Sam Darnold Facing Prove-It Season in 2020 to Avoid Becoming NFL's Next Trubisky

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 11, 2020

New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold (14) warms up before an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/David Dermer)
David Dermer/Associated Press

Two years ago, the New York Jets traded up three spots to make Sam Darnold the third overall pick in the 2018 draft. He was the second quarterback selected in a much-ballyhooed class that also included Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson.

But while Jackson just won the league's MVP award, Allen led the Bills to the postseason last year and Mayfield set an NFL record for touchdown passes by a rookie quarterback in 2018, Darnold has yet to enjoy much in the way of success.

Unless that changes in what's shaping up to be a pivotal 2020 campaign, Darnold is likely headed down the same path as a young quarterback in a similar situation who was drafted second overall the year before Darnold entered the NFL.

And the last thing Darnold wants is to take a trip down Trubisky Avenue.

Darnold's second season was—let's go with forgettable. It began in disastrous fashion—after a so-so outing against the Buffalo Bills in Week 1, Darnold was sidelined for three games by a case of mononucleosis.

In the second game after he returned, Darnold had an 86-yard, four-interception effort against the New England Patriots in which he admitted he was "seeing ghosts." At the halfway point of the season, the Jets were 1-7 and Darnold had six touchdown passes and nine interceptions.

Things did improve from there—the Jets went on a 6-2 run over the season's second half to finish 7-9. But when the dust settled on a meaningless Week 17 win over the Buffalo Bills, Darnold had barely cleared 3,000 passing yards with 19 passing touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a passer rating of 84.3.

Whether it was completion percentage (61.9 vs. 63.2), passing yardage (3,024 vs. 3,138) or passer rating (84.3 vs. 83.0), Darnold's statistical production in 2019 was nearly identical to Mitchell Trubisky's in Chicago. Given that Trubisky's fifth-year option was just declined and the Bears traded for Nick Foles in the offseason, that should serve as notice to Darnold that that's just not going to get it done. Not from the third overall draft slot. Not in the Big Apple.

However, as Andy Vasquez wrote for NJ.com, Darnold insists that while he knows he has room to improve, he doesn't feel any additional pressure to do so this year:

"For me it's always been about playing as hard and as good as I can, no matter what the circumstances are. So, from my end, nothing is going to change. [...]

"There's definitely room to grow. Throughout the back half of [last] season I improved on a lot of things. I thought I got more consistent and was just able to get more comfortable with the offense. I think there's obviously room to be better for this next year and for myself I'm just trying to be as consistent as possible and play at high level."

Adam Hunger/Associated Press

Darnold may not feel that additional pressure, but it's most assuredly there. It's not just a matter of improving his relatively lackluster passing numbers to date—Lamar Jackson had as many touchdown passes in 2019 alone as Darnold has for his career. As Ethan Greenberg reported for the team's official website, Jets head coach Adam Gase expects Darnold to be more than just a better player in 2020.

He said he expects Darnold to be a leader for the entire team:

"Sam is trying to do the right thing where he knows this offense cold and he knows all the little details that he needs to do day in and day out. He has to help all these guys that are new get caught up to speed as fast as possible. He is an extension of the coaching staff in that aspect because he has more experience in this offense than most of the guys that are here and he's going to have to do a good job of just making sure he's on point."

The Jets at least took significant steps to put Darnold in better position to succeed this season. Last year, the Jets offensive line ranked 31st in run blocking and 30th in pass protection per Football Outsiders. Darnold was sacked 33 times in 13 games.

Nick Wass/Associated Press

That line looks vastly different in 2020. The Jets signed tackle George Fant and guard Connor McGovern in free agency and added massive left tackle Mekhi Becton of Louisville with the 11th overall pick in this year's draft. It's a desperately needed overhaul of the team's weakest link.

The Jets also added some skill-position talent, bringing in standout Baylor wideout Denzel Mims in the second round and signing Breshad Perriman, who is coming off a career season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The table has been set—or at least it appears to be.

But a third-year ascension from Darnold is far from a sure thing.

For starters, just because the offensive line should be better in 2020 doesn't mean it will be great—or even good. Fant showed flashes of big-time talent while with the Seattle Seahawks, but he was inconsistent and missed the entire 2017 season with an ACL tear. McGovern is a capable interior lineman, but he's no superstar. And while Becton is an immensely gifted 364-pound mountain of a young man, just as with many young tackles, his game needs refinement.

Sone of the luster comes off those skill-position additions under scrutiny, too. Mims is athletically gifted, to be sure, but also equally raw. Perriman shined down the stretch with Tampa in 2019, but prior to last year, he'd never even had 500 receiving yards in a season. With Robby Anderson in Carolina now, the Jets don't have a clear No. 1 receiver. There's no obvious "go-to" guy. And there's a shortage of pass-catchers Darnold has any real rapport with outside veteran slot man Jamison Crowder.

It's not going to be easy to build that rapport before the season in 2020, either—not with so much up in the air regarding when (if) workouts will begin.

The schedule didn't do the Jets any favors this year, either. Only the New England Patriots have a more difficult strength of schedule in 2020 than the Jets. New York's first four opponents this year (at BUF, SF, at IND, DEN) were a combined five games over .500 in 2019. Two made the playoffs. And there won't be any soft second half this season—the last month of the year contains trips to Seattle, Los Angeles (Rams) and New England.

Adam Hunger/Associated Press

Frankly, it's easier to imagine Darnold and the Jets taking a step backward record-wise in 2020 than vying for a playoff spot. And if that backslide includes another mediocre season from Darnold relative to his fellow third-year quarterbacks, it's going to present the Jets with an exceedingly difficult decision.

Beginning with the class of 2018, the fifth-year options on all first-round picks are fully guaranteed once exercised, per the new collective bargaining agreement. His salary for the 2022 season could easily be in excess of $25 million—high-end starter money.

If Darnold's inability to become that high-end starter to date was due to the lack of protection in front of him and weapons around him, then there should be a big step forward in 2020. But what if that improvement doesn't come? Might the additions around Darnold not be as good as the Jets hoped? Or is it Darnold who just isn't the quarterback the Jets thought they were drafting?

The Chicago Bears were just presented with an eerily similar dilemma with Trubisky, who at least led the Bears to a division title in 2018. And the trade for Foles and pass on Trubisky's option would seem to be strong signs that the Bears swallowed their pride and admitted Trubisky just isn't who they thought he was.

The pressure on Darnold to spare the Jets that same scenario a year from now is going to be omnipresent this season. From the moment he steps on the field in Buffalo in Week 1, the edict will be clear.

Get better. A lot better. And do it quickly.

Or else.