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Suddenly Sam Darnold Is Making the Jets Fantasy Relevant

Don’t look now, but the 21-year-old passer has turned a corner in recent weeks, and his play could make guys like Jermaine Kearse, Quincy Enunwa, and Robby Anderson factors in fantasy football

Sam Darnold Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After impressing in the Jets’ opening-week blowout of the Lions, rookie quarterback Sam Darnold quickly fell back to earth, slumping throughout the rest of September as New York lost its next three games. Darnold tossed two touchdowns and four picks in that stretch, averaging a paltry 6.32 yards per attempt with a 63.8 passer rating—at times looking out of his depth under center. “Panic” wasn’t the right word to describe the state of mind for the Gang Green faithful as the calendar flipped to October, but suffice to say the shine had quickly worn off of the third overall pick.

Back-to-back wins over the Broncos and Colts, though, have left Jets fans breathing a collective sigh of relief. Darnold’s bounced back and then some, showing all the traits of a franchise passer over the past two weeks while throwing with accuracy and aggressiveness. In the victory over Indianapolis on Sunday, he directed the team’s second-quarter two-minute drill, helping set up a field goal; then late in the game, he deftly spread the ball around, keeping the chains moving on a trio of scoring drives that netted nine points and helped hold off Andrew Luck and the Colts. He connected with his receivers on a few tight window throws and played with more confidence than we’ve seen from him to this point.

Like all rookie quarterbacks, Darnold is still a work in progress—but he’s turned the corner on a rough first month and appears to have righted the ship for the foundering Jets offense. That’s big for the long-term future of the franchise, obviously, but it could impact your fantasy team in the short term too.

Bill Walsh, then the Bengals wide receivers’ coach, invented the West Coast offense back in 1970 when his big-armed starting quarterback, Greg Cook, got hurt. With Cook on the shelf, Walsh needed to find a way to make his offense work with the weaker-armed backup, Virgil Carter, so he designed a scheme that emphasized quick-breaking and shorter routes that stretched the field horizontally, giving Carter easier, higher-percentage throws that would allow the offense to move the ball through the air and open up run lanes up the middle. Later iterations of Walsh’s offense were more complex and employed plenty of vertical passing—but the original goal of the design was to make things easier for a passer who was in over his head.

Jets offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates came up in the West Coast scheme and for much of the first month of the season, that horizontal short-passing attack was the central theme of the Jets offense. Darnold’s Next Gen Stats’ passing charts for weeks 3 and 4 show plenty of dinking and dunking without much success deep or in the middle of the field.

Next Gen Stats

In his first four games, Darnold attempted 17 passes of 20-plus yards but completed just three of them. The past two weeks illustrate a not-so-subtle change in the distribution of the football:

Next Gen Stats

Darnold’s started to unlock parts of the field that he’d failed to exploit over the first month of the season, and in the last two games has completed four of seven deep attempts for 157 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick with a 101.8 passer rating, per PFF. He connected on a pair of deep-bomb scores in Week 5, both to speedy receiver Robby Anderson. On the first, Anderson ran a double-move and Darnold found him for a 75-yard score …

... and on the second, Darnold lofted a gorgeous, perfectly placed teardrop pass into the corner of the end zone.

The rookie signal-caller also connected on a few deep-outs in the win over Denver, showing the arm strength and accuracy to make what’s considered one of the most difficult passes in the pros. The second, a frozen rope to Jermaine Kearse on a third-and-12 midway through the third quarter, was a particularly impressive throw.

Darnold has also begun to spread the ball around over the intermediate parts of the middle, particularly in Sunday’s win over the Colts. That made a huge impact, particularly on third downs, where Darnold completed a trio of slant-route passes that each kept the chains moving.

His rising confidence was apparent; he threw with the type of controlled aggressiveness that he’ll need to excel in the league. He fit a bullet in between three defenders late in the first half for a touchdown, putting more than enough velocity on the pass to hit Terrelle Pryor before the zone coverage defenders could react.

Darnold certainly hasn’t been perfect over the past two weeks. One of the main concerns scouts had about the former Trojan star was his propensity for turning the ball over, and that trait reared its head Sunday, when he threw an ugly pick to Colts safety Malik Hooker, who easily intercepted a badly underthrown ball in the first quarter. Even when Darnold does make a big play, it’s not always pretty: On this throw, Darnold abandoned fundamental mechanics, opening his body and falling away as he let the throw go. It got to its target, but the young signal-caller has to cut down on these types of lapses in throwing form to avoid turning it over.

A quarterback’s development is rarely linear; Darnold’s sure to have some ups and downs—but there’s plenty of reason to be encouraged. He’s showcased the physical tools and mental aptitude to run the offense, his teammates have rallied around him, and that makes New York’s passing game a potential riser down the stretch. That could be big for the fantasy players sitting on your bench or out there on the waiver wire.

Receiver Robby Anderson (rostered in 54 percent of Yahoo leagues) stands to benefit from the team’s new-found vertical element, and after emerging as a fantasy star during the second half of last season (he finished as the WR12 from Week 7 on), the third-year pro could be a similar midseason must-add on the waiver wire. For now, he’s more of a stash player; a touchdown-dependent deep threat that could develop into a more consistent scorer if Darnold’s progression continues.

The uptick in middle-of-the-field passing should funnel targets to one of Jermaine Kearse (rostered in 2 percent of Yahoo leagues) or Quincy Enunwa (41 percent)—or both. Kearse has slowly made his way back into the offensive rotation after missing the Week 1 with an abdominal injury and has recently taken over as the team’s primary slot receiver. The veteran has run 33 snaps from the slot the last two weeks (78.6 percent of his snaps), per PFF, pushing Enunwa to the outside more often (Enunwa ran 69 percent of this routes from the slot weeks 1–4 but just 40 percent in weeks 5 and 6). Enunwa, who suffered a high ankle sprain against the Colts, is due to miss some time, further boosting Kearse’s stock in the short term. The 28-year-old receiver, who finished as the WR26 last year (in PPR leagues) caught nine of 10 targets Sunday for 94 yards. And Pryor (2 percent), who caught five balls for 57 yards and a touchdown, could also be in line for more looks until Enunwa returns. Darnold himself has made his way into the fantasy conversation with that pair of efficient performances too. He’s worth a roster spot in two-quarterback and super-flex leagues, and could even emerge as a streaming option in standard leagues.

Darnold has made big strides, and the future is bright for the Jets offense—but the rookie passer isn’t out of the woods quite yet. The Jets will draw a tough Vikings defense this week—a group that confounded rookie Josh Rosen on Sunday while sacking him four times—then face Khalil Mack and Bears in Week 8, the Dolphins in Week 9, and the underrated Bills defense in Week 10. That run of the gantlet should be a great test for the Jets’ new franchise passer.