In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, we spotlight emerging players to keep an eye on in 2016. Whether rising from no-namer to quality starter or vaulting from standout to superstar, each of these individuals is poised to break through in the coming campaign.
The NFL is a sink-or-swim league.
At a position notoriously rough on rookies, Darby displayed the tenacity and mental aptitude not only to play in a Rex Ryan defense that demands a lot from cornerbacks, but to become one of the NFL's upper-echelon defensive backs in short order.
Why Darby is on the list
The 5-foot-11 corner started Week 1 and flourished from the get-go, holding Colts speedster T.Y. Hilton to 23 yards on two catches and picking off an underthrown pass in the opener. The following week, Tom Brady targeted the rookie nine times in coverage versus Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, per Pro Football Focus. The Patriots' dominant duo took Darby for just three catches and 48 yards.
The early success against three very diverse targets (a receiver with speed, a tight end with size and a precise route runner) displays the attributes that make Darby an enticing prospect and potential lock-down corner in Ryan's system.
Darby owns a special feel for route recognition, an innate skill for defensive backs. I watched his film on NFL Game Pass; often, he will react to the route before the receiver. He is a hammerhead shark on the field, plowing through receivers. He possesses the strength, speed, quick hips, lateral agility and physicality to succeed in one-on-one matchups. At 193 pounds, he's a violent hitter -- willing to stick his nose in against the run, something that can't be said of all rookie corners -- and a sure tackler.
Darby's rookie stats match up to his impressive game film. In his first season, the corner allowed a passer rating of 67.0 in coverage and gave up just three touchdowns, per NFL Media Research. The 67.0 passer rating allowed ranked 19th-best in the NFL among cornerbacks targeted 40-plus times in 2015.
And oh, did quarterbacks target the rookie. Darby was thrown at 107 times, fifth-most in the NFL, but he allowed a completion percentage of just 50.5.
Playing on the left side of Ryan's defense, Darby didn't always match up against the opponent's top receiver. Yet, when he did, he won plenty.
The quartet of plays illustrates Darby's full skill set. He jumps on a route, makes a sure open-field tackle, utilizes the sideline to push the play out of bounds and bats away an underthrown ball in the end zone.
Obstacles he'll face
Though he possesses the speed to run with receivers, Darby sometimes struggled with deep routes, allowing a reception of 20 or more yards in six games, per PFF. Darby specifically struggled with deep, in-breaking routes -- somewhat a byproduct of the system. Negating big plays is a must if he's to truly make a leap in Year 2.
While judging corners merely on interceptions is faulty, compiling more than the two picks he had last season -- one on an underthrown pass and another on a quarterback-receiver miscommunication -- will boost Darby's profile. There were several plays last season in which he beat the receiver to the spot but failed to make a game-changing pick.
Bump-and-run man coverage is a Ryan staple. But when asked this offseason what he needs to work on more, Darby noted his off coverage: "[During workouts] I wanted to work on my 'off' a lot more, because we aren't off as much, but that's something I want to be comfortable in, as well." We won't argue.
Given that he plays in a Ryan defense, the question of whether or not Darby is capable of handling the Darrelle Revis role and traveling with an opponent's top receiver will surely come up. The presence of Stephon Gilmore (for at least one more year) on the opposite side doesn't necessitate Darby moving around the formation. But if injury strikes, it will be interesting to see if Ryan trusts his young DB to take on No. 1 targets head-to-head for an entire game.
Expectations for 2016
As a rookie, Darby ranked just outside the top corners in the NFL. In Year 2, he'll nudge his name further into the national conversation.
Darby was the bright spot on a disappointing Bills defense in 2015. Imagine what he might do if Buffalo generates an actual pass rush in 2016.
I expect quarterbacks to start looking elsewhere to throw the ball, negating some of Darby's chances to make plays. His passes defensed totals (he had 21 in 2015, fifth-most in the NFL) could take a dip, but his impact will take a leap. Darby should be touted as one of the next up-and-comers at corner and could earn his first Pro Bowl nod. He and Gilmore also will push for the honor of top corner tandem in the NFL by the year's end.