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.
More from Bird Breakdowns: