The Good and the Bad From Sam Darnold’s Rookie Season

The Jets should be excited about what they have at quarterback in Sam Darnold. His talent was on display during his rookie season despite having a suspect offensive line and receivers who couldn’t separate consistently. Overall, though, he needs more maturity to his game. He needs to be more decisive and proactive in attacking defenses. At times during his rookie season, he seemed too reactive, fleeing the pocket at the first sign of pressure. He didn’t regularly move or manipulate defenders. He didn’t always plant his back foot at the top of his drop and deliver the ball downfield where there were potential big plays. The good news is that much of this needed maturity should come with experience.

When Darnold was able to calmly navigate the defense from the pocket, the thing that impressed us most about his play was his feet. They moved with his eyes as he worked through his progressions, meaning he was in position to deliver accurate throws at a moment’s notice. This is an area that was a concern coming out of college, and he clearly improved during his rookie season.

Take this play below against the Jaguars. Watch how his feet quickly moved with his eyes. His feet stayed under him, and this enabled him to quickly deliver an accurate ball the second he recognized his receiver was open in front of him.

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On this next play, watch Darnold initially look right and then quickly move back to the left. Notice his feet were always under him, making him ready to throw in the direction he was looking.

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That throw was deadly accurate against very good coverage. This was only possible because his body was in great position to throw due to his feet.

The other aspects of Darnold’s game that stood out were his athleticism and ability to throw accurately on the run. He looked just as comfortable throwing while moving to the left as he did to the right. The below touchdown pass on what was probably Darnold’s signature play provides a great example of this.

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His ability means the Jets can and should have boots, sprint outs, and moving pockets as added features in their offense. It also means that when a play isn’t there or it breaks down, Darnold can still generate positive yards. This is a critical trait for a quarterback to have.

At his worst, Sam Darnold did not react well to pass-rush pressure around him. Yes, the Jets’ offensive line was not very reliable and certainly needs to be an area of emphasis this offseason. Still, Darnold could have done a better job of responding to it.

On the below play against Cleveland, keep your eye on the #3 inside receiver to Darnold’s left. This was 1st-and-10, and his receiver settled into the zone vacated by the middle linebacker, who was climbing to take away the deep middle. This was as open and as clear of a read as it gets. On 1st-and-10, you take this every single time. But watch what happened.

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The pocket in front of Darnold was being pushed just enough. It wasn’t intense pressure, and it shouldn’t have prevented Darnold from making this throw. But he allowed it to. He pumped, broke down in the pocket, and made a late ill-advised throw over the middle for a bad interception. That level of pressure can’t prevent you from completing easy passes like that.

On this next play against the Jaguars, Darnold missed a touchdown because he was over-reactive to pressure that wasn’t there. Keep your eye on the #2 inside receiver to Darnold’s right. He ran a seam route against cover-3. Darnold should have planted his foot at the top of his drop and fired the ball to his wide-open receiver for an easy touchdown. He was even looking to the right the entire way.

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Instead, as you can see above, Darnold reacted to pressure that really wasn’t there. He moved and then tried to throw late. He was lucky this ball was not intercepted.

On both of the plays shown above, Darnold had open receivers right in front of him. He didn’t calmly sit in the pocket, read the coverage (which was crystal clear on both plays), and deliver the ball on time. He was over-reactive instead. His feet broke down and he looked frenetic in the pocket. This was something we saw too often in 2018, and it contributed to abandoned plays and missed opportunities like the ones above.

The pressure Darnold faced also led to him pre-determining his throws at times. This often happens to quarterbacks who face a lot of pressure. They don’t anticipate that they’ll have time to work through their progressions, so they lock onto receivers based on what they see pre-snap and hope they guess right. There were plenty of open receivers, both downfield and on short drive-sustaining throws, that Darnold missed in 2018. He would have seen them had he been calmly working through his progressions.

New York’s passing attack did not consistently feature a lot of great downfield and intermediate route concepts that forced defenders into conflict. But when there were potential plays there, Darnold wasn’t always prepared to take them.

Take this 3rd-and-10 against the Packers. The Jets had a smash concept called to the right side. The Packers were playing cover-2. The receiver running a corner route, Robby Anderson, had leverage to the outside on the deep safety over him. He was wide open. Yet Darnold didn’t pull the trigger. Instead he forced a ball to a covered receiver in the flat.

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Darnold had time and a clean pocket on this play. Either he just did not read the coverage, pre-determined his throw, or was not ready to drive the ball downfield. The only defender who could have taken that corner route away was the cornerback in the flat. He likely would not have been a factor. But if Darnold was worried about him, he could have shoulder rolled to the flat to hold the defender before throwing downfield.

This brings us to another area of Darnold’s game that needs improvement – moving and manipulating defenders. We did not see Darnold do this enough in 2018. He didn’t seem to be proactive in attacking defenders. He was more reactive – seemingly waiting for whatever the defense was going to do to him next. Granted, it can be difficult for rookie quarterbacks to have the presence of mind to move defenders consistently given everything thrown at them in their first year (We did see Baker Mayfield do this frequently throughout his rookie season, though). Still, heading into year two, Darnold needs to be more proactive and decisive in attacking defenses.

Overall, the good stuff is there with Darnold. Between the athleticism, quick feet, quick release, and ability to make things happen when the play breaks down, he brings to mind comparisons to Tony Romo (minus the pump fakes, shoulder rolls, and moving of defenders). Hopefully for New York, Darnold will have an improved offensive line and more play-makers around him to go with a new system in year two. If he gets the right support, Darnold is a quarterback capable of turning the Jets around in a hurry.

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