After two years of Sam Darnold leading the way, it’s tough to tell if the New York Jets have their franchise quarterback or not.
Darnold posted a 4-9 record as a starter in his rookie season, with 17 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He improved on all of those numbers in year two, finishing with a 7-6 record, 19 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions.
While that upward trajectory is a positive sign, Darnold had an 84.3 passer rating. That ranked 27th-best among starters in 2019.
So is Darnold an ascending young quarterback who’s slowing developing, despite being hindered by injuries and a lack of surrounding talent? Or are the Jets wasting their time on a quarterback who has only shown glimpses of potential, but little production to match?
The Jets need answers to those questions soon. Even though Darnold is still only 22 years old, New York has to decide in spring 2021 whether it wants to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. Moving on from Darnold would be a tough pill to swallow after the Jets traded up to pick him third overall in 2018, but neither general manager Joe Douglas nor coach Adam Gase was part of the team when that decision was made.
Conventional thought in the NFL is that it takes three years to evaluate a draftee. That means the 2020 season will be crucial in determining Darnold’s future.
The pressure is on Darnold to perform. Fortunately for him, New York has spent the offseason making sure he finally has the tools to succeed.
The Jets’ offense is much more talented than it was in 2019
Few teams made splashier moves in free agency than the Jets during the 2019 offseason. They made C.J. Mosley the highest-paid linebacker in the NFL and signed running back Le’Veon Bell to a four-year, $52 million deal. Neither addition helped much, however.
Mosley played in only two games due to a groin injury and Bell had an unimpressive year. The latter averaged a career-low 3.2 yards per carry, although it’s hard to blame him much when the Jets’ lackluster offensive line didn’t do him any favors. According to Pro Football Focus, the Jets averaged a league-worst 0.7 yards before contact per rushing attempt.
New York spent this spring fixing that. The team added swing tackle George Fant, center Connor McGovern, and guard Greg Van Roten in free agency. The cherry on top came in the 2020 NFL Draft. The Jets used the 11th pick to take massive, (but remarkably nimble) 364-pound offensive tackle Mekhi Becton.
That’s no guarantee the new offensive line will be significantly better than it was in 2019, but it’s hard to imagine it could be any worse.
Darnold has some new targets to work with too. While the Jets allowed Robby Anderson to leave in free agency, he was replaced by free agent Breshad Perriman and second-round draft pick Denzel Mims. The Jets will also get Quincy Enunwa back in the lineup after losing the receiver to a neck injury in Week 1 of the 2019 season.
Mims is the most exciting of those receivers. He’s a big play waiting to happen, capable of burning receivers with his 4.38 speed, or making outrageously difficult receptions when the coverage is tight.
The Jets haven’t had star receiver since Keyshawn Johnson, but Mims has the potential to change that.
With Mims and Becton added to the fold, there’s a lot of room for Darnold to grow this upcoming season.
Nothing will help Sam Darnold more than an effective run game
The Jets were 29th in the NFL in rushing yards per attempt during Darnold’s rookie year and dead last in his second year. For his entire career, the onus has been on Darnold to keep the offense on track.
In 2019, the Jets were the only team in the NFL that had a three-and-out on over 30 percent of their offensive drives (30.6 percent). With an ineffective run game, Darnold was forced to convert on third-and-long often. And he had to do so behind an offensive line that allowed him to be pressured on over 40 percent of his dropbacks.
Most of the highlights of Darnold’s career have come when the young quarterback has been forced to improvise in the face of pressure.
Sam Darnold pulling rabbits out of his hat pic.twitter.com/hmLouc5CvX— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) December 9, 2018
An improved offensive line and more running room for Bell should mean Darnold is forced to do that less often. That could be all it takes for Darnold to take the step forward that the Jets are waiting and hoping to see, even if Gase won’t admit it.
Gase on Sam Darnold taking a big step in Year 3: "I feel like things are going to move in the right direction. It’s hard for me to talk about these mythical steps that everybody’s talking about." #Jets— Al Iannazzone (@Al_Iannazzone) April 27, 2020
Given the players protecting him in his first two seasons, it’s understandable why Darnold wasn’t able to show more. Now that the offensive line is rebuilt, it’s time for him to prove he’s the franchise quarterback the Jets believe he is.