Sam Darnold flashes starting QB potential in Jets' win

It's very difficult to imagine Sam Darnold not starting Week 1 for the New York Jets if he continues to play in the preseason like he did against the Atlanta Falcons on Friday night.

Darnold, the third overall pick of the 2018 draft, christened his NFL career with a performance that lived up to the grandiose hype arising from months of honeyed words and prognostications from scouts and pundits alike. After entering the game early in the second quarter, he completed 13 of 18 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown in the Jets' 17-0 win over the Falcons.

The numbers reflect Darnold's effective performance, but they don't capture the scope of how well he executed at the intangibles of his position. "Slinging" Sam looked very confident moving up in the pocket and throwing amid encroaching defenders, showcasing a level of awareness that looked beyond his years. The Jets' offensive line did a good job of making sure the structure of the team's plays weren't compromised, allowing Darnold to showcase his pocket-passer skill set.

"I thought I played pretty good. I put the ball where it needed to be," Darnold said. "I thought I did pretty well. I took care of the football, which was my main priority tonight."

Darnold's 14-yard touchdown pass to receiver Charles Johnson to cap off an impressive two-minute drive (10 plays, 1:45) demonstrated his baller-esque abilities while revealing the NFL-level patience and resolve critical to his position. After Johnson dropped a pass on first down that would have been a touchdown, Darnold targeted him again on second down but the receiver was flagged for pass interference. On third and goal, he found Johnson while running with a sharp pass to the corner of the end zone.

"The poise in the pocket," Jets coach Todd Bowles said when asked by NFL Network's Kimberly Jones what most impressed him about Darnold's performance. "Obviously, the touchdown throw, the scramble -- very good use of his feet and accuracy. He does that in practice all the time, so I can't say it impresses me because we see that every day. ... There's things he can get better at, too, but it's a good start."

Late in the game, Darnold converted on third down while running and throwing across his body to Andre Roberts for 13 yards. It was another example of Darnold's trouble-avoiding ability and athleticism.

Darnold managed all this despite suffering a minor injury to his non-throwing hand early in his night when a chasing defender trampled on his left hand as he went to down sliding on a short run. That slide was about the only thing that didn't really look NFL ready (but we've seen much worse from some all-time great quarterbacks).

The bulk of Darnold's impressive game came in the first half when he tallied 9-of-11 passing for 74 yards, a TD and two third-down conversions.

The overall performance was a great development for a team looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010. A lot can still happen in the preseason, and there's still no guarantee Darnold will be under center when the Jets open the regular season Sept. 10 against the Detroit Lions. Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater will offer formidable challenges to Darnold's starting aspirations.

"I'm not going to jump to any conclusions after one game," Bowles said. "It's a tough decision, we got three good players."

Still, the Jets' faithful fan base might no longer be green with envy when it comes to some other QBs in the AFC -- Darnold might just be the signal-caller they've been longing for.

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