In the hours after Le’Veon Bell signed with the Jets on March 13, enthusiastic text messages flooded into Sam Darnold’s phone. They weren’t coming from other players around the league, or even his teammates, but rather Darnold’s friends. The 22-year-old quarterback was a junior in high school when Bell played his first season with the Steelers in 2013, and Bell was winning fantasy leagues for Darnold’s buddies before some of them could even drive. Darnold knows that he can’t afford to be starstruck sharing a huddle with the two-time All-Pro back, but he was no less ecstatic when the news finally became official. “I was amped about it,” Darnold says. “Because I know how great he can be for this offense.”
As he stands outside the Jets’ practice facility, talking about the team’s most high-profile offseason addition, Darnold ducks into a patch of shade. It’s almost 90 degrees in Florham Park, New Jersey, this Monday afternoon, and there isn’t a cloud in sight. The fourth practice of training camp has just wrapped up; so far, this camp has seemed pretty different than Darnold’s first.
Even before the 2019 free agency period began in March, the Jets hadn’t been shy about spending money under former general manager Mike Maccagnan. Maccagnan handed a combined $67 million guaranteed to cornerback Trumaine Johnson, linebacker Avery Williamson, and running back Isaiah Crowell in free agency in 2018. He re-signed not one, but two backup quarterbacks to new contracts the same year. And wide receiver Quincy Enunwa received a four-year, $36 million deal with $20 million guaranteed in December.
This spring, the Jets transitioned from slightly overpaying solid free agents to chasing some of the biggest names available. Over a three-day span in mid-March, the Jets traded for Raiders Pro Bowl guard Kelechi Osemele, signed Bell to a four-year, $52.5 million deal (with $27 million guaranteed), and gave C.J. Mosley the richest contract in NFL history for an inside linebacker (a $17 million average annual value with $51 million guaranteed). The spending spree—which could be construed as a last-ditch effort from Maccagnan to build a winner and get himself off the hot seat—came two months after the team hired Adam Gase as its new head coach. But those moves still couldn’t save the GM’s job. Maccagnan was puzzlingly let go not long after April’s draft and replaced by former Eagles vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas.
For an NFL team, that’s a dizzying amount of turnover in a single offseason. And with that turnover came outside expectations that have been missing for Gang Green in recent years. The question now is how much of that new ambition is warranted.
After signing Mosley and drafting Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams with the third pick, it’s reasonable to think the Jets defense, led by first-year coordinator Gregg Williams, will be better this year than the unit that finished 21st in DVOA last season. But if you’re building a case for how Gase’s team can reach its ceiling in 2019, that argument starts with the offense. The Jets finished 28th in offensive DVOA last season under coordinator Jeremy Bates and were nearly as bad throwing the ball (28th) as they were running it (30th). Gase’s track record from his three years in Miami may not blow anyone away (the Dolphins finished 26th in DVOA last season), but the Jets’ new collection of offensive talent is better than any group he worked with in south Florida.
That starts with the skill position group, which already showed promise during Darnold’s rookie season and got markedly better this spring. Bell is obviously the headliner of the bunch, but the Jets also signed former Redskins slot receiver Jamison Crowder to a three-year, $28.5 million deal. With Crowder in the slot, the combination of Enunwa and Darnold favorite Robby Anderson on the outside, athletic tight end Chris Herndon stretching the seams, and Bell working his magic out of the backfield, the Jets feature one of the more well-rounded pass-catching groups in the NFL. Bell in particular is the piece that really brings the room together. “He’s a super patient route-runner, but at the same time, he’s able to speed it up when he needs to,” Darnold says. “When he feels like it’s man [coverage], he knows how to beat the guy right away. He has those receiver instincts.”
Bell’s also able to seamlessly shift between receiver and runner, and his skills at that latter position should help lift the Jets ground from where it was in 2018. “Most of his plays are positive gains,” Darnold says. “As a running back, as long as you have that, you’re in pretty good shape.” There’s been plenty of debate about the value of Bell’s deal and whether the Jets overpaid for a 27-year-old back whose former offense didn’t skip a beat without him in 2018, but there’s no denying just how productive he was in Pittsburgh. This is a guy who’s averaged at least 115 yards from scrimmage per game over his past four seasons; the Jets offense is absolutely better with him in the fold, price tag be damned.
Along with Bell, Gase is also well equipped to fix some of the Jets’ past rushing issues. Despite their struggles throwing the ball in 2018, Gase’s Dolphins featured a well-schemed running game that often created large creases from design alone. How Gase and offensive line coach Frank Pollack (who worked with the Cowboys during DeMarco Murray’s heyday) devise the run game will go a long way toward Bell’s success—and bringing in a player like Osemele doesn’t hurt. When Osemele signed with the Raiders in 2016, he added a physicality that the talented-but-finesse-driven Oakland line was sorely missing. His performance tailed off a bit over his final two seasons by the Bay, but he’s already making his presence felt for the Jets up front. Defensive tackle Leonard Williams—the Jets’ star on the other side of the ball—said that in the first few days of training camp, one-on-one reps between him and Osemele have already become must-see events.
The Jets spent big money to build a better infrastructure for their young quarterback, but when it comes down to it, Darnold’s own development will be what determines the franchise’s trajectory. His rookie year was a mixed bag, plagued in part by a foot injury that cost him three games in November. But when he returned for the final quarter of the season, he looked like a different quarterback. Over his final four games, Darnold completed 64 percent of his passes, threw for six touchdowns and one interception, and averaged 8.05 adjusted yards per attempt.
When teams around the league change head coaches, most offensive players say they see an immediate organizational shift when moving from a defensive-minded head coach to an offensive-minded head coach. But Darnold says he hasn’t noticed a fundamental difference in his day-to-day work. When asked how Gase’s presence has changed his approach, the second-year quarterback says that’s far from the most important transition he’s experienced this camp. “Last year was just a whirlwind for me, as a rookie,” Darnold says. “That’s really the only thing I knew.” Darnold was just busy trying to stay afloat during his first season. This year, he’s firmly on solid ground, and his teammates have noticed the change. “His leadership has been night and day,” guard Brian Winters says. “Which I get. I’ve been a rookie starting out, and it’s tough. Especially as a quarterback. I can’t imagine. But this year, he’s coming in and taking initiative of the huddle.”
Aside from being more authoritative on the field, Darnold says that his increased comfort has also led to him asking more questions in meetings and piping up when a concept is initially confusing or problematic. Winters spent his entire career playing for defensive coaches, and even if Darnold hasn’t noticed a tangible difference, the six-year veteran says Gase’s presence has helped his second-year QB. “Having a young QB, [Gase] is going to put him in the best possible position to win games,” Winters says. “Because at the end of the day, [Sam] is our leader. He’s our guy. Having someone that can mentor him, he’s going to go the distance.”
On that Monday in Florham Park, more than one player mentioned the influx of talent on the Jets’ roster—and the implied expectations that brings. But this is still a team with plenty of holes. Osemele solidifies one guard spot, but center and right tackle are still question marks heading into the season. The Williams duo on the interior will give opposing offenses fits this season, but there are still concerns at cornerback and edge rusher. Herndon is suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, and Crowder limped off the field on Monday after tweaking his ankle near the end of practice. Crowder was cleared for practice on Wednesday, but for a while it looked like the receiving corps—which doesn’t have much depth behind its starters—had suffered two potential blows. Despite their shortcomings, though, this Jets roster has more cause for hope than any in recent memory.
Even with all the outsize anticipation heading into the season, Darnold says that his mentality hasn’t changed. “I don’t really buy into what people are saying behind the scenes, and expectations of fans, and all that,” Darnold says. “It’s great to have expectations, but at the same time, the highest expectations that anyone’s going to have for me is me.”