NFL Preseason Week 3 Roundup: Sam Darnold Is the Present and Future for the Jets

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistAugust 25, 2018

NFL Preseason Week 3 Roundup: Sam Darnold Is the Present and Future for the Jets

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    Unscientifically speaking, more starting jobs are claimed or lost in Week 3 of the NFL preseason than the other three weeks combined. So there were plenty of conclusions to be drawn when a dozen teams had unofficial dress rehearsals in Carolina, New York, Washington, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Oakland on Friday night.

    A high-profile rookie quarterback was trying to cement a starting job in green, an emerging rookie running back was trying to take the reins in orange and everybody was trying to stay healthy before phoning it in next week. 

    What did we learn on a busy night of auditions? Here's a rundown. 

Sam's Club

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    The New York Jets might not confirm it for a while, but there should be little doubt rookie Sam Darnold clinched the team's starting quarterback job Friday night at MetLife Stadium against the New York Giants. 

    The USC product had already positioned himself as the favorite by completing 72.4 percent of his passes in his first two preseason outings and drawing rave reviews on the practice field. Then, the No. 3 overall pick went out there against a talented first-team Giants defense and led an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive right out of the gate.

    Said drive included a 13-yard completion on a 3rd-and-8 as well as a 15-yard scramble on a 3rd-and-13. 

    Darnold added another touchdown drive later in the first half. His final numbers (8-of-16, 86 yards and one touchdown) weren't jaw-dropping, but his night could have been a lot better if his teammates didn't keep shooting the offense in the foot with untimely penalties. 

    The point is he again looked the part in a turnover-free performance against a tough D under a lot of pressure, showing once more that he has a thing for rising to occasions. 

    The Jets smartly insisted throughout the offseason that veteran Josh McCown would be their Week 1 starter, but that was just the safe approach in case Darnold didn't deliver this month. But he has in several instances, and McCown has thrown just one preseason pass. 

    The Jets know they aren't likely going to dethrone the New England Patriots in the AFC East this season, so why ride with a 39-year-old quarterback when the future of the franchise appears as though he's ready? Darnold will almost certainly experience growing pains this year, but he might be Gang Green's top option from both a short- and long-term perspective. 

    It'd be a shock if he isn't under center when the Jets kick off the regular season against the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football on Sept. 10 at Ford Field.      

Who Wants Teddy?

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    Darnold's quick rise pretty much confirms that the Jets' other quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, should be available on the trade market. After all, they have McCown in case Darnold struggles, and Bridgewater is only under contract for one season. 

    The 25-year-old one-time Pro Bowler has almost no value on the New York roster, which should mean the asking price won't be too high for a dude who was once considered a future star, might still have stardom in his future and has now completed 28 of 38 passes for 316 yards in three preseason games. 

    That's a 104.7 rating, indicating the knee injury that derailed his career in 2016 and 2017 might indeed be history. 

    So the Jets are safe to move Bridgewater, and he'd bring a lot more value to many other teams. But that doesn't mean anything is imminent. Look around. No starting quarterbacks are hurt right now, and practically every squad in the league feels as though it has its current or future starter on the roster. 

    The only teams that don't have clear-cut franchise quarterbacks or presumed franchise quarterbacks in the making are the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins, but both of those teams doubled down at that position with new or restructured contracts this offseason. 

    Then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Florida's other team, have encountered problems with 2015 No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston on and off the field. It's possible they'd prefer Bridgewater to Winston, but the latter has complicated things with a hell of a preseason. 

    That's what you call a segue.

Jameis Keeps Rolling

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Yes, he continues to play with and against second-teamers, but it does appear as though Winston is making a statement following a tumultuous offseason in which he was slapped with a three-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.

    The 24-year-old led a 10-play, 66-yard touchdown drive on his first series in the second quarter Friday night against the Lions, who had many of their regulars in the game at the time. That drive featured a picturesque deep completion to DeSean Jackson and a beautiful touchdown strike to Chris Godwin. 

    Winston finished 6-of-10 for 60 yards, but it looked as though at least a couple of his incomplete passes were dropped. 

    Regardless, he's completed 73.2 percent of his passes while averaging 9.5 yards per attempt with a 126.9 passer rating in what's been a turnover-free preseason. 

    Is it a sign Winston is turning a corner? Could this offseason have served as a wake-up call? The former Florida State star did have some nice moments when healthy last season, and it's possible he's blossoming in the nick of time.        

    That might make it hard for the Bucs to keep him on the bench or trade for a quarterback like Bridgewater. 

Royce Is Ready

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Everybody wants to identify this year's Kareem Hunt or Alvin Kamara, both of whom made the Pro Bowl as rookie third-round picks in 2017. And thus far in the preseason, Denver Broncos running back Royce Freeman is making a hell of a case. 

    The third-round Oregon product flashed speed, power, vision and elusiveness on a 24-yard touchdown run against the Washington Redskins' first-team defense Friday night at FedEx Field, giving him three scores in as many preseason games. 

    Freeman has averaged 5.6 yards per carry this month, while cohorts Devontae Booker and De'Angelo Henderson Sr. have averaged just 3.7 and 3.8, respectively. 

    Word this offseason was that Broncos head coach Vance Joseph was going to roll with a committee in the backfield, but if Freeman keeps making big plays and outshining Booker and Henderson, he'll become the top dog. 

    The question is whether he's done enough to merit an early gamble in fantasy football drafts. 

Stay Away from Ronald Jones

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    Mark Zaleski)/Associated Press

    Ronald Jones was selected one round prior to Freeman in April, but the Buccaneers rookie running back officially fell off fantasy football radar Friday night. 

    After projected starter Peyton Barber rushed five times for 34 yards and a touchdown on the first drive against the Lions, Jones came in and picked up just seven yards on six carries. That gives him 18 yards on 18 attempts this preseason, which doesn't bode well for his chances of earning playing time when the games start to matter Sept. 9. 

    Jones did line up out wide and haul in a 37-yard throw from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, but that won't be enough. He had a chance to churn out some yards against defensive regulars and came up empty again, and he might not get another opportunity to do so this season unless Barber and/or veteran Jacquizz Rodgers struggles or gets hurt. 

    So yeah, forget about Jones for now. 

Chris Carson Is Cruising

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    You might also want to remove Seattle Seahawks rookie first-round running back Rashaad Penny from that radar. Because while Penny remains out with a broken finger, second-year back Chris Carson continues to pull away from the competition in the Seattle backfield. 

    Against first-teamers on the vaunted Minnesota Vikings defense Friday night at U.S. Bank Stadium, Carson picked up 24 yards on five first-half carries while chipping in with two catches for 20 yards (he finished with 26 yards on seven attempts after two unproductive rushes in the second half). 

    Seventh-round picks aren't supposed to make plays like this against defenders like Eric Kendricks, but Carson looks like a special back. We saw a bit of that last year before a broken leg ended his season in early October, but he's healthy now and looks slicker than ever. 

    There's always a chance Penny emerges when he returns, and it's clear the Seahawks still believe in C.J. Prosise. But it looks as though Carson will be the centerpiece running back when Seattle opens the regular season against the Broncos on Sept. 9 at Mile High. 

Giants Rely on Eli

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    With star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. healthy, No. 2 overall pick Saquon Barkley the preseason Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite and stalwart left tackle Nate Solder joining the fray to protect quarterback Eli Manning's blind side, there are high expectations for the retooled New York Giants offense in 2018. 

    So it's an especially good sign that Manning performed superbly Friday night against the Jets without the services of Beckham or Barkley. 

    In his only extensive action of the preseason, the 37-year-old completed 17 of 23 passes for 188 yards, hitting interim top target Sterling Shepard on all seven of the passes he threw his way. He didn't toss any touchdown passes, but he led the Giants offense relatively deep into Jets territory on three straight first-half drives. 

    One particular deep strike to new receiver Cody Latimer, who signed with the Giants in March, reminded us that Eli isn't done yet. The man hasn't been consistently productive in a long time, but he's had some special moments in his career. If he can continue to look as cool as he did Friday night when Beckham and Barkley are back, this could be a fun year for the Giants. 

Turns Out Adrian Peterson's Tank Isn't Empty

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    Reports of the end of Adrian Peterson's football career may have been greatly exaggerated. 

    Four days after Peterson signed a one-year contract with the running back-starved Washington Redskins, the 33-year-old rushed 11 times for 56 yards against the Broncos' first-team defense Friday night. 

    It came out of nowhere. Peterson averaged just 3.4 yards per attempt with the Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints last season, and even before that, he had averaged just 2.9 yards per carry in his previous nine starts, including the postseason. 

    It can't be easy to battle Father Time, the football injury gods and declining statistics at the same time, but Peterson has always been a magician. This is a guy who required like seven hours* to recover from a torn ACL before nearly setting a new single-season rushing yardage record in 2012. 

    That was a long time ago, but it's possible Peterson's legs are fresh after he ran the ball just 193 times in a two-season stretch. It's possible he has one more astonishing bounce-back in him. 

    Or it's possible this was just a final flash in the pan. Tune in next week. 

    *Actually about eight months, but you get the picture.