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Sam Darnold Already Looks Like 2019’s Breakout Sophomore Quarterback

The Jets passer finished 2018 on a high note and has been comfortable and efficient operating Adam Gase’s system in preseason action. Don’t look now, but Gang Green may have finally found its franchise signal-caller.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Giants. The Jets. Two teams in transition, fighting for one city … despite both playing, practicing, and operating in a different state altogether. In one corner: a roster with Eli Manning, Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley, and a noted lack of Odell Beckham Jr. In the other: a squad with Le’Veon Bell, Adam Gase, and a quarterback with the best jawline in football. On Thursday, The Ringer is breaking down the state of the NFL in New York City—and the players, personalities, and memes that define its marquee franchises.

Sam Darnold’s rookie season didn’t exactly go according to plan. The third overall pick got off to a disastrous start for the Jets, and that’s not just a reference to the first play of his career. Darnold completed just 55 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and 14 picks in his first nine games before being sidelined for most of November with a foot injury. By the time the rookie quarterback returned to the lineup in early December, it was clear the 3-9 Jets were in the middle of another lost season; with Darnold back under center for the team’s final four games, New York limped to a final 4-12 record, and the season culminated in the dismissal of head coach Todd Bowles and his staff.

But while the Jets’ 2018 season was mostly one to forget, Darnold quietly put together an encouraging performance down the stretch. He closed out his first season with intriguing efficiency. He tossed six touchdowns and just one interception in the last four weeks of the season, notching a 99.1 passer rating while finishing as PFF’s top-graded quarterback in that stretch. That final flourish could serve as a springboard for major improvement in 2019: In the team’s new-look offense under its new play-caller, Adam Gase, Darnold looks poised for a second-year breakout.

Consistency and continuity are crucial for a young quarterback’s development, so the Jets’ decision to dump their entire coaching staff following Darnold’s first season isn’t what you’d typically call a best practice. Learning how to read defenses and acclimate to the speed of the NFL is hard enough on its own, and forcing Darnold to learn a new playbook (and its language) adds a whole new layer of work to his first full offseason with the team. That said, cutting bait on Bowles, their defensive-minded coach—along with Jeremy Bates, his bewildering, unpopular choice for a play-caller—in favor of an offensive head coach should end up as a net positive for the Jets. Similar strategies have paid dividends for young passers like Jared Goff, Baker Mayfield, and even Mitchell Trubisky, who still has plenty of room to grow but did improve across the board after Matt Nagy took over in Chicago. The reputation Gase earned as an offensive genius from his time working with Peyton Manning in Denver diminished when Gase struggled to put together a competent offensive in Miami, but his hire shows, at least, that New York’s priorities are exactly where they need to be: Darnold’s growth as a passer is the foundation upon which the franchise is building.

Because of that, for the first time since the early years of Rex Ryan’s tenure, the Jets’ trajectory is pointing upward. Darnold’s final rookie stat line—a 77.6 passer rating with 17 touchdowns and 15 picks—doesn’t paint the picture of one of the more exciting young passers in the game, but his tape, especially in those final four games, was peppered with big-time throws and the types of plays you simply cannot teach. He flashed in out-of-structure situations when his athleticism, arm strength, and downfield accuracy were put on display. On each of these three plays, Darnold moved out of the pocket to make difficult, off-platform throws into the teeth of the defense while putting the ball in the exact spot where only his receivers could get it.

That talent for throwing on the run showed up all year, in fact—and he led all AFC East quarterbacks in PFF grade on throws outside the pocket.

Darnold showed off the ability to throw with anticipation and pinpoint accuracy on deep shots down the sideline as well. On both of these plays against the Patriots in Week 17, he quickly deciphered defensive coverages and threw his receivers open, and dropped the ball downfield with pinpoint accuracy.

This year, Gase will be charged with taking those raw physical tools and refining Darnold’s game. As a rookie, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound passer struggled playing in structure and throwing under pressure—not terribly surprising, considering he was youngest quarterback to start a Week 1 game since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger—and he’ll need to make big strides in those two areas in 2019. With that in mind, I’d expect Gase to design a scheme that looks a lot closer to what he ran with Manning in Denver than what we saw in Miami. That means lots of three-wide, shotgun looks, an up-tempo strategy, and plenty of stack and bunch formations and criss-crossing route combinations that help get receivers open early in routes and get the ball out of Darnold’s hands quickly. That strategy is already apparent in the team’s preseason action.

It doesn’t hurt that New York has put together an underrated skill-position group around its young quarterback. Free-agent addition Jamison Crowder looks primed to play a major role as a Wes Welker–type weapon out of the slot whether he’s running quick slants, short dig routes, or quick-out pick plays. Crowder has the suddenness and route-running chops to get open quickly and be Darnold’s security blanket underneath. Here are a few plays from the last couple of weeks in which he showed off that ability.

The team should rely heavily on its intriguing one-two punch at running back in the passing game as well. Free agent Le’Veon Bell, who hasn’t played a snap in the preseason, is one of the best pure route runners at his position; Bell can line up all over the formation and create mismatches that give Darnold easy reads and quick throws to avoid pressure. Afterthought free-agent addition Ty Montgomery has been a shockingly effective pass catcher out of the backfield all of camp and preseason, too. The former Packers running back (who still wears no. 88 from his days as a receiver) has the ability to create yards and positive plays on simple dump-offs and swing passes.

Tight end Chris Herndon Jr. looks like a rising star. The Jets will be without Herndon for the first four games while he serves a suspension for a DUI, but the second-year pro developed chemistry with Darnold as a rookie (catching 39 passes for 502 yards and four touchdowns) and looks to have built on that over the offseason. He’s a seam-stretcher who can threaten the intermediate level of the field—as he showed here in the team’s first preseason game.

When he wants to push the ball downfield, Darnold can target his pair of talented pass catchers Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa. He found both of those guys in the team’s preseason tilt against the Falcons two weeks ago—the first a perfect back-shoulder toss to Anderson and the second a strike to Enunwa on a deep crosser.

That second throw in particular stood out to Gase. “I don’t know if I’ve seen many that were better in my career,” he said. “It was a very tight throw and very accurate.” That statement’s probably a little bit hyperbolic, but it aligns with the buzz coming out of the Jets’ training camp—that the second-year passer has taken some big steps during the offseason. There’s even a belief, per reports, that Darnold’s arm strength has improved. That might be true, or it might just look that way because he’s throwing with more confidence in a system that’s better suited to his skill set. The Jets’ first-team offense has looked markedly more crisp in limited preseason action this year, and Darnold’s numbers could foreshadow a big jump in efficiency. On nine preseason drives, Darnold has connected on 17 of 25 attempts for 211 yards (8.44 yards per attempt) with two touchdowns and no picks.

Last October, Tony Romo—now widely acknowledged as the all-seeing oracle of sports broadcasting—was asked about Darnold’s up-and-down development. Romo correctly predicted that we’d “see a monster leap even as the end of this season comes in,” before adding that it’d really come “when next year starts.”

The first half of that statement now looks prescient. Don’t be surprised if he’s right about the second part, too. Quarterbacks often make a second-year jump, as Romo noted, because they start to see and process things more clearly. Darnold has, by all reports, appeared more in command of Gase’s scheme than he ever did in Bates’s system as a rookie. Now that Darnold is at the helm of what’s projected to be the type of up-tempo, no-huddle offense he played in high school and college—one that simplifies reads, schemes players open, and puts defenses on their heels—the pieces are in place for him to thrive.