Sam Darnold Still Fighting An Uphill Battle

Photo: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When Sam Darnold was drafted by the Jets in 2018, he was buried behind Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater on the depth chart, and appropriately so. 

New York was not necessarily ready to survive the growing pains of a starting rookie quarterback. At wide receiver were Quincy Enunwa, Jermaine Kearse, Robby Anderson and Terrelle Pryor; at tight end Jordan Leggett and Chris Herndon. The running back room featured Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell while the offensive line was strung together with Brandon Shell, Kelvin Beachum, James Carpenter and Brian Winters.

It wasn't great.

Darnold won the starting job in training camp after a slight holdout over the terms on his rookie deal, shining over the veteran McCown while Bridgewater was traded to the Saints. Darnold's rookie season was flashy but not necessarily good. He continued to show the quality off-platform throws and instinctive, easy release that made him a prolific passer at USC but remained mechanically inconsistent, which affected his ball placement and stunted drives. The hope was that, while Darnold wasn't perfect, the Jets had gotten through a lot of the inevitable growing pains of starting a green player; he'd be ready for growth and consistency in Year 2.

After the 2018 season New York moved on from coach Todd Bowles, who had failed to invigorate the defensive unit for which he was responsible, and offensive coordinator, Jeremy Bates, for a more offensive-minded head coach. That was Adam Gase, who had just been fired from the same job with the divisional rival Dolphins.

Gase stepped into the job with a lame-duck front office led by general manager Mike Maccagnan, who was fired shortly after making the selections in the 2019 draft. That draft failed to acquire significant help for Darnold. The Jets' first offensive pick came at No. 92, which did become Darnold's eventual right tackle in Chuma Edoga. But the only other offensive pick was a fourth-round tight end, fullback hybrid Trevon Wesco, who took TE3 snaps and didn't make a mark in the passing game. Jamison Crowder and Demaryius Thomas were acquired to strengthen the receiving corps, but injuries to Thomas and Enunwa obliterated the depth, forcing Vyncint Smith onto the field as WR3. Kelechi Osemele hoped to add a physical presence at guard and boost the running game, along with big-ticket free-agent running back Le'veon Bell; Bell was ineffective while Osemele was cut midseason as he and the Jets had a standoff regarding whether or not he needed shoulder surgery, which he eventually got.

And amidst all this is Year 2 Darnold, who looked worryingly like Year 1 Darnold, if only a little smoother around the edges. Darnold missed an early four-game stretch with mononucleosis but played the breadth of the season as a flashy, but inconsistent starter who couldn't seem to string together more than a couple of games of above-average play. Darnold remained predominately a shallow passer who lost placement the further away from the line of scrimmage he threw the ball, generally risk-prone and erratic with his footwork in the pocket.

The groundwork around Darnold wasn't ripe for him to grow and, as such, he didn't. This isn't necessarily bad news in a vacuum, but in the NFL, if teams aren't gaining ground, they’re losing it. 

When Darnold was drafted in 2018 to a team unprepared to put a winning roster around a cheap, young quarterback, the saving grace was the idea that Darnold was younger than the average rookie — 21 years old in his first season — and could be afforded a longer runway for development.

But even the most generous of outlooks envisioned Darnold and the Jets being ready to make noise by Year 3. Even for his youth, Darnold signed the same contract that all other first-round players do, and the Jets only have two years remaining of cheap Darnold and a potential third year of slightly-cheap Darnold, depending on which bucket Darnold falls into in the fifth-year option calculations set out by the new collective bargaining agreement. Darnold is only 23 coming into this season, younger than 2020 first-overall pick Joe Burrow, but that competitive edge is quickly wearing away, as Darnold's not gonna be cheap for much longer; every passing attempt is cementing habits that are difficult to unteach.

Is Darnold ready for a Year 3 step forward into starter-quality play? Maybe. But in the dance between Darnold and his environment, Darnold has always been a step ahead of his supporting cast and coaches. That again looks to be true in Year 3.

The Jets made early picks on offense this year under new general manager Joe Douglas, snagging offensive tackle Mekhi Becton at No. 11 and stealing Baylor wide receiver Denzel Mims at No. 59. They added Breshad Perriman in free agency and completely reimagined the offensive line for the second consecutive season, bringing in George Fant, Connor McGovern, Greg Van Roten and Josh Andrews. The team is better. But there's no Osemele in that group of offensive linemen — none project as high-caliber starters — and Perriman is a lower-level replacement for Anderson, who left in free agency to join the Panthers; Enunwa is back on the PUP list as his career is in jeopardy.

New York has a shot to be better on the offensive line and in the receiver room than it was last year, but neither is a given. The one spot where the Jets definitely got better is at running back, where they added Lamical Perine via the draft and Frank Gore in free agency. With these resources poured into the running back room, and the particular additions made of Fant and Van Roten on the offensive line, it seems that the Jets have made running the football a priority in this offseason. Is that a vote of no confidence in Darnold? Not at all. But even if it cuts down on Darnold's attempts, it's worth wondering if a high-volume running game will make the offense better as a whole.

Across the two most important position groups for Darnold — the offensive line and receiving room — there are high degrees of turnover and uncertainty among the starting groups. This isn't ideal for any team, but especially for a quarterback who is still developing and especially in an offseason that likely won't have a camp to suss out these battles and begin building chemistry. In each offseason with the Jets, Darnold has endured new receivers, a new offensive line, and the natural bumpy roads that come with those unfamiliar units.

At least this year Darnold has familiarity in the offense, as Gase remains his shot-caller, but how much of an advantage is that? Gase's offenses have been plainly bad when Peyton Manning hasn't been his passer, and familiarity with a bad offense can't be construed as a good thing, no matter how hard we hunt for a silver lining.

It's tough to circle the point in Darnold's young career during which the circumstances were ideal for quarterback growth. I'm not sure things have ever been stable around the young and inherently up-and-down passer, and I'm not sure things look any better for Week 1 of 2020. 

Ideally for the Jets, everything is good around Darnold by the midway point of the season. They hit on the Becton and Mims pick, Perriman is equivalent to Anderson, Van Roten and McGovern hit at the guard spots, Edoga continues his quality play from last season and everyone begins to gel on the field. They hope Darnold, still with a young supporting cast and a questionable coach, will finally show signs of consistent, high-caliber play.

The road is once again steep and narrow for Darnold and the Jets. They're pointed the right way; Douglas did a lot of good stuff in his first year manning the offseason for New York. But what we didn't know about Darnold after Year 1 and 2, we're likely to still be wondering about after Year 3.

The Jets are behind schedule with their franchise quarterback, and if things don't start to come into clarity soon, they're facing an extremely tricky contract decision in the years to come.