. Just to give you an idea, Darnold executed most of his success on 1st downs last season, completing 66.3% of his passes whilst throwing for 1,258 yards, 7 TDs, only 2 INTs, and posting a 97.2 passer rating in the process (ESPN). On 3rd downs, however, Darnold only completed 54.4% of his passes, threw for only 813 yards, 8 TDs, 6 INTs, putting up a 75.9 passer rating and accumulating a total of 14 sacks in the process (ESPN).
The point of the matter here is that the difference between each stat line is substantial and really paints a clear image of how well Darnold can play when his offensive line isn’t overwhelmed and faced with a lot of pressure. And on 3rd downs, Darnold could hardly ever catch a break to execute a play the way he needed to. What’s important to take away here is that Darnold joined a team with an offensive line that was in shambles, and this season is the first time it’s not. After selecting tackle Mekhi Becton with the 11th overall pick in the draft and signing center Connor McGovern, guard Greg Van Roten, and tackle George Fant, this year Darnold will have the best offensive line he’s ever had, which will grant him the right protection he’s needed all along.
But outside of the offensive line, Darnold didn’t have the best weapons around him over these last two years. Entering his rookie year with subpar running backs in Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell, the Jets fixed their run game rather quickly last season by acquiring Pro Bowler Le’Veon Bell.
However, this was certainly not the case with Darnold’s wide receiver unit. The best wideouts he has been able to work with, consist of Robby Anderson, Jamison Crowder, and Quincy Enunwa, which is far from ideal. It’s important to remember that football is a team sport and a quarterback is only as good as his wide receivers. Essentially, Darnold’s production was limited because there was only so much that these receivers could provide with the talent they had.
In other words, what Anderson, Crowder, and Enunwa brought to the table collectively, was not enough and it became evident that Darnold struggled to depend on their limited skill sets on a weekly basis. But once again, that changed drastically over the offseason after the Jets decided to not only sign both Breshad Perriman and Josh Doctson, but also selected one of the best wideouts in this year’s draft class in Denzel Mims.
All of a sudden, Darnold now has a group of receivers that brings speed, quickness, strength, powerful hands, and tremendous athleticism. In addition, the Jets brought in veteran quarterback Joe Flacco to be Darnold’s backup, who fittingly enough, played with Perriman for two years when he was in Baltimore.
Having a mentor who not only can grant you knowledge from his experiences in the league but who can also provide insight on what Perriman’s strengths and weaknesses are, is huge for Darnold, who has the opportunity to learn so much and really form a strong connection with his new number one receiver.
At the end of the day, there’s a lot to consider when assessing just the kind of year Darnold’s going to have. As a result of having so many holes to fix for their young quarterback, the Jets have undergone a full scale, revamp process with their offense that might need time to gel together and build chemistry.
Nonetheless, the main reason why Darnold will rise to the occasion this season comes down to this: If he was able to improve into a better quarterback (even on the slightest of levels) with the worst offense in the league last year, there’s nothing stopping Darnold from unleashing his true potential with a much better offense.
Furthermore, Darnold has absolutely nothing to lose. After coming off two below-par seasons, the Jets will certainly not grant Darnold the same luxury and patience they did for Geno Smith, especially since he was the 3rd overall pick of the 2018 draft. However, after the Jet’s busy shopping spree over the offseason and success in the draft, they might not need to worry about their young quarterback’s struggles any longer.
Sure, Darnold’s entry into the league has not been the smoothest, and it’s challenging not to be skeptical about his future. But this year, Jets fans will get to see how big of a difference this offseason will serve to be for Darnold. Although it’s been a long time coming, Sam Darnold is in the position to have his best season yet.