New York Jets: Assessing Sam Darnold and the 2018 QB NFL Draft Class

By Chris Stephano
NY Jets (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
NY Jets (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images) /
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New York Jets, Sam Darnold (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
New York Jets, Sam Darnold (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /

In the 2018 NFL Draft, the New York Jets selected quarterback Sam Darnold. 2 years later, it is worth asking if they made the correct choice. 

The 2018 NFL Draft was one of the most quarterback-rich drafts in NFL history. A whopping five quarterbacks were selected in the first round, the most taken in a draft since 1999.

Of course, the 2018 draft holds special significance for New York Jets fans. The green and white gambled their future and traded up to the third overall pick and selected USC quarterback Sam Darnold.

The Jets generally have a star-crossed history when it comes to selecting quarterbacks (i.e. Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, etc.), but with each new draft comes the desperate hope that maybe this time is different. Maybe this time, the team will finally find a franchise quarterback.

Of course, quarterback performance isn’t judged solely in a vacuum.

Take the 1983 NFL Draft for instance. The Jets’ first-round selection, Ken O’Brien, was by all accounts a good quarterback. However, half of the quarterbacks (3-of-6) selected in the first round of that draft went on to become Hall of Famers (John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino). Whether it’s fair or not, the Jets are remembered for failing to land any of those guys.

While many questions remain about the 2018 first-round quarterbacks, it is worth assessing how each of the 2018 first-round quarterbacks- Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, and Darnold- have performed so far.

Which quarterbacks are becoming stars, and which ones are at risk of being busts? Most importantly, did the Jets make the right choice when they picked Darnold?

Next: "Superstar" QBs

The Superstar

Lamar Jackson (taken 32nd overall by the Baltimore Ravens)

54 touchdowns (42 passing/12 rushing)/ 9 interceptions/ 63.7 completion %

Strengths: Everything                                                                     

Concerns: Keep it up

In hindsight, it is difficult to understand how so many teams passed on Lamar Jackson.

The Louisville quarterback was taken by the Baltimore Ravens with the last pick of the first round of the 2018 draft. In spite of being overlooked, he has quickly established himself as the consensus best quarterback of his draft class.

During Jackson’s rookie season, he was forced to share playing time with Joe Flacco. He posted modest numbers (11 total touchdowns/ 3 interceptions over 7 starts) but showed enough talent that the Ravens decided to move on from Flacco. They have not regretted that decision for even a moment.

In his first full season as a starter (2019), Jackson has put together MVP caliber numbers. He threw 42 touchdown passes against only nine interceptions. He also established himself as a prolific runner, rushing for 1,206 yards and seven touchdowns. Astoundingly, only five NFL running backs posted more rushing yards than Jackson in 2019.

Although he is young and would presumably still have room to grow, it is difficult to find any weaknesses in Jackson’s game. The Ravens’ signal-caller makes dynamic plays, throws with accuracy and limits turnovers. The only question is if he can continue to play at this level over a long career.

Jackson has already developed into a superstar. At this point, the Ravens simply want to see many more seasons of what he has to offer.

Next: "Question mark" QBs

The Question Marks

Baker Mayfield (taken 1st overall by the Cleveland Browns)

52 touchdowns (49 passing/3 rushing)/ 35 interceptions/ 61.5 completion %

Strengths: Promising rookie season

Concerns: Volatility 

Although he came with some concerns out of college (i.e. height, legal troubles), the Cleveland Browns took a chance and selected the University of Oklahoma quarterback, Baker Mayfield, first overall in the 2018 draft.

Say this for Mayfield, things are never boring when he’s around. The young quarterback had a great rookie season (27 passing touchdowns/ 14 interceptions/ 63.8 completion %). Between his successful rookie campaign and the Browns’ trade for star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Cleveland fans were hopeful that their team could finally end the NFL’s longest playoff drought.

Unfortunately for them, 2019 was once again not the Browns’ year. Mayfield heavily regressed during his second year (22 passing touchdowns/ 21 interceptions/ 59.4 completion %), and the Browns limped to a mediocre 6-10 record.

Mayfield’s volatility has extended beyond his inconsistent play on the field.  He has also been involved in a conflict with his Browns teammates and came under fire for his perceived criticism of New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones.

In many ways, it feels like Mayfield has yet to fully realize his potential as a teammate, leader, and quarterback.

All that said, Mayfield has shown some promise. The Browns are hopeful that having a new head coach and another year of NFL experience under his belt will help Mayfield to take a big step forward in 2020 and beyond.

Next: Sam Darnold evaluation

Sam Darnold (taken 3rd overall by the New York Jets)

39 touchdowns (36 passing/3 rushing)/ 28 interceptions/ 59.9 completion %

Strengths: On the rise

Concerns: Consistency

The 2017 Jets desperately needed a quarterback. The franchise was coming off of consecutive 5-11 seasons and had elderly journeyman Josh McCown as their only quarterback option.

Hoping to overcome decades of bad luck and poor drafting with quarterbacks, the Jets decided to trade up and select USC quarterback Sam Darnold with the 3rd overall pick in the 2018 draft. The fan base collectively held its breath, wondering if Darnold would be yet another Jets quarterback bust or a long-awaited franchise savior.

At this point, the verdict is still out on Darnold.

While his numbers haven’t been awe-inspiring, Darnold has been a pretty good quarterback by Jets’ standards. The young signal-caller has managed to throw for more touchdowns than interceptions in each of his first two seasons.

However, the question remains if Darnold will continue to be a decent quarterback or if he will ever become the superstar the Jets envisioned when they drafted him.

Thus far, he has struggled with consistency. In 2019, Darnold had 3 games where he posted a quarterback rating (QBR) of 110+ but also 4 games where he had a QBR below 80. In order to win on a regular basis, the Jets will need more consistency from him.

On the bright side for Jets fans, Darnold has shown continued improvement in the midst of great adversity. Despite having a new head coach, having a poor offensive line, and missing multiple games due to an illness, Darnold threw more touchdown passes, fewer interceptions, and had a higher completion percentage in 2019 than he did in 2018. His stock is trending upward.

Next: Josh Allen evaluation

Josh Allen (taken 7th overall by the Buffalo Bills)

47 touchdowns (30 passing/17 rushing)/ 21 interceptions/ 56.3 completion %

Strengths: Dynamic skillset

Concerns: Passing accuracy

Like the Jets, the Buffalo Bills hoped to use the 2018 draft to end a long span of futility at the quarterback position.

Following Hall of Famer Jim Kelly’s retirement in 1996, the Bills have trotted out an endless stream of mediocre quarterbacks. From 1997-2017, the franchise had 12 different players lead the team in passing for a season.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. After Mayfield and Darnold went to the Browns and Jets respectively, the Bills decided to take a chance on Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen.

Apart from Jackson, Allen has the most dynamic skills of any quarterback in his draft class. The Bills quarterback is a prolific rusher (17 career rushing touchdowns, 1,141 career rushing yards), and has a cannon for an arm.

In just his second year, Allen helped guide the Bills to a winning record (10-6) and a playoff appearance. It marked just the second time the Bills have made the playoffs in the past 20 years.

While Allen has clearly brought hope to western New York, his playstyle raises some red flags. Despite his many physical tools, Allen’s passing accuracy has been atrocious. He barely completed 56% of his passes in college, and his NFL numbers haven’t been much better. His 58.8 completion percentage in 2019 ranked dead last among starting quarterbacks.

Unless he finds a way to complete passes at a higher rate, his initial NFL success may be short-lived.

Next: "Bust" QBs

The Bust

Josh Rosen (taken 10th overall by the Arizona Cardinals)

12 touchdowns (all passing)/ 19 interceptions/ 54.8 completion %

Strengths: Ummm, he was drafted high?

Concerns: Staying in the league

It is inevitable that every NFL draft will result in more than its fair share of quarterback disappointments. For every Peyton Manning, there are plenty of Ryan Leaf’s. Such is the gamble that comes with scouting quarterbacks.

Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they lost big time when they selected Josh Rosen with the 10th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

The former UCLA quarterback is the only 2018 first-round quarterback who is no longer on the team that drafted him. After posting a poor rookie season (11 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions, 55.2 completion %) with the Cardinals in 2018, he was traded to the Dolphins.

Rosen’s stint with Miami has done little to revive his career. The Dolphins went 0-3 in games that he started in 2019, forcing the team to rely heavily on veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Considering the Dolphins have three picks in the first round of the upcoming draft, they will almost certainly be looking for a new quarterback. Whether Rosen stays in Miami or ends up being traded, he will likely be riding the bench for the entirety of next season. His chances for a comeback and redemption are growing thin.

The NFL won’t give up on a player drafted as highly as Rosen yet. However, if he continues to post horrific numbers (1 touchdown pass/ 5 interceptions/ 53.2 completion % in 2019), his career could end sooner rather than later.

Next: Final verdict on QBs

Final Verdict

With what is known two years later, did the Jets make the right call when they drafted Darnold?

On one hand, the Jets (and 30 other teams) made a mistake by not drafting Jackson. As it stands now, he is head and shoulders above the rest of his draft class and looks like a perennial Pro Bowler.

On the bright side, the Jets managed to avoid taking Rosen in the draft. Thankfully they did not listen to the opinion of this writer on that one.

The other 2018 first-round quarterbacks- Darnold, Mayfield, and Allen- have all shown enough potential that their respective teams can enter 2020 with optimism. They also all carry with them question marks.

Mayfield had a fantastic rookie season, but then dramatically regressed in his second year. Only time will tell which version of Mayfield is the real one.

Darnold’s career trajectory has moved in the opposite direction. He showed mild improvement in his second season but will have to continue to develop and cut down on turnovers if he wants to become the Jets’ franchise quarterback.

Allen has all the physical tools of a starting quarterback, but he lacks precision and polish. He may have a long and successful NFL career, but only if he is able to significantly improve his passing accuracy.

Next. New York Jets: Top 10 2020 NFL free agents Gang Green should chase

No NFL general manager or coach can predict the future, let alone any fan. So until it is known for certain one way or another, Jets fans should lean into the hope that Darnold might finally be the quarterback to lead them back to the Super Bowl.

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