Hype and hope.
Sam Darnold brings both along with him as his era as the New York Jets quarterback dawns Monday night, when they visit the Detroit Lions to kick off their 2018 campaign.
The youngest Week 1 starting passer in NFL history has drawn rave reviews from legends (Joe Namath), elite opponents (Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman) and then some. But nothing was handed to the young passer, who turned 21 in the midst of offseason OTAs.
Darnold entered training camp with head coach Todd Bowles in no hurry to elevate this year’s No. 3 overall pick to QB1, content to let returning veteran Josh McCown and reclamation project Teddy Bridgewater earn the gig. But those who routinely watched the USC product knew the future is now for Gang Green.
How quickly Darnold adjusts is anyone’s guess. Most rookies — even future Hall of Famers — take their lumps early. Fortunately, the Jets aren’t in win-now mode. This team is missing too many pieces to be chasing championships or even the playoffs. No, 2018 is all about improving and competing as the franchise’s most exciting quarterback prospect learns the NFL ropes.
Along the way, here are three questions to keep in mind as these Jets are turned over in full to Darnold.
Can Sam succeed?
Individual talent and hard work only go so far for NFL quarterbacks, especially young ones. Football is a team sport, obviously, and it will be up to the other 10 men in the huddle — as well as Bowles and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates — to give him the best chance to develop.
Over the past 10 seasons, 20 first-year passers started in Week 1. Combined, they averaged 32.8 sacks per 16 games as rookies, with former Jets QB Geno Smith absorbing the most (43). Given the Jets’ current offensive line likely is one of the worst in the NFL, one has to be concerned about the number of hits Darnold could take this year.
Darnold’s targets aren’t that bad. Receivers Robby Anderson and Jermaine Kearse overachieved last year with McCown under center, while Terrelle Pryor is one year removed from a 1,000-yard season with the Cleveland Browns. However, the Jets lack a reliable tight end, and running backs Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell are barely above average pass catcher, at best.
Whether all that is enough to get Darnold’s career started on the right foot will be vital to his — and the franchise’s — future.
Where’s the pass rush?
Most of the Jets’ offseason expenditures went toward upgrading their defense, highlighted by cornerback Trumaine Johnson and linebacker Avery Williamson. What remains missing from the roster is a viable edge rusher.
With three sacks a year ago, linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Darron Lee top the list of returnees in that category. Williamson had that many with the Tennessee Titans, but wasn’t often utilized on passing downs.
Leonard Williams, a 2016 Pro Bowl defensive lineman when he tallied seven sacks, looks as likely as anyone to pressure opposing passers, but the Jets need more if they want to avoid aerial assaults on their secondary all season long.
Is this Bowles’ final season?
A strong first season in New York bought the Jets’ head coach some goodwill. But the shine of a 10-win season in 2015 dulled quickly as the city turned on the reserved Bowles when a 1-5 start doomed the following year.
Despite some public outcry, owner Woody Johnson retained his coach last year. Although the team went 5-11 for a second year in a row, 2017 was viewed as a mildly pleasant surprise given words like “tanking” were being used to describe the team last August.
Bowles is back again after the team extended his contract through 2020 last December, but it’s hard to imagine the front office will settle for 5-11 again. If the team doesn’t show marked improvement with a franchise quarterback in the fold, this may be his last chance in the Big Apple.