Sam Darnold Faces a Make or Break Third NFL Season

Sam Darnold

It’s been a bumpy entry into the NFL for New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold. The presumptive first overall pick throughout most of the 2018 draft season, the former USC standout ultimately fell to the third selection when the Cleveland Browns opted to go with Baker Mayfield as their future franchise passer. Still, he found himself as the immediate face of the franchise in one of the biggest media markets in the country from day one.

Sam Darnold enjoyed a solid camp with the Jets and ultimately earned the role of the team’s starting signal caller when the season rolled around. When he stepped on the field for Week One against the Detroit Lions, he became the youngest starting quarterback since the AFL-NFL merger and it’s been a roller coaster ride ever since.

Sam Darnold Needs to Take the Next Step in 2020

Sam Darnold’s first professional pass was intercepted by Quandre Diggs and returned for a touchdown. A pick six on your first ever attempt is certainly not what any quarterback wants to experience. It’s the stuff of nightmares. Of course, after that, Darnold settled in beautifully and led the Jets to a 48-17 blowout victory, during which the rookie completed 16 of his next 20 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns, looking poised and confident in the process. The Jets had found their franchise player.

Or had they?

Since that performance, it’s been extremely difficult to get a read on Darnold’s potential and his career has been the very definition of a mixed bag. Looking at his stats, it’s clear there’s room for much improvement. Darnold has thrown for 5,889 yards over his 26 career starts (an 11-15 record), with a middling completion percentage of 59.9. Furthermore, he’s thrown for 36 touchdowns against 28 interceptions, a career yards per attempt number of 6.9 and a passer rating of 81.1. None of this is horrendous, but certainly not what the team hoped for out of their first-round quarterback.

A Tough Situation

It’s unfair to place all of the blame on the youngster. The Jets have not put him in the best situation over the first two years of his career. For starters, he has dealt with poor offensive line play for the majority of his tenure, taking 63 sacks over his first 26 starts. On top of that, he hasn’t been surrounded with the strong supporting cast that most young quarterbacks require to succeed.

Over his first two campaigns, his number one receiver was Robby Anderson, and the two never fully clicked the way the Jets hoped they would. However, that became a moot point once Anderson left to join the Carolina Panthers in free agency. Jamison Crowder provided a nice safety valve for Darnold in 2019, but he functions as more of a complementary pass-catcher than a lead receiver. Tight end Chris Herndon is loaded with potential but played only 18 snaps last season. Meanwhile, the team went out and signed Le’Veon Bell in free agency, but a late-career Bell who hadn’t played a snap since January of 2018 wasn’t able to contribute significantly.

Head coach Adam Gase has a reputation for being an offensive mastermind, but much of his success came when he was coordinating a Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos offense over a half decade ago. During his tenure as an NFL head coach, first with the Miami Dolphins and now with the Jets, he’s yet to lead a successful offense.

Adding to all of this is the fact that Darnold has been sidelined a lot early in his career. In fact, he’s missed six games over his first two professional campaigns. In his rookie season, missed three starts due to a foot sprain. In 2019, Darnold was sidelined for close to a month with mononucleosis.

When he returned to the field, he sustained a number of other ailments, including a foot injury against the New England Patriots that led to him having a toenail removed. Later on, he sustained a torn ligament in his throwing thumb that he played through over the last two months of the season and ultimately required off-season surgery. That is a lot of bad luck in a short period of time.

Cause for Optimism

When looking at the totality of his early career, it’s clear that Sam Darnold has been streaky, seemingly alternating excellent performances with terrible ones, but it’s apparent that he’s faced his fair share of roadblocks that haven’t been out of his control. The potential is still there for a great professional career, and if you take out his nightmarish performance against the Patriots from last season, he tossed 19 touchdowns against only nine interceptions in his other twelve starts in 2019. There’s clear evidence that he’s trending upward, slowly but surely.

During the off-season, the Jets invested a lot of resources into improving Darnold’s supporting cast. In free agency, the franchise added late-2019 breakout receiver Breshad Perriman and reliable veteran runner Frank Gore to slot in behind Bell. In the draft, the team spent their first two picks on offensive tackle Mekhi Becton and wide receiver Denzel Mims, fortifying Darnold’s protection and potentially providing him with a long-term number one receiver in one fell swoop. Becton has a chance to step in as a day one starter at left tackle and Mims was one of the biggest steals of day two at the 59th overall selection, as he very easily could have been a late-first or early-second rounder.

The Turning Point

The group of Mims, Perriman, Crowder, Herndon, and Bell will provide Darnold with the best supporting cast he’s seen in his young career. Entering his second year under Gase’s tutelage, the hope is that this duo can get on the same page and catapult this offense to the next level. Darnold has never lacked ability and has been seen as a potential NFL star ever since his freshman season at USC.

It’s also easy to forget that he’s still a very young player. In fact, Darnold just turned 23 and in spite of having two professional seasons under his belt, he is almost a full six months younger than 2020 first overall pick Joe Burrow. Without question, there is plenty of time for him to grow into a special talent.

Still, 2020 represents a huge turning point for Darnold. Much like his 2018 draft counterpart Mayfield, Darnold needs to show his franchise something special in year three, and there’s plenty of reason for measured optimism from Jets fans. The AFC East is wide open for the first time in decades as the Patriots could struggle a bit without Tom Brady under center and in the aftermath of several key departures on the defensive side of the ball.

With an improved supporting cast, continuity for the first time in his career, and a suddenly winnable division to contend for, this could finally be the time where everything comes together for Sam Darnold.

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