A Case for Sam Darnold
After a roller-coaster rookie season from Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, the franchise decided to clean house. Former head coach Todd Bowles was fired and General manager Mike Mccagnan was fired following the draft. To replace the two, the Jets hired Adam Gase to be their head coach, and Joe Douglas to be their general manager. Through a combination of moves from Mccagnan and Douglas, Sam Darnold has the tools to be significantly better in 2019. Improved skill position players and a promising end to the 2018 season gives reason to believe Sam Darnold could be worth owning in 2019 leagues.
Addition of New Players
With Robby Anderson and Chris Herndon being the only legitimate targets Darnold had in his rookie season, the Jets were forced to add some skill position players. They did just that by signing All-pro running back Le’Veon Bell and slot receiver Jamison Crowder. The team also traded for All-Pro guard Kelechi Osemele and convinced center Ryan Kalil to come out of retirement. This is vital for Darnold considering his offensive line was ranked 25th in 2018, per PFF.
The graph above shows Sam Darnold’s completion percentage heatmap over different sections of the field. the second chart shows the 2018 league averages. As you can see, Darnold is below league average in six of the nine percentages (LOS, 1-5, and 6-10).
This is the heatmap of former Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins during his 2016 season. Cousins had Jamison Crowder as his feature slot receiver in 2016. Cousins combined to have a 234.84 completion percentage when throwing 1-5 yards and 208.48 combined percentage when throwing 6-10 yards. Darnold finished with 213.78 when throwing 1-5 yards (21.06 percent worse than Cousins) and 163.74 when throwing 6-10 yards (44.74 percent worse). These numbers came from Darnold last year when he had no real slot receiver. Cousins produced these numbers with Jamison Crowder, who finished with 67 receptions, 847 yards, and seven touchdowns in 2016. The addition of Crowder is vital for Darnold as it will give him a reliable slot receiver who he can consistently target. Having this option will not only improve his confidence but open up other sections of the field.
Le’Veon Bell entered the league in 2013 and Ben Roethlisberger was always his quarterback. When we evaluate quarterbacks, wide receivers are often a large factor in determining success but Bell’s talent and past success will help Darnold significantly in 2019. The chart above shows where quarterbacks under Steelers coach Mike Tomlin (Ben Roethlisberger) have finished since 2007. In his six years, Bell has played 13 games or more three times. In those three years, Roethlisberger has an average finish of QB9. The three years Bell hasn’t played 13 games or more, Roethlisberger has an average finish of QB14. Roethlisberger and Tomlin were together six years before Bell was drafted. In those six years, Roethlisberger’s average finish was QB12. The numbers show Roethlisberger produced better overall numbers with Bell in the lineup, which is a huge positive for Darnold.
Bell’s ability to make something out of nothing, find the endzone (42 career touchdowns) and catch the ball well (312 career receptions/2,660 receiving yards) could certainly elevate Darnold’s play in 2019.
End of 2018
Darnold entered the 2018 season as the youngest starting quarterback in the league, and it showed. After defeating the Detroit Lions Week 1, Darnold went on to lose six of his next eight games. He threw 13 interceptions and nine touchdowns in that time frame. He then went down with a foot injury that sidelined him for three weeks. That injury may have been a blessing in disguise as Darnold was much improved in the final four games of 2018.
Although Darnold was below the league average in two of those final four weeks, his turnover rate dropped significantly. Through his first nine games, Darnold had 11 touchdowns and 15 turnovers. After returning from injury, he threw six touchdowns and only turned the ball over two times in four games. He also set career highs in fantasy points, passing yards, and passer rating in these four games. Darnold was also the highest-graded quarterback in the NFL during this four-game stretch, per PFF.
2019 Preseason/League Praise
Evaluating a player’s performance during the preseason isn’t the best way to judge how a player will perform in 2019. However, it’s tough to ignore how well Darnold and the first-team offense (minus Le’Veon Bell) did in limited action.
They scored on three of seven drives and Darnold threw two touchdowns and had zero turnovers. He also completed 68 percent of his passes and had an average QB-rating of 120.6.
As I talked about in my “Who Should be WR1” article, Davante Adams has received praise from players all over the NFL. Sam Darnold also falls under this category. Former Cowboys and Pro-Bowl quarterback Tony Romo halfway through the 2018 season said, “I still think his ceiling is going to be very high and I think you’re going to see a monster leap even as the end of this season comes in, but really when next year starts.” Romo’s first prediction was correct as Darnold did take the leap by the end of 2018. He’s also received compliments from Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller and Jets WR coach Shawn Jefferson. Miller stated, “He has a real good arm. He’s capable.” Jefferson added, “Excuse my French when I say this,” Jefferson said, “but he’s a f–kin’ dude. He’s a f–kin’ dude with a f–kin’ arm and he’s accurate as s–t.“
While what matters is what happens on the field, Darnold has clearly impressed the players and people he competes and works with on a daily basis.
Adam Gase/Offensive Line
Two factors holding back Darnold from being drafted earlier are his poor offensive line and new head coach, Adam Gase.
As I mentioned earlier, the additions of Kelechi Osemele and Ryan Kalil will help, but they won’t turn them around completely as PFF has the Jets ranked 28th heading into 2019. While this isn’t encouraging we’ve seen great fantasy seasons come from players with poor offensive lines. PFF ranked the Houston Texans offensive line 23rd in 2018, but Deshaun Watson finished as QB5 in 2018. Russell Wilson finished as QB1 in 2017 while having the 27th ranked offensive line. One may argue Darnold isn’t as agile as these two, but he’s shown great ability to throw outside the pocket, which is vital when your offensive line isn’t great. He had the highest outside the pocket passing rating in the AFC East, per PFF.
When it comes to Adam Gase, he doesn’t have the best résume when discussing coaches who produce good fantasy players. Ryan Tannehill finished as QB28 in 2016, Jay Cutler was QB27 in 2017 and Tannehill was QB29 over 11 games in 2018. These numbers aren’t great, but the talent Gase had in Miami isn’t what he has with the Jets. Le’Veon Bell and Robby Anderson’s best statistical seasons are better than Jay Ajayi/Kenyan Drake and Kenny Stills. Tannehill was also drafted in 2012 while Gase arrived in 2016. Gase never had much of an opportunity to develop and mold Tannehill into “his quarterback”. He has that opportunity with Darnold as he’s only 22 years old and just completed his rookie year. Gase was also the offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos in 2013 and 2014. Peyton Manning finished as QB1 (2013) and QB3 (2014) in that time frame.
Overall, Darnold is being selected in the 16th round of 12-man leagues. In short, he’s a very low-risk/high-reward pick. He’s also a great option in deeper leagues and Superflex leagues if you’re looking to satisfy other positions first.
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