Sam Darnold hasn’t had the look of a deer in headlights against NFL defenses. The rookie quarterback has looked comfortable in the pocket, and has reacted and responded well to stressful situations.
It’s a major reason many believe the Jets have not only found their starting quarterback for this season but for many to come.
Rookies, and especially first-year quarterbacks, often say the biggest adjustment from college to the pros is getting used to the speed of the game. But Darnold, 21, said it hasn’t really been an issue for him, and he credits the Jets’ defense for helping prepare him.
“The way our defense gives such a great look during practice, when I get out in the game, it kind of feels the same, which is a really good feeling,” Darnold said after throwing for 86 yards and a touchdown in Friday’s preseason loss to the Giants.
“As a guy who hasn’t played a ton of NFL football games, it’s awesome to go out there in the preseason and feel the same way as I do in practice — really comfortable. Know when I got to get out of the pocket. Know when I should eat it or throw the ball away. All those things that have been popping up in practice, it kind of feels the same way in the games, which is pretty cool.”
No doubt some of this is innate.
The Jets have been impressed with Darnold’s maturity and poise. His mental makeup and tools have him in line to be the Jets’ starting quarterback at Detroit in Week 1.
Darnold showed tremendous awareness Friday night, but a few plays in particular displayed why the term “franchise quarterback’’ has been linked to him so often since the Jets took him with the No. 3 overall pick.
In leading an opening-series touchdown drive, on third-and-8, Darnold saw that the Giants were going to blitz and he audibled. Darnold felt the linebackers, “mugged in the A-gaps,” wouldn’t get back to cover the tight ends, so he changed the play and connected with Neal Sterling on a 13-yard completion.
“That was pretty cool to be able to see it, digest the information and kind of do that on my own,” Darnold said. “To be able to see that in kind of the first few games in the NFL and see that and check to it, it was a really good feeling.”
On that same drive, Darnold was under pressure on third-and-13 and saw an opening to run. He scrambled for 14 yards.
Later, on his touchdown pass to Terrelle Pryor, Darnold saw tight end Chris Herndon on a post route in the end zone but didn’t want to try to squeeze it in a tight space and risk an interception. He had been picked off in the red zone at Washington the previous week. This time he threw it to Pryor on a shallow cross for a 12-yard touchdown.
“He’s learning from his mistakes,” coach Todd Bowles said. “He’s seeing things as he goes. As a rookie, you’re going to get in the game and no matter what a coach or veteran tells you, you’re going to see things for the first time. You’re going to have to make football decisions. The more he plays, the quicker the football decisions come. That’s good to see from him.”
Bowles still won’t commit to who his Week 1 starter will be. But Darnold has taken the majority of the first-team snaps over the past two weeks and started the last two preseason games. Josh McCown didn’t play in either. Teddy Bridgewater finished both games.
“It’s not just game work,” Bowles said. “It’s practice work. It’s meeting work. I have a good feel of where we want to go and what we need to do. We’ll sit down and discuss it as a coaching staff and move forward from there.”
Bowles wouldn’t reveal the plan for Thursday’s fourth and final preseason game in Philadelphia. The starters generally play little or not at all as the coaches evaluate players on the bubble before having to trim the roster from 90 to 53 on Saturday.
It might help Darnold to get extra reps and more experience by playing, but the Jets would have to play their first-team line to protect him. Sitting Darnold so he’s healthy for Detroit on Sept. 10, and letting him continue to play against the Jets’ first-team defense in practice, makes the most sense.
“Bettering our game is making him better,” Jets linebacker Avery Williamson said. “It’s iron sharpening iron. Just continuing to play fast, making a game-like situation. If you can make practice similar to a game, that makes it a lot easier when you’re out here on the field.”
Williamson, who had nine tackles and a forced fumble against the Giants, spent his first four NFL seasons with the Titans. He saw Marcus Mariota start as a rookie and he has been impressed with Darnold.
“He’s doing a good job,” Williamson said. “He’s got a lot of growing to do, but I feel like he’s coming along very well. He is talented. The offense just has to continue to build around him and make sure that they’re getting that continuity together. He’s definitely getting better every week.”