This week, I checked in with progress reports for quarterbacks from the 2018 NFL draft. Five quarterbacks were drafted in the first round that year, and I took detailed looks at Lamar Jackson (Tuesday), Josh Allen (Wednesday), Baker Mayfield (Thursday) and Sam Darnold (Friday). Sorry, Josh Rosen; I’ll get to you another time.
If you were crafting a quarterback prospect from scratch, you would likely end up with something close to Sam Darnold. The New York Jets quarterback has prototypical size and arm strength. He is tough and an above-average athlete. He anticipates windows coming open and makes accurate passes to give his receivers opportunities to run after the catch. He makes the sort of unstoppable, breathtaking throws that only a few human beings on the planet can make.
Darnold just doesn’t make them often enough to push the Jets toward success — so far. Watch him play and you see brilliance interspersed with disappointment. There are stretches in which he looks like a 10-year veteran, easily spraying the ball around the field on time as he finds open receivers. There also are plays, possessions and even games in which he looks worse than your typical young quarterback. It’s tough to guess what’s coming next when you follow one of your best starts as a pro with arguably the worst start in Jets history.
Evaluating Darnold after two seasons requires an elaborate system of caveats and justifications. Everyone is going to weigh those differently. How do you account for him suffering from mononucleosis? What have the Jets done to surround him with talent? Do you treat the second half of 2019 — when he threw 13 touchdown passes against four picks and posted a passer rating of 93.5 — as his true talent level and a launching point for 2020? Or do you look at that schedule, see six consecutive starts against teams that finished in the bottom quartile of pass defense DVOA this past season, and worry about what Darnold is going to do when five of his first nine starts in 2020 come against top-six pass defenses?
Let’s take a look at what we can say about Darnold after his 2019 season. Will he take the next step and deliver on the promise that led the Jets to move up and draft him with the third overall pick? Or will the Darnold Hive suffer from colony collapse disorder?
Darnold’s numbers so far
Overall, Darnold was a below-average quarterback last season. When you take a look at the 26 quarterbacks who threw at least 400 passes, he ranked 21st or worse in QBR (22nd), passer rating (21st), adjusted net yards per attempt (21st) and off-target percentage (21st). The guys below him in those categories were either struggling young quarterbacks such as Mayfield, Gardner Minshew and Daniel Jones and/or passers who lost their jobs such as Andy Dalton, Mitchell Trubisky and Kyle Allen.
Of course, we have to ask all kinds of questions about the context under which Darnold played. Let’s start with the second-half split I mentioned. You can make a reasonable case that we should just throw his first half out of the window, since he didn’t look like his usual self in a heartbreaking Week 1 loss to the Bills. It seems likely that he was already struggling with mono, which then cost him the next four games. After he came back, Darnold lost a toenail in a brutal 33-0 loss to the Patriots and then sprained his thumb the following week in a loss at the Jags. Once he was (relatively) healthier and presumably fully recovered from the mono in the second half, his numbers leaped forward.
I would find some middle ground here. It’s fair to discount Darnold’s performances from earlier in the season when evaluating his future, in part because we don’t have any sort of meaningful sample of how professional quarterbacks decline when they deal with mono. (To be clear, I hope this doesn’t change.)
There is also a danger in picking and choosing the starts that “matter” in evaluating Darnold’s future and blindly selecting the good ones as proof that he’ll turn into the guy the Jets want. His first start after returning from mono was the win over the Cowboys, when he posted a 113.8 passer rating in a nearly perfect performance. And when the schedule did get tougher for a healthier Darnold over the final three weeks of 2019, he posted a middling passer rating of 84.5 in games against the Ravens, Steelers and what amounted to the Bills’ defensive backups in a meaningless Week 17 victory. There’s not as clear of a story as we would like when it comes to the mono impacting him or the Jets quarterback growing in the second half.
Darnold’s injuries through two years are concerning. The mono was a freak incident, but in addition to the toe and thumb ailments he played through, he missed three games in 2018 with a foot injury. Those injuries could end up fading quickly into his past, like they did for Matthew Stafford, who missed 19 games across his first two seasons and then didn’t miss another one for the next 8½ years. The injuries also could continue to be a problem in keeping Darnold from growing further.
Of course, the best way for the Jets to keep him healthy would be to keep the pass rush off their young quarterback. That has been a problem. Darnold was the second-most pressured quarterback out of those 26 regulars last season, in a group alongside passers such as Deshaun Watson, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Russell Wilson, Jones and Allen. Those are all quarterbacks who use their feet to extend plays, creating pressures in the process. The good news is that Darnold was contacted on only 10.5% of his snaps, which ranked 10th in the NFL.
Would reducing the pressure on Darnold immediately improve his numbers? It depends on which stat you use. By passer rating, he ranked 21st in the league when pressured, improving to 13th when he wasn’t bothered. On the flip side, by QBR, he was the 14th-best quarterback of those 26 when pressured, falling to 23rd-best when he wasn’t pressured.
One thing worth remembering: Darnold was excellent dealing with pressure in college. During his two years at USC, he posted a QBR of 59.0 when opposing defenses got home with pressure. To put that in context, nobody else who started across both of those campaigns posted a QBR greater than Mayfield’s mark of 36.2, and just four two-year starters were over 20. Darnold has regressed in dealing with pressure over the past two seasons.
Darnold fans would likely note that the Jets haven’t had much of an offensive line over the past two seasons, which is a sentiment shared by general manager Joe Douglas. The only player left from the 2018 line is guard Brian Winters, and the Jets followed in Buffalo’s footsteps by buying linemen in bulk this offseason. The New York line could have as many as four new starters in 2020, including first-round pick Mekhi Becton and former Seahawks lineman George Fant as their new tackles.
In taking a closer look, though, you can’t just chalk up the pressure problems to the line and assume investing in new guys up front will totally solve the problem. Darnold also figures in the blame here. By ESPN’s pass block win rate (PBWR) statistic, the Jets ranked 21st in the league once he returned from his bout with mono. PBWR measures how effective a line is at blocking opposing pass-rushers for 2.5 seconds, which is typically enough time for a quarterback to get out the football. After that, it’s fair to assign more of the blame for not getting the ball out to the quarterback, his receivers and the offensive coordinator. (The Jets’ PBWR also improved dramatically while Darnold was out of the lineup.)
Darnold was inconsistent in terms of getting the ball out on time. Occasionally, that could be a positive, as he would be patient in working both sides of the field before working back to an open receiver. More often than not, though, he would get stuck trying to work a route combination, wait for it to get open and then either take a hit or be forced into throwing the ball away.
This really came up in the red zone, where Darnold’s decision-making just wasn’t acceptable. He tied for the league lead with four interceptions in the red zone, and he could have easily had a handful more. Some of his touchdowns were even a product of questionable decisions to throw into coverage, like this Jamison Crowder touchdown catch. Darnold took an average of 3.11 seconds before releasing the ball in the red zone, the second-slowest rate in the league. Holding onto the ball that long inside the 20 isn’t a viable recipe for success unless you’re Patrick Mahomes or Russell Wilson.
While the problems were particularly acute inside the 20, Darnold’s decision-making overall is still inconsistent. His interception rate improved from 3.6% as a rookie to 2.9% last season, but by Football Outsiders’ adjusted interception rate, Darnold still posted the league’s ninth-worst adjusted INT rate.
Mike Greenberg expects Sam Darnold to take a big leap forward this season and become one of the league’s top quarterbacks.
The decision-making problems manifest in ways beyond interceptions. He is still prone to trying to get the ball out at the last second under pressure, leading to wayward passes with no hope of being completed. He tries to fit passes into impossible windows downfield, which occasionally ends up with him dropping passes into double or triple coverage. There are moments in which he’ll be working one side of the field and pass up a safe completion in the hopes of something bigger developing downfield. In most cases, those opportunities didn’t develop.
Naturally, with better receivers or better pass concepts, Darnold might be right to wait for those big plays to develop downfield. Let’s talk through what he has around him.
The Jets haven’t helped him. Is this season different?
Darnold didn’t get much from his weapons in 2019, in part because they weren’t on the field. Quincy Enunwa and Chris Herndon, who were expected to start at wide receiver and tight end, combined to play just 83 offensive snaps. The Jets were instead forced to play veterans Demaryius Thomas and Ryan Griffin, with the latter earning a contract extension after impressing in Herndon’s absence.
Crowder, Robby Anderson and Le’Veon Bell were all healthy as the Jets posted a drop rate just above league average. Given the expectations on Bell after leaving the Steelers, his season had to be considered a major disappointment. For a player who wanted to be paid like he transcended the running back position, he looked a lot like an ordinary back after leaving the Pittsburgh offensive ecosystem, averaging 3.2 yards per carry and just 7 yards per reception.
Douglas overhauled the receiving corps during the offseason. Anderson left for Carolina in free agency, while Enunwa’s professional future is in question while he recovers from a neck injury. The Jets will replace them with Bucs burner Breshad Perriman and second-round pick Denzel Mims. Perriman looms as a particularly high-upside option, given that the former first-round pick finished the season with 506 receiving yards and five touchdowns over his final five games. Darnold had the fourth-worst passer rating and the worst QBR of any starter in the league last season on deep passes, so Perriman could offer him a boost there.
Overall, while there’s some upside in this group if Herndon lives up to what was relatively massive pre-2019 hype, this isn’t one of the better receiving corps in the league. I don’t blame Douglas for choosing to use his first-round pick on Becton as opposed to one of the many wideouts in this class, and there wasn’t a lot available in free agency, but the Jets have had three offseasons to try to surround Darnold with talent and haven’t done enough. It’s tough to see the offer the Cardinals made for DeAndre Hopkins and think that the Jets shouldn’t have topped it.
The other question is whether Darnold has a coaching staff who can help push him to the next level. The team fired Todd Bowles and his staff after Darnold’s rookie season, and when they failed to come to an agreement at the last minute with Matt Rhule over choosing an offensive coordinator, the Jets’ Plan B was to hire Adam Gase. The former Broncos offensive coordinator’s star had faded after leading the Dolphins to the playoffs in 2016, his first season at the helm, but the Jets hired Gase with the hopes of getting the most out of Darnold and their developing offense.
They promptly finished 31st in offensive DVOA and 32nd in passing DVOA. As you can see, Gase’s offenses as offensive coordinator or head coach are on a troubling trend:
Essentially, Gase was excellent when the Broncos were running Peyton Manning‘s Colts offense for two years, pretty good with Jay Cutler in a lone season with the Bears and in his first season with Ryan Tannehill in Miami, and then disastrous since then. Injuries have undoubtedly come into play, as backup quarterbacks have started 24 of 48 games for Gase over the past three seasons, but Gase’s work with the starters hasn’t been great, either. He didn’t get much out of Cutler after the Dolphins signed him out of retirement to replace Tannehill in 2017, and it’s telling that Tannehill produced a career season immediately after leaving Miami.
There’s evidence that Gase both helps and hurt Darnold. To start with the positive, Gase’s early game planning has generally been a positive. While the coach himself admits that he might script anywhere from 15 to 25 plays and get away from the script after a handful of snaps, if we use the first 15 plays of the game as a general measure of what’s been scripted, they’ve worked. Darnold’s QBR on the first 15 plays of games in 2019 ranked 15th in the league out of 30 starters. His QBR on all other plays was dead last. It’s possible we could be measuring the effect of a weakened quarterback tiring in the second half, but I’m willing to give some credit to Gase here.
Unlike some coaches with subpar receiving corps, the Jets consistently try to find ways to free up receivers with picks. Gase also has a habit of setting up a concept early in the game before trying to take a shot with something off that concept later in the contest, which makes sense, although Darnold didn’t always pay those opportunities off. In one December game, Gase dialed up a screen-and-go at exactly the right time, only for Darnold’s throw to take his receiver out of bounds.
On the other hand, though, there was invariably at least one or two plays per game for the Jets where I was either sure the receiver had run the wrong route or Gase was trying to get Darnold to throw an interception. It happened frequently enough that it couldn’t be the former. More than any offense I can remember, the Jets would end up with three or four receivers occupying the same small area of the field, making it impossible for Darnold to make a throw without risking an interception. It was troubling when he would sometimes miss all of them with his pass. Flooding one side of the field at multiple levels is common, of course, but these were routes with no more than a few yards of spacing.
That wasn’t all. It was one thing when I saw two Jets receivers nearly run into each other downfield while they were running post and go routes together early in the season. It’s another when they did the same thing on the same concept again in December! I’m sure Gase isn’t teaching it that way, but if his receivers aren’t concise enough to run routes in close proximity without taking each other out of the play, throw that concept in the garbage until you have talented enough receivers to pull it off.
Gase also had some concepts that just seemed like they had been drafted out of a different universe for a better offense. This orbit motion option concept against the Steelers is like asking a child who still struggles to ride his/her bike to start doing wheelies and fakies. Nothing about this seems to come naturally to the Jets, and it gets blown into orbit by the Steelers.
I also found that Gase really didn’t give Darnold much help or have many answers when things went really wrong for the young quarterback. There was one game where this really manifested itself …
Darnold’s low point: ‘Seeing ghosts’
It was a weird season for the Jets, but the lowest moment was likely their 33-0 loss to the Patriots on Monday Night Football. Darnold finished 11-of-32 passing for 86 yards with four picks and a strip sack and admitted during the contest that he was “seeing ghosts.” It was a rare moment of honesty from a struggling player in the middle of a game, which meant that it was immediately met by controversy and criticism from all sides.
The Patriots tormented Darnold with what’s known as “sim pressures” or “creepers.” The goal with sim pressures is to crowd the line of scrimmage with possible blitzers and then send the four best-positioned rushers while still dropping a full set of seven defenders back into coverage. One example would be to load up both sides of the line with potential blitzers and then send pressure on one side while dropping the other side into coverage, wasting the offensive linemen on one side and overloading the pressure on the other side.
On that Monday night, what it looked like for Darnold too often was this:
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) July 1, 2020
Bill Belichick repeatedly hit him with free rushers. When he stayed upright long enough to throw the football, the Patriots had a good sense of where he would look on his hot routes, leading to one early interception where they showed man coverage and then used Devin McCourty as a trap defender, coming off of his man, to pick off Darnold. Other interceptions later in the game were just blind desperation.
As bad as the numbers were, Darnold’s performance as the game went on was worse. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a quarterback as shook as he was during one stretch in the third quarter. With the Patriots’ pressure slowing down, he had time to throw but still had a stretch where he put six passes in places where no human being could have made a catch. He was missing by yards and sailing passes out of bounds. The missing toenail didn’t help matters, I’m sure, but he really didn’t belong in the game. At the very least, Gase should have dialed up more quick game and concepts to get the ball out of Darnold’s hands as easily as possible, but it didn’t get better until a couple of bright spots popped up in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots made a lot of quarterbacks look bad last season, but it was telling that they were able to dominate really with this one pass-rush concept throughout the game and neither Gase nor Darnold had a solution. Those same pressures gave him trouble as the year went along.
Is it already time to give up?
While we’ve talked about the ways in which Darnold hasn’t gotten much help from the Jets, let’s think about this in the big picture. Is it possible that two years of subpar numbers is enough to know that Darnold isn’t going to be a long-term solution?
Pro Football Reference tracks nine index statistics for quarterbacks, adjusting stats such as completion percentage, yards per attempt, sack rate and interception rate for each year’s league average. Darnold has ranked below-average in each of the nine statistics in his first two seasons. Since 1990, there have been only three quarterbacks who got 200 pass attempts in each of their first two seasons and managed to pull that off: Darnold, Ryan Leaf and Geno Smith. Not a great start.
Max Kellerman and Jeff Saturday agree Giants QB Daniel Jones is more likely to have a better career than Jets QB Sam Darnold.
Let’s approach it a different way. As you might suspect, his cumulative statistics over two years also rate as below average across those nine index metrics. If we look at the quarterbacks who have been below average by all nine measures while throwing 600 pass attempts over their first two seasons combined, you get a list that includes Darnold, Smith, Josh Allen, Brandon Weeden, Blake Bortles, Christian Ponder and Derek Carr. More optimistically, it also includes Tannehill, Alex Smith and Troy Aikman.
Pro Football Focus data analyst Kevin Cole’s Bayesian study of quarterback play also didn’t feel good about Darnold’s chances of improving to the point where he would be a starting-caliber quarterback. Darnold’s comps through two years include passers such as Geno Smith, Bortles, Ponder and another former Jets starter in Mark Sanchez. The team is unquestionably hoping for more than that from Darnold, even after two inconsistent seasons.
One factor that might play on Darnold’s side is that he came into the league extremely young. He was just 20 when the Jets selected him in April 2018, and he just turned 23 last month. For context, he is six months younger than Joe Burrow, who was the first overall pick in the 2020 draft, two years after Darnold came off the board. All other things being equal, entering the league younger gives Darnold more time to develop at the highest level instead of wasting reps and hits against overmatched competition in college.
By the numbers, the odds are stacked against him after two seasons. Considering his age, the mono and the mediocrity surrounding him, I’m inclined to think Darnold’s chances of turning into an above-average starter are a little better than they might seem in a vacuum. But …
Darnold’s last chance in 2020?
… the problem is that Darnold isn’t developing in a vacuum. He’s entering a crucial year in 2020, and if the Jets don’t see development out of their starter, he might not get a fourth chance to impress. Both the coach and general manager who drafted Darnold, remember, are out of the organization. Douglas isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but after a bizarre 2019 campaign, it wouldn’t be shocking if the Jets moved on from Gase if the team struggles again. A new coach might want to start fresh with a new quarterback.
My concern is that Darnold might only be as good as the people around him, and his development could depend more on players such as Becton, Mims and Perriman becoming instant contributors. Darnold can play a role in making them better, but he hasn’t been able to do that with the likes of Anderson or Bell. It’s also fair to question whether Gase is truly effective at developing young quarterbacks, given that all of his work as a pro before Darnold has really been with veterans, outside of serving as Tim Tebow‘s quarterbacks coach.
Compare that to the Browns, who went out of their way to add talent for Mayfield over the past two years. During the brief moments when they’ve each been at their respective zenith as pros, Darnold has looked better than Mayfield, the one quarterback who was chosen ahead of him in 2018. Given their respective supporting casts, though, Mayfield has a better chance of producing above-average efficiency in 2020 than Darnold.
For Darnold to break through in 2020, he needs something to really go his way. He needs that brutal schedule to lighten up thanks to injuries, or for Bell to have a big year as a runner. He needs one of Perriman, Mims or Herndon to emerge as a star target. There’s still upside in Darnold’s profile, and at his best, he still looks like that prototypical quarterback prospect. I just don’t think he’s going to be able to deliver on his own.