The AFC East is still waiting for the Patriots to finally begin to crumble, and the best team in the AFC South may have the worst QB in the division.
USA TODAY Sports
RICHMOND, Va. — Sam Darnold’s time is coming. Probably sooner rather than later.
You can tell by the way the New York Jets’ rookie quarterback already exhibits keen awareness and poise in the pocket.
The chaos of 300-pound offensive and defensive linemen swirling around him do little to break Darnold’s concentration as he scans the field for open targets.
You can tell because even on this next level of competition, Darnold displays the same knack for sensing pressure without really seeing it, just as he did as a star at USC. And when he does, Darnold — the third overall pick of this year’s draft — still finds ways to extend plays by scrambling from defenders and delivering accurate throws on the run.
You can tell his time is coming, because following last Friday’s promising preseason debut, coaches increased Darnold’s practice workload to include more work with the first team when the Jets got back to work on Sunday.
After playing behind 15-year veteran Josh McCown and fifth-year pro Teddy Bridgewater in the win over the Falcons, Darnold received the lions’ share of Sunday’s practice snaps. The Jets joined the Washington Redskins at their training camp headquarters and will continue to practice against them in advance of Thursday’s preseason game at FedEx Field.
Early in the practice, Darnold directed the third-string offense. But as the day went on, coach Todd Bowles played Darnold with both the first and second units as well.
Bowles declined to share plans for Darnold and the Jets’ second preseason game.
“It’s no indication,” Bowles said. “Just getting him caught up on some things.”
Yes, Darnold has ground to make up while competing with the two veterans.
As Bowles added, “It’s more important to get him working. First, second or third team, there’s going to be different guys throughout the game. It’s just important to get him working and caught up on certain things the defenses are doing.”
However, there’s a chance that Darnold will receive the starting nod against Washington. This week’s approach mirrors the same that the Jets took last summer with second-year pro Christian Hackenberg as he competed with McCown for the starting job. However, Hackenberg struggled in both the second and third preseason games and Bowles anointed McCown.
However, there’s more optimism surrounding this year’s young challenger thanks both to Friday’s debut and Darnold’s body of work in practices. After what they saw last Friday, observers around the league express the belief that it’s a matter of when — and not if — Darnold takes over as the starter in 2018.
But that’s not to say that he’s starter-ready just yet.
During the portion of Sunday’s practice where Darnold faced Washington’s starting defense, the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder held his own.
He produced several solid plays, like when he fit the ball into a tight window to wideout Terrelle Pryor up the left sideline. A defensive back broke on the ball but narrowly mistimed it, and Darnold hit Pryor in-stride for a touchdown. Or there was the play where Darnold evaded one defender, then a second and dumped the ball off to his running back for a nice gain just before another pass-rusher hit him.
But Darnold produced underwhelming plays as well, overthrowing an open target here, a near interception there.
Darnold understands that he has work to do. And while he would like to start, he says all the right things, like, “No matter who I’m working with, reps are always the key, but I think working with the first team gets me more comfortable with those guys and they get more comfortable with me and the way I like to play.”
Although encouraged by Darnold’s initial work of the preseason, coaches need the rookie to start processing and playing faster, and he agrees. Too often in Friday’s opener, he came to the line with only five to 10 seconds left on the play clock. So Darnold this week has started focusing on delivering the play call to his teammates more quickly and getting them lined up with 15 to 20 seconds left on the clock, which will give him more time to survey the defense and keep the offense operating at a brisker pace.
The Jets find themselves in a good position regarding their quarterbacks. For all the promise Darnold seems to offer, Bowles & Co. shouldn’t feel pressure to start him prematurely because in addition to McCown, they have Bridgewater, who impressed throughout spring practices and has continued to do so during training camp and the preseason.
And while McCown will prove serviceable, Bridgewater appears capable of offering more big-play ability.
The 32nd pick of the 2014 draft, Bridgewater hasn’t played a regular season game since 2015 after suffering a gruesome leg injury during the preseason of 2016.
He left Minnesota during this year’s free agency amid rumors that his surgically repaired knee/leg still was far from healed and that the slow healing process would make it hard for him to land a starting job this year.
But those reports have proven false as Bridgewater shined since arriving in New York. If he were to land the starting job, it’s possible that Bridgewater could thrive to the point where coaches would have a hard time shifting away from him and to Darnold.
But the Jets will address that issue when it comes — if it does.
For now, the kid will get the chance to display enough continued growth and enough potential to make it impossible for his coaches to start anyone else.