Skip to main content

State of the Franchise: Sam Darnold's growth Jets' top priority

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Jets organization, Jets fans around the world and those who think Flash Gordon was truly the best quarterback in New York Jets history:

The Jets are going through a lot of change. Not to mention throwing some change around to make that happen. Heyo! But I digress.

There is a new coach. A new running back. And even new uniforms (that are pretty rad, I might add). All put in place with one goal in mind: Get the most out of the team's franchise quarterback, Sam Darnold. Not Flash Gordon (who was played by Sam Jones from the "Ted" movies).

How the Jets got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and low of the 2018 season.

The highs:

-- Opened the season by destroying the Lions 48-17 on "Monday Night Football."Sam Darnold looked great, throwing for 198 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and you thought to yourself, This could be a really special season. (Narrator's voice: It wasn't.)

-- Beat the Colts in Week 6. Reality set in after the Week 1 win, with the Jets losing their next three games. But by out-dueling the Colts at home in mid-October, New York notched its only back-to-back Ws of the season, having defeated Denver in Week 5. Against the Colts, Darnold once again looked like a stud, throwing for 280 yards and two scores.

Low points:

-- Lost to the Browns on "Thursday Night Football" in Week 3. The Browns hadn't won a game since Otto Graham was the quarterback (or maybe it just felt that way). Cleveland celebrated. Everybody was drinking Bud Light. Baker Mayfield became a megastar. You don't want to be the team that helps Cleveland break a 19-game skid. And you were.

-- Sam Darnold misses three games due to a foot injury. You never want that to happen.

-- GM Mike Maccagnan is fired. While this technically happened during the 2019 offseason, it's still worth noting here. Maccagnan oversaw the hiring of Adam Gase, spent major resources in free agency (which we'll get to in a few) and led the franchise through the 2019 NFL Draft. And then was out just a few weeks later. Jets owner Christopher Johnson explained that after doing a deep-dive on the operation, he decided it was time to move on. And while the move did have weird timing, no use in staying in a relationship that isn't working just because ending it might look odd to people on Twitter.

2019 VIPs

Head coach: Adam Gase. He was hired for one reason: To develop Darnold. Gase has been lauded for his work as a quarterback guru after coaching guys like Peyton Manning and Jay Cutler. And that's the thing that kind of sticks out to me. Are we really giving him credit for the success he had with one of the greatest quarterbacks of his generation and Peyton Manning? Manning did have one of the best seasons in league history working with Gase in 2013, passing for 5,477 yards and an NFL-record 55 touchdowns. I'm sure Gase will talk about that forever. Just like that kid, Nicholas, who won the WWE tag-team title with Braun Strowman at WrestleMania 34. I mean, he did technically win part of that title, but it was clear Strowman did all the heavy lifting.

But here's the bad news: What has post-Manning Adam Gase actually accomplished? During his run as the offensive coordinator for the Broncos from 2013 to '14, Denver led the NFL in points per game (34.0), total yards per game (430.1), passing yards per game (315.8) and passer rating (108.2). But the production he oversaw in Chicago in 2015 and Miami the last three years looks nothing like that. In fact, the Dolphins ranked 31st in total offense last year. Weird to think that the Jets brass watched the last three years of Dolphins football and said, "Dude, if that guy was our coach, we'd be crushing it."

On the bright side, though, the Jets have better offensive talent in some key positions than those Dolphins teams. So maybe Gase can surprise us all.

Quarterback: Sam Darnold. I should be honest and let you know I'm a huge fan of Darnold. I followed his career at USC. And we even bonded over a mutual disdain for Tesoro High School (one of Darnold's rivals in Orange County, where I live). So I was really excited for Darnold to get an opportunity in New York. His first season was sort of a mixed bag. Darnold ranked 36th in passer rating (77.6) last year among QBs with at least 100 attempts, just ahead of fellow rookies Josh Allen (67.9) and Josh Rosen (66.7). He had the second-highest interception total (15), too. So that wasn't great. But he really started to put it together at the end of the season.

Darnold injured his foot in Week 9, but returned in Week 14 and looked like a much different quarterback. He threw six touchdown passes and only one pick in his final four games of the season, ranking 10th in passer rating (99.1) during that stretch. So he was getting it. And now this season, he's going to have someone helping him out. Who is that person? Let's take a look ...

Projected 2019 MVP: Le'Veon Bell, running back. I'm not saying Bell will have the kind of nurturing impact Todd Gurley had on Jared Goff. But I'm also not not saying that, either. The Jets couldn't run the ball last season. They ranked 26th in rushing yards per game (101.4), 29th in rushing yards per play (3.96) and had just 11 touchdowns on the ground. Bell had nine rushing scores by himself in 2017. In fact, Bell was so productive during his stint in Pittsburgh that he set the NFL record for most scrimmage yards per game (129.0) in a player's first five seasons in the league (minimum 50 attempts). The Jets haven't had a dynamic playmaker like this since Curtis Martin. This is going to be huge for Darnold. So maybe I am saying he's going to be Darnold's Gurley.

2019 Breakout star: Marcus Maye, safety. He played really well as a rookie, but struggled with injuries (shoulder, thumb) in Year 2. Shortly after being placed on season-ending injured reserve on December 1, Maye underwent shoulder surgery and has been limited thus far in the Jets' offseason program. But he's expected to be back at full-go when training camp starts in a few weeks. He should have a great opportunity under new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to play closer to the line of scrimmage and bring a physical presence. If Maye stays healthy, he and Jamal Adams could end up being one of the best safety tandems in the league.

New face to know: C.J. Mosley, linebacker. This was a huge get for the Jets, who needed some help on defense (we'll talk about that more in a bit). Mosley has made the Pro Bowl four times since he entered the league in 2014. Of all of the players drafted that year, only Aaron Donald (maybe you've heard of him) has more Pro Bowl selections (5) than Mosley. And Donald is one of just four players to receive a 99 rating in "Madden 20." (I don't know what that means for Mosley, but I wanted to point that out.) Mosley has totaled 574 tackles in his five NFL seasons, which is fifth-most in the league over that stretch. So what I'm saying is that he's pretty good.

Another new face to know: Quinnen Williams, defensive tackle. Loved this pick for the Jets. Williams was second in the SEC with 18.5 tackles for loss last year and is the kind of disruptive force up the middle that could really ruin the day for an opposing quarterback. And not that you draft a player to take out just one guy, but I'm just saying two of the quarterbacks in the AFC East aren't very mobile, so the best way to get after them is with pressure up the middle. And a bit of good news for the Jets: The last three defensive linemen the team selected in the first round have made the Pro Bowl; though, not one of them did so as a rookie. Hey, I said it was good news, not great news.

2019 Road Map

The competitive urgency index is: HIGHER THAN IT SHOULD BE. And this isn't just because the Jets play in New York City. All right, fine. Maybe a little. But the Jets went out and hired a veteran NFL coach. They spent $239 million this offseason, the most in the NFL, per Over The Cap. When you bring in a coordinator like Gregg Williams, it sure doesn't feel like a, "Hey, we'll give you a few years to figure this out" kind of thing. I get the sense they need to see some results quickly. But that's just conjecture on my part.

Will the Jets be able to ...

Fix the defense? The Jets, who finished 29th in scoring defense and 25th in total defense in 2018, have ranked 20th-or-worse in scoring defense in six of the last eight seasons. Williams should help with this. He's been a defensive coordinator for 17 seasons (Titans, Redskins, Rams, Saints, Browns and Jaguars) and a head coach (of the Bills) for three more. In those 20 years, Williams' teams have ranked top 10 in scoring defense five times.

Continue the trend for first-year coaches? Each of the last six Jets head coaches has logged a winning record in his first season with the team (three of them made the playoffs). The last coach with a losing record in his first season was Rich Kotite, who went 3-13 in 1995. I'm sorry to bring that up. But if you're a true believer in trends, then you have to feel good about Gase's chances this season (and definitely shouldn't have read the defensive trend I listed in the previous graph). And remember, he won 10 games during his first season with the Dolphins.

Not ignore Bell? I know I'm letting my fantasy bias get the best of me here, but it was extremely frustrating to see the Dolphins at times seemingly ignore Kenyan Drake, who I thought could have had a breakout season in 2018. There would be times when he would look great ... and then we wouldn't see him again. My sincerest hope is that, you know, for the money the Jets spent on Bell (even if Gase didn't like it), they are going to use him to the best of his abilities.

Help Robby Anderson accomplish his lofty goal? Anderson told Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News that he wanted to be the best receiver in the NFL. Which isn't really shocking when you consider this is the kind of thing that receivers say all the time. It's not like there's a slew of guys saying, "Yeah, Jerry Rice was great and all, but I want to be the John Taylor of the NFL." Not that Taylor was bad or anything. But you know what I mean. And I'll admit the fantasy dork in me has loved Anderson for some time. But I was mad at then-offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates last year when Anderson had just 32 targets in his first seven games. That changed over the wideout's final seven games, when he was targeted 55 times. A big problem was that Bates' system tried to use Anderson primarily as a field-stretcher, instead of just getting the ball into his hands.

Three key dates

-- Week 2 vs. the Browns. As I mentioned above, the Browns made a splash last season with a monster win over the Jets on "Thursday Night Football." I'm not saying there would be free beer all over New York City, but this would be huge for the Jets to return the favor.

-- Week 9 at the Dolphins. Oh you know it. ADAM GASE REVENGE GAME. But I'm not sure who is going to be the team seeking revenge. Sorry, cheap shot. But this starts off a favorable part of the schedule, one that includes the Dolphins, Giants, Redskins, Raiders, Bengals and Dolphins again. Those teams all finished below .500 last year. And I know the NFL changes year to year, but this looks like the stretch where the Jets could make a run.

-- Week 17 at the Bills.Bills vs. Jets for the division! Hey, you never know. Stranger things have happened.

One storyline people are overlooking:The pass catchers are pretty good. Obviously, I'm a huge Robby guy. But Jamison Crowder is a pretty good receiver, too. I've long felt he was underrated. An ankle injury slowed him last year, and he wasn't as productive as he's been in the past. If you put him in the slot, where guys like Jarvis Landry have excelled in Gase's offense, Crowder could be in line for a productive season. And when you think about the pass-catching ability of Bell, along with Anderson and Crowder, and not to mention tight end Chris Herndon, who is going to have a breakthrough season, this offense could be pretty nice.

One storyline people are overthinking:But Bell sat out an entire season. I hear that. But it's not like he was injured or anything. He was just taking a break from the game. Jamal Lewis once missed an entire season in 2001. He came back the following year to gain 1,769 scrimmage yards the following season. Garrison Hearst (1,553 in 2001), Mike Anderson (1,226 in 2005) and Terry Allen (1,179 in 1994) are just a few of the most-recent examples. So I wouldn't be worried about this at all.

For 2019 to be a successful season, the Jets must ...

-- Have Sam Darnold be in the upper half of NFL quarterbacks.

-- Avoid the cellar.

I mean, what we're really looking for this season is some improvement. The Jets have missed the playoffs in eight consecutive seasons, with their last postseason appearance coming in 2010, and have finished last in the AFC East for three straight years. I don't want to pile on, but the Jets have a .292 win percentage since 2015 (30th in the NFL), with only the Browns and 49ers being lower. So, yeah, there's room to get better.

In closing

I hate to be such a downer. Especially since I like Darnold so much. But the most important thing for the Jets right now is for them to develop their young quarterback into someone they'll be able to count on for years to come. It seems like forever since they had a guy they could rely on. The team tried with Brett Favre, Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh McCown, but none turned out to be The Guy. I want it to be Darnold. And while Jets fans would love to follow in the Rams' and Bears' footsteps, and make the playoffs in their first season with a young passer and a new head coach, the more realistic goal would be to field a competitive team and feel confident the QB position is set for the future.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content