Sam Darnold has company now. Lots of it.
The Jets’ 21-year-old rookie was the first and only member of this year’s celebrated quarterback class to begin the season as his team’s No. 1 passer – becoming the youngest Week 1 starting quarterback in modern NFL history.
Here come the rest.
And here comes more pressure on the kid the Jets hope can become their savior.
Thanks to early-season injuries and ineffectiveness, three of Darnold’s 2018 fellow rookies are now under center, too.
Baker Mayfield replaced injured Browns starter Tyrod Taylor in Cleveland’s breathtaking comeback win over the Jets in a Thursday night game in Week 3.
Josh Allen is now the starter in Buffalo after Nathan Peterman proved for the second straight year he’s not ready.
And Josh Rosen has replaced the ineffective Sam Bradford in Arizona.
The crucible just got hotter for Darnold, who came out of a three-games-in-11-day stretch with a 1-2 record heading into Sunday’s road game against Jacksonville’s punishing defense.
Darnold himself doesn’t seem particularly troubled that he’ll now have plenty of competition when it comes to comparisons among the group. In fact, he welcomed it.
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” he said. “It’s cool that everyone is getting their shot and having different experiences. I think it’s going to be even more cool to look back four, five years from now and see where we are.”
Of course, it will only be cool for Jets’ fans to look back in 2022 or 2023 and see that Darnold was worth the trade up to No. 3 overall. If he turns into the quarterback that can legitimately put them into position to win a Super Bowl, then making comparisons to Mayfield, Allen and Rosen will be a delightful exercise. But if Darnold turns into the latest example of quarterback frustration for a team still searching for the answer half a century after Joe Namath’s Super Bowl run, then it will be more occasion for misery.
The feeling here is that Darnold will be worth the investment, and that over time, he will become a player who lives up to what is expected of him. He’s a terrific athlete with a great arm and, just as importantly, a great mind to process the most complicated position in pro sports. We knew all along there would be a learning curve – and sometimes a steep one, as evidenced by key moments in back-to-back losses to the Dolphins and Browns.
He has just three touchdown passes – among the fewest by any starter – and five interceptions – tied for the most. He has been somewhat limited by the play-calling of offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, who is clearly not yet comfortable with letting Darnold go down the field consistently – something that’s not unusual among young starters.
Darnold himself admitted after the Browns game that he has to start trusting himself more, believing what his eyes tell him about the coverage and allowing his body to follow suit. It’s a process every quarterback goes through, particularly at the beginning of his career, and Mayfield, Rosen and Allen will experience their own issues with learning the pro game, albeit to varying degrees.
“We’ve got to go through our progression fast, we’ve got to believe in it and he’s going to continue to do that,” Bates said. “Obviously, he’s still young, but when he believes in his progress and he believes in his stroke, good things will happen.
“He’s going to work on that this week,” Bates added. "He’s going to work on that next week and he’s going to work on it the rest of his career. You can always play faster, no matter what year you are.”
Mayfield clearly looked more comfortable in his decision-making process during his relief appearance for the Browns. He was much authoritative with his throws after quickly deciding where he wanted to go with the ball, and he provided an undeniable spark that lifted the Browns to their first win in 635 days.
That doesn’t mean, however, that it will be that easy for Mayfield moving forward. Backup quarterbacks often have success against teams that focus on the starter and are often back on their heels if there’s a change. With opposing defensive coordinators now focused exclusively on Mayfield, he will invariably come across some confusing defenses that will force him into mistakes.
Darnold knows he must process his reads more quickly and efficiently, and he also knows the Jaguars will make it difficult on him. Jacksonville features one of the most complete defenses in the game, with Pro Bowl players at every level – defensive line, linebackers and the secondary. Anyone expecting a quick fix with Darnold this week will likely be disappointed.
“I think it's just trusting my instincts and knowing that when the guy is there, throw it to him if he's open,” Darnold said. “But at the same time, trusting my eyes and trusting what I feel. It's not that I wasn't necessarily trusting myself. It was just having to be able to look at it and really just say, 'OK, I'm going to rip it in there.' I think that confidence just comes with playing games in this league.”
Darnold insists there’s no need to change the game plan just because the Jets are facing a daunting defense in Jacksonville.
“We are just going to run our offense the way that we run it,” he said. “Nothing is going to change. As a quarterback, I’m going to continue to make my reads and let the coverage dictate where I go with the ball.”
Darnold’s apprenticeship has already been filled with promise and problems, and that will almost certainly be the case with his draft class colleagues in Cleveland, Buffalo and Arizona. But eventually, Darnold, Mayfield, Allen and Rosen will begin to separate themselves.
Jets fans desperately hope that once things sort themselves out in the coming years, Darnold winds up at the top of the list.