Throughout the offseason, NewYorkJets.com reporters Eric Allen, Ethan Greenberg, Olivia Landis and Randy Lange will each give their predictions to a series of questions regarding this year's Jets.
Today's question: Where does Sam Darnold rank among NFL's top young quarterbacks?
EA: Any talk about the NFL's top young signal-callers or the league's top players for that matter should start with Patrick Mahomes. Already a League MVP and Super Bowl MVP in just two years starting, the 24-year-old Mahomes has the early look of an all-time great. Lamar Jackson, just 23 and taken 29 spots behind Sam Darnold in the 2018 NFL Draft, was an unstoppable force last season on his way to a becoming just the second unanimous MVP in league history. Jackson passed for 3,127 yards and 36 TDs and rushed for 1,206 yards and 7 TDs. He was a cheat code that nobody had an answer for until the playoffs. Texans QB Deshaun Watson, just 24, is a stud who's been a 66.8% passer in 38 career games with 71 TDs and 29 INTs. Let's define young as 25 and under and I think Darnold's time is now jump ahead of many of his contemporaries. He is more accurate than Josh Allen (Buffalo) and protected the football better than Baker Mayfield (Cleveland) in Year 2. Darnold will turn 23 on June 5 and has the physical skill set plus the mental makeup to take a leap in Year 3. He is going to be a very good player in this league for a long time.
EG: Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson are on the short list of top young quarterbacks and rightfully so. However, I think it's fair to say all of the aforementioned entered the NFL with better supporting casts than Darnold. I'm not saying Darnold, who will turn 23 in June, is more talented than the other signal-callers, but I think you need to take into account who he lined up with compared to the other QBs and the rotating offensive line he's played with. His 2019 down time is well documented between mono and injuries, but it does play a part in Darnold's story and has to be taken into account. He's shown flashes throughout his two-year career that he has the traits to be a very good player in the NFL and I think we'll see Darnold take a jump in 2020 that perhaps pundits thought he would make last season. He's entering the second season in Adam Gase's system, the offensive line received reinforcements and GM Joe Douglas drafted a talented wideout in Denzel Mims and signed speedy WR Breshad Perriman. Darnold has two years of experience under his belt and is younger than No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow and, for now, is the same age as Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert. The best is yet to come for the Jets' franchise QB and I think he'll take a big step forward in Year 3.
RL: I would love to put Sam Darnold at the top of the class of young NFL quarterbacks, but that's not appropriate at the moment. Ahead of Patrick Mahomes (Super Bowl winner in his 2nd year as KC's starter)? Lamar Jackson (13 wins and a PO berth in his second year with BAL)? Even Deshaun Watson (24-13 as HOU's third-year starter, with a road win over Darnold in '18)? Conversely, I'm not going to slam Sammy like some (you know who you are) because his starting record is 11-15 and he's turned the ball over once a game (28 INTs, 5 FUMs in 33 starts). Other key metrics to me are O-line related: Two of Darnold's few measurables that have slipped from Year 1 to 2 are sack rate and QB hit rate. Related: Le'Veon Bell was hit at or behind the line on 40% of his rushes (97 of 242) and his 1.03 yards at first contact is the lowest of any 100-carry Jets RB in the past dozen seasons. The line needed to be addressed and this offseason it has been. Now it's up to the hugely talented Darnold, the legendary Bell and the Jets offense to rise up the rankings and start to realize their collective potential. The rankings will take care of themselves.
OL: Sam Darnold has had an untraditional start and circumstances in his first two years as a professional compared to many of the other talented young quarterbacks in the league. Entering the NFL at just 20 years old — one of the youngest QBs to ever become a starter — Darnold had much less experience than his peers with only one full year as the starter at USC in 2017. Darnold also missed three games in both 2018 (ankle/foot) and 2019 (mono). There's no question that the young signal-caller has the talent that can compare to the top youthful QBs in the league. However, I don't believe his conditions and surrounding cast have provided an equal opportunity for Darnold to prove himself. With two different offensive coordinators in his first two years in the league, he has had to adjust each offseason. Darnold has proved in the latter half of his two professional seasons that after gaining a grip on the offense and becoming more comfortable with himself, his performance has seen a boost. In the second half of 2019, he threw 14 TDs and 5 INTs compared to his first-half contests, in which he threw 5 TDs to 8 INTs. I think with a renovated offensive line, new weapons and a second consecutive year in the same scheme, Darnold will emerge as a top talent in the NFL in year three.