Sam Darnold has caught the attention of former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who has pinpointed the second-year New York Jets quarterback as a potential breakout player in 2019. What makes Darnold special may not always show up in his rookie-season stat sheet, but for an analyst like Romo who grinds the game tape, it's obvious right away. There are many different terms thrown around in the NFL community about what Darnold has, but they all mean the same thing, and it's something to certainly get excited about.
"I just think he's got that thing the great ones have," Romo said on Tuesday at the NFL on CBS Media Day. "The ability to process information very quickly, and his spatial awareness. Some call it 'the it' factor, feel, whatever you want to see. He sees angles quicker than other people. His brain allows him to do certain things because of that. I told you guys last year, he's going to be a good one."
What Darnold brings to the table doesn't always show up on the stat sheet, but talent evaluators who are paid to analyze the game of football on All-22 coaches film can see it right away. When Darnold entered the 2018 NFL Draft, former NFL scout and NFL Network's current lead draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah called him the best quarterback prospect in the last three years before telling reporters in his pre-draft presser that he would "trade the farm" for him.
Jeremiah sees in Darnold the same unique traits that have Romo so excited. The young quarterback's ability to see the field after the snap -- his field vision, whatever you want to call it -- is special. Romo's analysis was spot on, but he also omitted a few other exceptional factors about Darnold's game. Most important of all, Darnold has the ability to create a big play off-script. In other words, when the timing of the original play is off, and when the pocket is not perfect, Darnold is able to seamlessly move and recreate a new launch point for him to throw from. This often leads to big plays down the field.
In his lone drive against the New York Giants' first-team defense during the Jets' preseason opener, Darnold led a touchdown drive on 4-of-5 passes for 68 yards and he capped it off with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Jamison Crowder. Earlier in the drive, when faced with a 3rd-and-6 situation, Darnold sidestepped the pressure, recreated a new pocket, and delivered a strike to Chris Herndon for a 32-yard gain. This is exactly the kind of unique ability to create a big play off-script that Darnold has.
When I asked Romo if he saw a little bit of himself when evaluating Darnold's game tape, he laughed and moved on to his own evaluation of why Darnold's special, but it's an easy comparison to see. Cowboys tight end Jason Witten saw a lot of Romo in Darnold when asked to evaluate Darnold's game tape prior to his rookie season.
"He's calm," Witten said of Darnold during an appearance on ESPN's 'Get Up' in 2018. "He's got this poise. He reminds me a little bit of Tony Romo the way he creates plays. And he has some of that moxie."
Former NFL quarterback and current CBS analyst Trent Green also smiled wide when I asked him about the Romo-Darnold comparison, and while he joked he would have to look more deeply into that, the two-time Pro Bowler is also already on the bandwagon.
"Darnold," Green said at the NFL on CBS Media Day, when asked to name a second-year quarterback most likely to breakout in 2019. "I think the most underrated factor in Darnold's 2019 outlook is the addition of Adam Gase as his head coach. Gase is an excellent quarterback coach, and you look at the things he did in Miami with Ryan Tannehill when he was healthy, despite playing with a subpar offensive line."
The second year in the NFL is typically when quarterbacks make the biggest leap forward in their careers. In 2018, we saw second-year quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, and Mitchell Trubisky make that leap. If Darnold wants to join them in 2019, former NFL quarterback and current CBS analyst Boomer Esiason believes the second-year signal-caller will have to gain a greater command of the team.
"The reason for the big jump in Year 2 is the quarterback understands where they stand on the hierarchy," Esiason said at the NFL on CBS Media Day. "If they're good in college, they own the team. If they're good in the pros, they own their team. I would say Baker Mayfield owns the Browns. I think Sam Darnold is in the process of earning his stripes to say he owns the Jets. Every quarterback has to become the face of that franchise if they want to be any good."
In addition to taking command of the team, the second year in the NFL is typically when quarterbacks begin to play faster. After having one season to adjust to the speed of the NFL game, quarterbacks typically process information faster, which allows them to play more confidently. It's possible this could also lead to an increase in Darnold's velocity on his passing attempts.
"It's interesting because a lot of people in the spring were saying that to me, that it looked like he was throwing with a lot more velocity," Gase said earlier in training camp.
Although Gase's offenses during his tenure as the Miami Dolphins head coach were notoriously slow, he has used tempo in his previous coaching stops. During his run as the Denver Broncos offensive coordinator with Peyton Manning, Gase ran one of the most up-tempo offenses in the NFL. During the Jets' preseason-opening touchdown drive against the Giants, Darnold operated an up-tempo offensive attack.
Earlier this offseason, Connor Hughes of The Athletic noted the Jets' offensive pace was "significantly higher" in practices this year under Gase than it was in prior years. Darnold's playing style is conducive to an offensive system that utilizes tempo. This allows him to improvise. This allows him to create big plays off-script. As Romo termed it, this allows Darnold's "it factor" to come into play. With an up-tempo attack, Darnold can find the right angles that will allow him to attack the defense in a consistent fashion.
A big factor in a potential Darnold breakthrough 2019 season is the supporting cast the Jets have put around him. The Jets gave Darnold arguably the best safety valve in the passing game at the running back position by acquiring Le'Veon Bell in free agency. Bell has been lauded for his route-running in one-on-one situations and out of the backfield throughout his career and the numbers back up his receiving prowess. Despite skipping the entire 2018 season, Bell still leads all NFL running backs since 2013 in receptions (308), receiving yards (2,640), and receiving first downs (117).
Bell is also hyper-efficient as a receiver out of the backfield. Per PFF, Bell has a career catch percentage of 78.6 percent -- the best among all running backs who have entered the league since the 2013 season.
Darnold will also benefit from the addition of Crowder, a slot receiver who is built to fit Gase's offensive system, one that relies heavily on the mesh concept -- in other words, a heavy dosage of crossing routes. Darnold and Crowder connected on a touchdown in the Jets' preseason opener. Darnold built a strong rapport with wide receiver Robby Anderson over the final four games of the 2018 season (23 receptions, 336 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns). Their chemistry will only grow in their second season together.
The biggest potential drawback for Darnold in 2019 will be the play of the Jets' offensive line. Earlier this offseason, PFF ranked the line No. 28 overall heading into the 2019 season, but that was before they hired general manager Joe Douglas. Since arriving in New York, Douglas has convinced five-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil to come out of retirement and join the Jets. This was the most important position Douglas could upgrade. Prior to signing Kalil, the Jets were slated to start an undrafted rookie at center.
Shortly after bringing Kalil out of his short-lived retirement, Douglas traded for Alex Lewis from the Ravens. Although Lewis doesn't have an extensive track record as a starter, he can play both offensive guard and offensive tackle. He slots in as a key reserve for the right side of the Jets offensive line -- their weak spot. Earlier this offseason, the Jets traded for two-time Pro Bowl left guard Kelechi Osemele -- a 6-foot-5 and 331-pound mauler.
In just two months on the job with the Jets, Douglas has already accomplished what ex-general manager Mike Maccagnan failed to throughout his five-year stint in New York by shifting the focus to the offensive line. Moving forward, you can expect the Jets to continue to upgrade their offensive line in coming offseasons under Douglas, as he comes from a Philadelphia Eagles organization where this is prioritized. This will only help Darnold.
A foot injury limited Darnold to 13 game appearances during his rookie season, but when he returned from the injury in Week 14, he was lights out. According to Pro Football Focus, Darnold was the highest-graded quarterback (87.7) in the NFL over the final four weeks of the 2018 regular season. If Darnold can pick up where he left off, Jets fans could be in store for a very special season as their young quarterback follows in the footsteps of those Year 2 passers who have come up before him.