The way Sam Darnold is playing as he closes out his first NFL season has opened eyes around the league and raised expectations in his own locker room.
Key members of the Jets’ defense have been praising Darnold since he nearly led them to victory over the Texans on Saturday. This time, it was the defense that coughed up the game. But linebacker Avery Williamson said the Jets have “a game changer” in Darnold.
“I feel like Sam’s growing up a lot,” Williamson said Tuesday on WFAN’s “Joe and Evan” show. “That’s a real good sign when your quarterback seems to take steps and elevate his game. I feel like he’s definitely getting better, and it’s good that he’s ending the season strong. I feel like he’s going to be a force next year.”
Darnold and the Jets (4-10) are focused on continuing to improve and trying to finish the season on a positive note. They close out their home schedule Sunday against the Packers (5-8-1) and Aaron Rodgers, whom Darnold said he watches and studies in the offseason.
Williamson is just the latest person to throw high praise at the player the Jets hope will end their Super Bowl drought that is at 50 years and counting. Texans superstar defensive lineman J.J. Watt told Darnold he’s “going to be a great pro.” Jets cornerback Trumaine Johnson called Darnold “special,” and safety Jamal Adams said, “Sam’s a bad man.”
Imagine if the Jets had won the game.
Darnold has had a mixed season filled with rookie growing pains and mistakes. He’s thrown 14 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions, tied for the league high. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger also has 15 picks but has 229 more attempts than Darnold, who missed three games with a foot injury.
Darnold has been sharper since returning from the foot issue. He threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions against the Texans. He brought the Jets back from 13 points down and led a touchdown drive that gave them a three-point lead with five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
“He felt like he was ‘The Man.’ He went out there and he proved it,” Adams said Tuesday on WFAN’s “Carlin, Maggie and Bart.”
One week earlier, Darnold sparked a victory at Buffalo after trailing 17-6. In the last two games, he led six touchdown drives while playing with a mostly banged-up and inexperienced backfield, two non-starters on the offensive line and without leading receiver Quincy Enunwa for a game.
General manager Mike Maccagnan, presuming he is not let go after the season, is expected to spend much of the $100 million available to the Jets in free agency on skill players and offensive linemen to make Darnold’s job easier.
“I feel like we just got to continue to build around him,” Williamson said. “I’m excited. When you got a good quarterback, that’s a game changer. That’s what every team needs and wants. So when you have a good quarterback, that’s something that’s priceless.”
A number of Maccagnan’s pickups haven’t panned out, but he made the trade to jump from the No. 6 pick to No. 3 to get in position to draft Darnold. That’s the kind of move that can change a franchise and shape the legacy of an executive, especially if Darnold continues to develop into the type of quarterback the organization and his teammates believe he can be.
“Sam is a hell of a player,” Adams said. “I think through your first year you learn so much. The sky’s the limit for Sam. He knows that and everybody knows that. What makes Sam great is that he’s very humble and he’s a hard-working guy. He’s going to continue to strive for excellence. We’re definitely excited for Sam’s future.”
Notes & quotes: The Jets signed T Eric Smith off of New England’s practice squad and placed WR Rishard Matthews on injured reserve. Matthews injured his hamstring in Saturday’s game.