I’ve been quite bullish on Sam Darnold since the start of his Jets career. He passes the eye test. The young quarterback just has something about him that makes you think he’s different. At this point in his career, that’s about all we have – a feeling. Sure, Darnold has made some incredible throws. He has improvised and made some ridiculous plays. And he has finished up each of his first two seasons rather strong. But for almost every “wow” play he’s made, he’s probably had an equally boneheaded play to cancel it out.
However, when you realize that he has been paired with two average-at-best head coaches in his first two years, and pair them with sub-par offensive staffs, an underwhelming number of difference makers on offense, and one of the worst offensive lines in football – what else can we expect? An argument can be made that Darnold has overachieved in his first two years considering what he has had to deal with.
However, we find ourselves in a pivotal moment. Darnold, with a wide range of criticism and praise as he enters his critical third year, needs to make an unquestioned jump this season. While the rumor mill swirls around One Jets Drive with Trevor Lawrence talk, tanking, and the Jets punting on 2020 because they cut Brian Winters, the one and only thing that can make the Jets rise above it all is Sam Darnold taking THE leap this season. Allow me to take a look at the most important factors in Darnold’s impending success this season.
1. The return of Chris Herndon. After a promising rookie season (especially the finish), Herndon had great expectations for 2019 derailed by a 4-game suspension and season ending injury in 2019. He and Darnold had a clear bond in their rookie campaigns, and the 6’4”, 250 pound tight end became a favorite target of Darnold’s, especially on his improvisational plays. Herndon returning to the lineup and pairing with Ryan Griffin (a surprise positive from 2019) will be a huge boost to Darnold’s game. If healthy, I would expect Herndon to be 2nd or 3rd on the team in targets and look to fill a void left by the Jets lack of a true #1 receiver.
2. Adam Gase. Give credit to Gase for getting the team to finish in the fashion it did in 2019, but also realize that during the final 5 game stretch they scored a measly 6 offensive touchdowns. In Gase’s first year with Darnold, he failed to take advantage of his strengths, and often felt like he was trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. It’s more than simply rolling Darnold out more often, it’s what plays Gase is selecting and when. Gase needs to get away from putting the team in 3rd and 8 or more. He needs to stop running up the middle on 2nd and long. Play to your strengths, and put your young QB in manageable down and distance and allow him to do what he does best.
3. The offensive line. The Jets will have 5 new starters on the offensive line in 2020, and that begs the question: Does different necessarily mean better? The answer better be yes if they want to have any success this season. The addition of Becton on the left side and McGovern at center are instant upgrades, and if Alex Lewis can stay healthy he should be a solid guard. Questions remain on the right side with Van Roten and Fant yet, it would be difficult to take a step back. So this unit gelling together in a quick amount of time with no real offseason is a tall task, but if it happens it would mean the world for Sam Darnold, who was constantly under pressure in 2019. Keeping Darnold clean, while also improving upon the league low 3.3 ypc for Le’Veon Bell and the running game, will prove paramount to Darnold making the leap in 2020.
4. Denzel Mims and Breshad Perriman. The Jets will be reliant on Denzel Mims to come in and produce as a rookie, as he is slated to start on the outside. And Perriman comes in off a late season heater in Tampa Bay, hoping to pick up where he left off and fill the void left by Robby Anderson. If Mims can learn fast and use his big frame the be a power forward in the red zone for Darnold, and Perriman can simply resemble more the player he was in Tampa and not in the first 4 seasons of his career, the Jets should consider themselves lucky. If either of those hit, it would mean a great deal to Darnold and his chance at success in 2020. If both hit, watch out!
Right on brand, the Jets roll into another season opener with big question marks at integral parts of their roster. There is a lot of pressure on Darnold to succeed this year, and he has a chance to elevate his play and the play of everyone around him. But it sure would make his job a lot easier if they came up aces on all four of the above…
Again, it’s 2020, crazier things have happened.