Sam Darnold has used this preseason to silence the doubters

Film Room, Game Film, Gif Breakdowns, NFL Awards, NFL Preseason

Mansur Shaheen

The New York Jets had one of the most interesting quarterback controversies this offseason. They retained 2017 veteran starter Josh McCown, added former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and drafted USC product Sam Darnold 3rd overall. The plan seemed to be that they would let Bridgewater and McCown battle it out for the starting role, then let Darnold ease his way into the offense mid-way through the season.

That plan ended up getting thrown out of the window. Bridgewater was dealt to New Orleans and after an impressive preseason, Darnold is currently the projected day 1 starter.

Darnold played in the first three preseason games and sat out of the fourth, as starters usually do. He completed 29 of his 45 pass attempts – the 65% completion rate being great for a rookie in his first league action. The rookie also threw a pair of touchdowns and an interception.

One of the biggest knocks against Darnold coming out of Southern Cal was his recklessness with the ball and poor decision making. He would often get himself into trouble with his passes. Darnold was one of the most turnover prone players in college football in 2017 – his 13 interceptions were among the most in the FBS.

It is clear that he has grown as a passer over the past few months. He looks poised in the pocket and doesn’t commit as many blatant errors as he did in college. Darnold looks comfortable going through his progressions and does not get antsy as often when he can not find an open man.

Darnold was comfortable under pressure and did a great job moving his feet around. When he was put under duress he didn’t panic and was able to navigate the pocket and avoid taking sacks. He kept his eyes downfield and continued to look for open receivers despite the pressure. He knew when to tuck the ball and scramble when he got the opportunity as well, and when he was on the run he avoided taking any big hits.

He also throws with great touch. The rookie can lift the ball over defenders in his way and get it back down into reach of his receivers. This opens up passing angles that shouldn’t exist and makes it even harder to take away his throwing options.

While the poise he has shown in the pocket may be new his ability to make throws on the run was his most highly touted trait in college. When Darnold escapes the pocket he has the ability to make off platform throws and release the ball from unusual angles. While Josh Allen was the prospect who got all of the attention because of his arm strength Darnold is no noodle arm himself. He doesn’t need to set his base to throw and can launch passes downfield.

Darnold’s rare ability to punish teams after they flush him out of the pocket make him much harder to put down. He can make throws that many longtime NFL quarterbacks can’t and if the Jets can help him perfect his throwing mechanics he will have one of the most talented arms in the league.

While Darnold looked great this preseason he was not perfect. He made a few questionable decisions with the ball. Darnold threw an interception on a short fourth down pass when he tried to get it over three defenders and should have been intercepted on a rub play when he got rid of the ball way too quickly.

On the other side of the coin, sometimes he holds the ball on for too long. He has clearly made a conscious effort to avoid launching the ball into trouble, though sometimes he spends to much time scanning the field waiting for a target to open up. Darnold occasionally gets so focused on what was going on downfield that he misses the pressure coming up on him. At times after he escapes the pocket he continues looking downfield as nothing opens up and waits way to long to throw it away.

While his willingness and ability to make throws on the run is great he has to find a middle ground. The Jets obviously want him to continue to make the incredible highlight worthy plays he made in college but they also need him to know when to kill the play and just throw it away. He didn’t take any disastrous sacks in preseason, but once the real games begin and he is playing against the best in the business on every snap they will be able to punish him for holding the ball for too long.

Darnold looked like a raw prospect coming out of college but after only a couple month’s with an NFL staff he already looks pro-ready. He obviously isn’t perfect – he won’t be for a long time – but Jets fans should be readily excited about how great he looked in preseason. In week one he will get to start off his NFL career against one of the worst defenses in the league in the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football. The eyes of NFL world will be on Darnold next week, and there is no reason to believe he will not shine in the bright lights.

 

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Mansur Shaheen

We have reached the halfway point of NFL preseason and while some of the most exciting names to watch have sputtered, some unusual suspects have stepped up to capture the headlines. One of them being Raiders running back Chris Warren. As an undrafted free agent out of the University of Texas, Warren was a long shot to make the roster entering training camp. He was listed fourth on the depth chart behind longtime veteran Marshawn Lynch, newly signed yet oft-injured Doug Martin and 3rd-year player Jalen Richard.

The trio ahead of Warren most likely have their roster spots locked up, but Warren has managed to step up to compete for the fourth running back role. Through two games he has carried the ball 31 times for 196 yards and a touchdown. At 6.3 yards per carry, he has emerged as one of the most efficient running backs in NFL preseason so far.

Warren has the skill set of an old school bruising running back. He barrels through people and he is incredibly hard to bring down. The tailback gains momentum as he runs and gets even harder to bring down as he picks up speed. Warren does not need much space to be an effective runner and is not of afraid of taking hits running between the tackles.

The running back also has great vision when taking hand off’s out of the backfield. He can spot gaps even when they are not in his assigned running lane. The running back does a great job bouncing runs outside or switching fields if he needs to and rarely misses open holes.

Warren takes the handoff, spots a hole and chooses his path. He is a decisive runner that does not spend too much time dancing around in the backfield and he doesn’t try to do too much with the ball in his hands. The running back is a quick-thinking bruiser.

While he is big and strong, Warren lacks the quickness and athleticism a top tier running back needs. He is great at finding holes to run through, but he does not have the burst necessary to gash defenses once he gets to the hole. When he breaks into open space he doesn’t have the long speed necessary to take long runs the distance and usually gets chased down by defenders. The running back is great at making the first cut to get through the hole, but his cuts are fairly stiff and not quick enough to truly throw off defenders. It also means that after he makes the first cut he is usually stuck running one direction as he isn’t agile enough to make a second cut without losing all momentum.

As big and strong as he is durability could also be a concern for him long term. He is very upright runner and while he can barrel through people his running style leaves him incredibly vulnerable to taking hard, violent hits to the upper body.

These hits will wear down his body over time and make him more susceptible to injury. His upright running style also leads to him getting stonewalled at the line of scrimmage at times and makes him rely on his brute force to push the pile, instead of the natural leverage his body can create by getting low.

Warren is a running back that would have been an elite talent in the late 80’s. If he was a few decades older he would probably be a player stuffing the record books. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the quickness and agility necessary to really stick out in the modern NFL. There is still a place for him in the league today, but most likely as a change of pace back rather than a player who will be a main feature in the NFL offense. The Raiders grabbing him as an undrafted rookie may still prove to be one of the steals of this offseason, though.

 

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Mansur Shaheen

With Le’Veon Bell missing another preseason in an endless back and forth with the front office of the Pittsburgh Steelers the backups on the team’s roster are getting a chance to shine. In the opening two weeks of the NFL preseason running back James Conner has been taking the first team snaps.

Conner was selected by the Steelers in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft. A product of the Pittsburgh Panthers, the hometown kid was used sparingly in his rookie season. He carried the ball 32 times for 144 yards. He never saw the endzone and never started in the 14 games he played last season.

He has looked better than ever so far in preseason and has shown that he can be a valuable member of the team’s offense. In two games he has carried the ball 9 times for 72 yards. He scored a touchdown in the Steelers week 2 matchup against the Green Bay Packers. Conner has caught 1 pass for 9 yards.

One of Conner’s best traits is how hard he is to bring down once he gets moving. At 6-1, 233 pounds he quickly builds momentum and is a downhill runner. It takes multiple men to bring him down and simple arm tackles can’t do anything to him.

He has great balance and does a great job keeping his footing through any sort of contact. Tacklers bounce off of him and he keeps on running as if it doesn’t affect him. Seeing him rumble his way downfield is a scary sight for oncoming defenders.

Conner is not just a brute force coming out of the backfield either. He is a smart runner and has the vision necessary to find running lanes when they open. He does a great job pathing his runs and spots defenders arriving to close gaps then proceeds to adjust his running lane accordingly.

While his vision isn’t up to par with Bell’s, his mental skills and football IQ as a running back are great and give the Steelers a good foundation to build upon.

He is not the perfect runner, though. He does not burst through holes well when he see’s them and his long speed isn’t the greatest either. It takes a pack to bring him down but it’s easy for the pack to track him down due to his lack of speed. Durability could be a concern for him long term as well. He does a great job finishing runs by barreling through people, but over time that increases the potential wear and tear put on his body.

Conner also has work to do in pass protection. The Steelers rarely used him there last season as Bell is an elite pass blocker. They haven’t asked him to do much is pass protection this preseason either, but he has failed when called upon.

With Bell’s time in Pittsburgh winding to a close the Steelers will have to start thinking about finding his replacement. Conner does not have to much tread on the tires yet and has the potential to be a bell cow running back for the Steelers one day. This season may be another one where he spends much of the year as a spectator, though, as the Steelers have already shown that they are willing to run Bell as much as possible.

 

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Mansur Shaheen

The spotlight at quarterback was firmly focused on rookie Sam Darnold heading into the New York Jets week 2 preseason matchup against the Washington Redskins. The third overall pick in the draft was set to start an NFL game for the first time in his career. But it was his back up, Teddy Bridgewater, who stole the headlines.

The addition of Bridgewater in free agency seemed like a questionable move at first for the Jets. They had retained 2017 starter Josh McCown and had already traded up in the draft to put them in prime position to select a top quarterback – which they did by grabbing Darnold. Bridgewater seemed like a surplus. Bridgewater is only two years removed from a devastating leg injury he suffered during 2016 training camp with the Minnesota Vikings but came to New York to help get his career back on track.

Bridgewater looked like a starting caliber quarterback on Thursday night. He didn’t make many mistakes and looked confident under center. He completed 10 of his 15 pass attempts for 127 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. His completion percentage would have been even higher if it weren’t for his receivers dropping catchable passes.

The quarterback showed off his confidence and mobility by making a variety of throws on the run. Whether by design or improvisation he was comfortable leaving the pocket and making smart, accurate throws on the move.

Whether the receiver was able to bring the pass down or not, they were all well placed, some even perfectly placed. These are the passes that really helped him stick out when he was the starting quarterback of the 2015 Vikings team that won the NFC North.

One thing that Bridgewater was criticized for both coming out of Louisville and during his time in Minnesota was his struggles throwing downfield. He sometimes would get too reliant on checking the ball down and had issues hitting deep passes. His weakness looked like a strength against the Redskins, though.

He was willing to test defenses. Bridgewater looked fearless and free but avoided being reckless. Obviously, the preseason environment allows him to be a little more free and willing to take risks.

Bridgewater did take one huge risk that backfired. He threw an interception in the fourth quarter on a pass he should not have even tried.

The quarterback was feeling confident and wanted to continue testing the defense downfield but made a huge mistake. The receiver that he was targeting was well covered by the cornerback assigned to him and a deep safety was coming from the other side to bracket him. There is no realistic way this pass gets completed unless the receiver makes an incredible play on the ball. If he targets the receiver low, then the corner has a chance to break up or intercept the pass. If he places the ball just in front of him, like he did, then the safety is in prime position to make a play. It was a glaring error in what was otherwise a near perfect night.

New York is set to have three starting caliber quarterbacks on its roster this season, making Bridgewater a perfect trade candidate. He still does have a chance to win the starting role for the Jets but it is unlikely that anyone can keep Darnold on the bench for too long. Whatever team Bridgewater ends up with, it is great to see him get back to form after suffering an injury that almost ended his career.

 

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Mansur Shaheen

The Cleveland Browns selection of quarterback Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft surprised some. The 2017 Heisman winner measures just over 6 feet tall and doesn’t have the stature of fellow rookie quarterbacks Sam Darnold or Josh Allen. He doesn’t have the athleticism of Lamar Jackson or the highly touted football IQ of Josh Rosen either. The one thing that the rookie does have that many believed separated him from the pack was his perceived “x-factor.” The Oklahoma product was the most creative and hard to defend player in college football last season.

It did not take long for Mayfield to bring that creativity to the NFL level. The quarterback completed 11 of his 20 pass attempts for 212 yards and 2 touchdowns and overall played a very clean game with little mistakes. 

Cleveland handed the starting quarterback role to veteran Tyrod Taylor in their preseason opener against the New York Giants last week, and Mayfield played with the teams second offensive unit. This meant he was playing with a group of backup offensive linemen who were greatly outmatched by their competition.

Poor offensive line play led to him being under pressure on almost every drop back but the rookie was able to expertly navigate the pocket and effortlessly make plays.

Mayfield showed great pocket awareness and did a great job avoiding pressure while also keeping his eyes downfield. He avoided taking sacks but also wasn’t too overly eager to bail out of the pocket and run when he still had a chance to find an open receiver. His football instincts are off the charts and he very quickly got a feel for the NFL game.

While Mayfield was good at throwing out of a shifting pocket he also did a great job knowing when he had to tuck the ball and run it himself.

On both of those plays, Mayfield knew exactly how many yards he needed to convert the first down. He was put under pressure and kept his eyes downfield when he needed to. When he spotted an opportunity to take off and run he did so, getting just enough for the first down and safely getting out of bounds. His field awareness is amazing and it’s rare that a rookie looks this comfortable in his first game.


Baker Mayfield’s pre-draft scouting report


Mayfield made impressive plays from a clean pocket as well. His ball placement when throwing downfield was great. He knew when to throw back shoulder and he knew when to throw a pass that his receiver had a chance to high point. The Giants backup secondary had a pretty good day in coverage, but Mayfield was still able to pick them apart.

The quarterback wasn’t perfect but he was one of the most impressive rookies of the opening week of NFL preseason. Browns fans will know not to get ahead of themselves, though, as 2017 second round selection DeShone Kizer impressed in his preseason debut last season as well. For now, there is good reason to be excited for Mayfield and he looks as if he has a chance to finally end Cleveland’s desperate search for talent at the sports most valuable position. 

 

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Mansur Shaheen

The NFL’s annual Hall of Fame game is a glitzy, glamorous, event where many of the leagues’ past stars congregate to celebrate the game we all love. For many fans, though, the main attraction this year was someone stepping on to an NFL field for the first time.

When the Baltimore Ravens selected Lamar Jackson with the final pick in the first round of last Springs draft speculation around whether or not he would start this season started immediately. The 2016 Heisman winner was the most exciting player in college football the past two seasons and with Joe Flacco coming off of yet another below average season the table was set for a changing of the guard in the Charm City.

Jackson played the entire second half for the Ravens and left a bit to be desired. He completed 4 of 10 passes for 33 yards and linked up with fellow first round pick Hayden Hurst for a touchdown. Jackson also threw an interception in the third quarter. The quarterback ran the ball 8 times for 25 yards.

The rookie never seemed to settle into the game and had many jitters in his first NFL contest. On his first dropback of the game, he panicked and took off to run before ever really scanning the field to find an open man.

The play was a designed roll out to Jackson’s left. He never really set his feet to pass and looked as if he had decided to run from the start. Chicago did a great job stretching the defense in order to contain Jackson, but he tried his luck to run through them anyways and barely picked up anything on the play.

When Jackson was throwing his accuracy wasn’t quite there yet. He let passes float on him and his ball placement was not the best. His passes also did not seem to have the zip on them needed to beat NFL defenders.

Even the touchdown pass Jackson threw could have been placed better.

This pass should have been placed in front of Hurst instead of behind him. Had he thrown it in front of his tight end Hurst would have had a simple walk into the end zone after making the catch. By throwing it behind him, Jackson forced Hurst to expose his body to contact and make an unneeded adjustment to catch the ball.

His footwork needs a little work as well. Jackson spent a lot of time on his toes dancing around the pocket when he dropped back. The Ravens third string offensive line was awful and the consistent pressure the quarterback was under forced him to be on his heels all night. Even when he did have space and time to set his feet and step into his throws he didn’t, though, and it led to a few awkward releases and wobbly passes.

These are kinks that you’d expect for a first time quarterback, and ones that will probably be worked out of his game over the next month as he practices more and gets more live game action in preseason. He should get a better feel for the offense and playing football at NFL speed. He will also develop better timing with his receivers and they will eventually be on the same page.


Lamar Jackson NFL Draft scouting report


While he had a rough game, the rookie did show flashes of the player he was back in Louisville.

On this play, Jackson went into his drop back and scanned the field. When nothing opened up downfield and the pass rush began to breathe down his neck he took off to run. He deke’d by the first rusher, slipped by another and then got to work in open space. His mix of speed, agility and open field vision is rare for a quarterback at this level and should create many highlight plays for the Ravens this season.

Jackson did struggle to get his feet sorted out when he was on the move Thursday night, but when he managed to properly balance himself he showed the types of great throws he can make on the run as well.

It’s impossible to make any judgments after half of a preseason game played alongside the third team offense against a third team defense. Jackson still has to grow a lot as a player before he will reach the level the Ravens expect to reach as a first round pick. It is clear that Flacco is still the teams best quarterback and will probably be listed as the teams’ starter when they take the field against the Rams next week.

Jackson’s NFL debut may not have been the exciting affair we expected, but it’s way too early to begin worrying about his NFL future.

 

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