It’s very easy to write off Sam Darnold’s career after an inauspicious start to the No. 3 overall pick’s career.
Among the 32 quarterbacks with at least 850 plays over the course of the last three seasons, the New York Jets QB ranks dead last in rbsdm.com’s EPA+CPOE composite metric. EPA stands for expected points added, and CPOE is completion percentage over expected.
Darnold also ranks last in EPA per play, last in success rate, 30th in CPOE and ninth in air yards.
Darnold has essentially been the worst regular starting quarterback in the NFL since he was drafted.
More evidence to support that conclusion: Darnold ranked 29th in QBR in 2018, 26th in 2019 and 33rd in 2020.
If we want to travel over to Football Outsiders, we find out that Darnold ranked 30th in DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) and DVOA (defensive adjusted yards value over average) in 2018, 32nd in DYAR and 31st in DVOA in 2019 and 35th in DYAR and 33rd in DVOA in 2020.
We’re not quite done. Darnold ranked 26th in PFF grades among quarterbacks in 2018, 25th in 2019 and 28th in 2020.
We’ll stop piling on.
He’s been pretty awful. So, on the surface, it sounds silly that the Jets reportedly are trying to get a second-round pick (or more) in a trade for Darnold.
But there is reason to believe Darnold could be better, perhaps significantly so, in a different offense.
NFL teams are trying to find the next Ryan Tannehill, or a quarterback who could thrive in a change of scenery, this offseason. Oddly, the quarterback most frequently mentioned in the conversation is Marcus Mariota, the same quarterback Tannehill replaced and improved upon with the Tennessee Titans.
Tannehill struggled mightily in two seasons under Adam Gase with the Miami Dolphins then turned into one of the NFL’s most efficient passers under Arthur Smith with the Titans.
So, it seems to be missing the point a little to compare Mariota, who was one of the NFL’s worst quarterbacks under Smith, to Tannehill, who was one of the best under the same offensive coordinator. Smith was hired away as the Atlanta Falcons’ head coach this offseason.
Mariota under Smith:
EPA+CPOE: 0.032 (32nd)
EPA/play: 0.013 (29th)
Success rate: 40.5% (34th)
CPOE: -3.2% (31st)
Air yards: 7.3 (29th)
QBR: 33.7 (43rd)
DYAR: -62 (40th)
DVOA: -17.0% (38th)
PFF grade: 64.1 (30th)
Tannehill under Smith:
EPA+CPOE: .177 (first)
EPA/play: 0.293 (second)
Success rate: 54.5% (first)
CPOE: 4.3% (second)
Air yards: 8.8 (seventh)
QBR: 62.2 (ninth, 2019), 78.7 (fourth, 2020)
DYAR: 773 (10th, 2019), 1,046 (sixth, 2020)
DVOA: 28.0% (fifth, 2019), 19.6% (sixth, 2020)
PFF grade: 92.5 (first, 2019), 90.3 (2020)
Tannehill did improve significantly from 2016 and 2018 (he missed 2017 with a torn ACL) with Gase as his head coach to 2019 and 2020 with Smith as his offensive coordinator.
Tannehill under Gase:
EPA+CPOE: 0.049 (27th)
EPA/play: -0.039 (32nd)
Success rate: 44.2% (30th)
CPOE: 2.8% (eighth)
Air yards: 8.1 (21st)
QBR: 48.6 (25th, 2016), 33.2 (33rd, 2018)
DYAR: 10 (25th, 2016), -186 (31st, 2018)
DVOA: -10.8% (25th, 2016), -20.8 (32nd, 2018)
PFF grade: 74.2 (16th, 2016), 45.3 (39th, 2018)
Tannehill was about as bad as circa-2019 Mariota in 2016 and 2018.
Here’s Darnold under Gase in 2019 and 2020:
EPA+CPOE: 0.029 (32nd)
EPA/play: -0.054 (32nd)
Success rate: 42.5% (32nd)
CPOE: -.3% (23rd)
Air yards: 8.3 (15th)
QBR: 43.6 (27th, 2019), 40.7 (34th, 2020)
DYAR: -290 (32nd, 2019), -540 (35th, 2020)
DVOA: -20.4% (31st, 2019), -32.2% (33rd, 2020)
PFF grade: 63.6 (31st, 2019), 58.4 (37th, 2020)
So, what do we take away from Darnold vs. Tannehill under Gase? Darnold was slightly worse but not significantly so, and it’s fair to wonder if he could take a similar leap as Tannehill in a better offensive system.
It’s worth mentioning that Tannehill was coming off of a torn ACL in 2018. It’s also worth mentioning that Darnold had mono in 2019 and suffered a shoulder injury in 2020. Also, we’re comparing Tannehill’s fifth and seventh years in the NFL to Darnold’s second and third seasons. Tannehill’s CPOE was -1.5 in 2012 and 2013, his second and third seasons in the league. So, Darnold’s accuracy certainly could improve. Tannehill’s ball placement increased during the course of his career.
The Titans are quite happy with Tannehill, so he won’t be going anywhere this offseason. Mariota and Darnold could be acquired, however. Mariota is the more likely option for the Patriots if only because Darnold plays for an AFC East rival. Darnold would probably cost more for the Patriots to acquire than he would to be traded to any other team.
Mariota also is the safer option despite his struggles in 2019. Over the course of their entire careers, Mariota ranks higher than Darnold in EPA+CPOE, EPA/play, success rate, CPOE and air yards. Darnold is cheaper, however, and if he gets that Tannehill bump after leaving Gase, then he potentially has higher upside than Mariota.
Acquiring Darnold requires a leap of faith. You don’t want to give up draft capital to acquire the same Darnold who struggled from 2018 to 2020. But if there’s an off chance that you could get 2019 and 2020-circa Tannehill, then it might be worth the risk.
Now, is Darnold worth a second-round pick and potentially more? Probably not. That’s a high price to pay for a quarterback who has been as bad as Darnold. And if the Jets can’t get a second-round pick, then they might be better off keeping him. Gase is gone, and former San Francisco 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur is head coach Robert Saleh’s new offensive coordinator in New York. Darnold could take that same leap under LaFleur that Tannehill did under Smith.
That being said, the Jets pick second overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. Would they pass up taking Zach Wilson or Justin Fields to see if Darnold could take that leap? It’s a risk. The Jets’ other option would be to take a QB, keep Darnold, let the best man win in training camp and trade one of the two quarterbacks at a later date.