Should the Jets Move on from Sam Darnold?

Right around the time that the Jets beat the Rams in Week 15 and it became clear that they would likely not land Trevor Lawrence, the question immediately turned to whether or not they should give Sam Darnold another chance.

After all, he’s still young (He’ll be 24 at the start of next season). He was in arguably the worst situation in the NFL with no offensive line, no weapons, and an offensive system that left a lot to be desired. There’s not much any quarterback can do when he has no time to throw and no one to throw it to. Let’s also not forget that there was a reason he was drafted 3rd overall in 2018:

Entering this offseason, there was no clear number-2 quarterback in the Draft after Trevor Lawrence. It was legitimate to ask if the Jets should forego drafting a QB just to draft one when they already have a young, former top pick with 38 NFL starts under his belt.

Despite his struggles thus far, Darnold has a skillset that would fit in nicely in the style of offense we anticipate the Jets implementing. New Offensive Coordinator Mike LaFleur comes from Kyle Shanahan’s system. He is the brother of Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur. I have to believe the Jets Offense will strive to be something similar to what we’ve seen recently in San Francisco and Green Bay. That is, an emphasis on the running game, play action, and schemed throws that could help calm down Darnold’s game.

On top of that, the Jets are likely dealing with a project at quarterback regardless of whether they stick with Darnold or go with a rookie. They’ll either have to endure the process of helping Darnold get back to what he could have been if not for a terrible situation in 2019-20. Or, they’ll have an unproven rookie QB trying to learn the NFL game. In addition, the AFC East is suddenly a competitive division with the Bills, Patriots, and Dolphins all likely being legitimate playoff contenders. Even with an improved roster and coaching staff, the realistic expectation for the Jets is a last-place finish.

That means the Jets should be planning for the 2022 season and beyond when it comes to the quarterback position. Do they think they can get Darnold back to what he could have been by then? Does it make sense to use that #2 pick to plug one of the many holes the Jets have up and down their roster? Does addressing another position or trading down to address multiple positions put New York in better position to compete in 2022 with Darnold at the helm than if they used that pick on a rookie quarterback?

These are all legitimate questions that the Jets should be asking. In my opinion, though, the answer is clear. It’s time for the Jets to move on.

This is not just because Zach Wilson has emerged as a clear and worthy #2 quarterback behind Trevor Lawrence, although that is a big reason. Plays like the one shown above have been few and far between. During the last two seasons, we’ve seen Darnold regress substantially. He looks more like a rookie than he did at the end of his actual rookie season. Frankly, he looks broken.

Several red flags to Darnold’s game were exacerbated in 2020. He was slow to recognize coverage and move from one receiver to the next. This led to lots of forced passes to well-covered receivers. His decision-making was atrocious at times as he struggled to identify when to take a chance and when to live to play another down. Most concerning, however, was his frenetic play in the face of pressure. Darnold has consistently been overreactive to pressure, especially during the last two seasons. This has led to potential big plays being left on the field. It also, of course, has led to too many negative plays.

Below is a perfect illustration of these issues. This was a 3rd-and-8 against the Dolphins. Darnold looked right initially. When his first read wasn’t open, he took off despite having a clean pocket. Had he stayed calm and worked through his reads to his other receivers, he would have seen a wide-open crossing route right in front of him.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

From the end zone angle, you can see that Darnold left the pocket almost immediately despite minimal pressure. Darnold never set his feet at the top of his drop, which makes it clear he was anticipating pressure. Then he made a terrible and costly decision.

There has always been a bit of a frenetic element to Darnold’s game. The disconcerting thing is that at the end of his rookie season, his game seemed to calm down a bit. He looked like an improving young quarterback. However, by the end of 2020, Darnold often looked downright frantic in the pocket. That’s not something that will be easy to overcome.

The below interception against the Bills was a microcosm of another concerning aspect to Darnold’s game. He doesn’t see the field well. On this play, Buffalo spun out from a single-high look into cover-2 at the snap. This was a disguise, but a pretty common one. Darnold didn’t seem to account for it, though.

I have a hard time believing Darnold didn’t see the safety rotation here. In fact, he was making this throw to his receiver based on his leverage against the deep safety to that side. So he should have known that a cover-2 cornerback would be lurking somewhere close by. But he stared down his target and didn’t account for other defenders dropping into the area. Tunnel vision.

This type of mistake wasn’t an anomaly last season. Darnold threw multiple interceptions where he didn’t account for defenders ahead of the throw, which suggests there is a real vision issue there.

Again, I can’t emphasize enough that Darnold’s development has been significantly hindered by the lack of protection and playmakers around him. Do we know for sure that Darnold can’t consistently move through his reads or progressions? It’s difficult to tell exactly how capable he is considering he often had his offensive linemen sitting in his lap by the time he planted his back foot. There’s no time to get to your second or third receiver when you’re under immediate duress.

To that point, none of Darnold’s struggles mean he won’t ever be able to recover. There are plenty of so-called “busts” in the history of the NFL with great comeback stories. Jim Plunkett is probably the best example. Ryan Tannehill is the most recent. Even Josh Allen, from the same draft class as Darnold, was able to transform his game by substantially improving his ball placement, which is normally a trait that is extremely difficult to improve drastically.

Wherever he does try to rejuvenate his career, a fresh start somewhere else appears to be the best move for both Darnold and the Jets.

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