Leading up to the start of NFL free agency, NESN.com will break down the New England Patriots’ top potential veteran quarterback options. Next up: New York Jets QB Sam Darnold.
2021 status: Under contract with Jets
2020 stats: 217-for-364 (59.6 percent), 2,208 yards, 6.1 yards per attempt, 72.7 passer rating, 40.1 quarterback rating; 37 carries, 217 yards, two touchdowns (13 games)
Pros: Darnold would be purely an upside play at this point. Yes, he’s been largely awful since he entered the NFL. But he was the third overall pick just three years ago and he’s also played on one of the NFL’s most dysfunctional franchises and in an Adam Gase-coached offense that was talent-deficient at nearly every position.
The Jets’ offensive line ranked 30th in both sacks allowed per pass attempt and Pro Football Focus’s pass-blocking efficiency in 2019. They were 29th and 32nd, respectively, in 2020.
Darnold’s offensive weapons this past season were receivers Jamison Crowder, Breshad Perriman, Braxton Berrios, Denzel Mims and Jeff Smith; tight ends Chris Herndon and Ryan Griffin; and running backs Frank Gore, La’Mical Perine and Ty Johnson. Crowder is a solid slot man and Mims has potential. Gore might still be logging 150-plus carries in 2031. But overall, that’s one of the NFL’s weakest collection of skill players.
And then there’s the Gase factor. Just two years ago, Ryan Tannehill had to settle for a backup job after scuffling for three years under Gase in Miami. Tannehill then replaced Marcus Mariota as the Tennessee Titans’ starter midway through the 2019 season and has been one of the NFL’s most efficient and productive quarterbacks ever since.
Gase was the Jets’ head coach in 2019 and 2020 before being fired.
Darnold certainly isn’t a lock to become the next Tannehill, who performed better for Miami than Darnold has for New York. But there’s reason to believe he can improve under a different coaching staff and with a more competent supporting cast.
If traded, Darnold, who turns 24 in June, would carry a salary cap hit of just $4.77 million in 2021, the final year of his rookie contract. That’s extremely affordable for a starting quarterback.
Cons: Extenuating circumstances aside, Darnold has been arguably the NFL’s worst starting quarterback over the last three seasons.
A total of 39 QBs have logged at least 700 pass-play snaps since 2018, and Darnold ranks dead last in expected points added per play, success rate and EPA+CPOE composite, according to advanced stats site rbsdm.com. He’s 36th in CPOE, which is completion percentage over expected.
Darnold has never ranked higher than 25th in completion percentage (33rd in 2020), 26th in passer rating (35th), 27th in QBR (33rd), 23rd in yards per attempt (32nd), 27th in interception rate (30th) or 31st in Football Outsiders‘ DYAR (35th) or DVOA (33rd).
The infamous “Seeing Ghosts” game might have been his nadir, but Darnold never has been even an average NFL quarterback.
But there’s also the simple fact that the Patriots are one of the Jets’ oldest rivals. The teams have shown an increased willingness to deal in recent years, but would Jets general manager Joe Douglas really trade Darnold to New England risk watching him revive his career with an AFC East foe? We doubt it.
New York also could keep Darnold and see if he’ll improve under new head coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, though shipping him out and drafting a QB second overall seems more likely. Peter King recently speculated the Jets could fetch a high second-round pick for Darnold, but that sounds too rich for a player with his track record.
Verdict: Despite his miserable first few seasons, Darnold would be a worthwhile reclamation project for some team. But we can’t see the Jets ever trading him to the Patriots.