2018 NFL Preview: Rookie QB Sam Darnold steps into the Jets pressure cooker

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

If you want to know what it’s like to be quarterback for the New York Jets, listen to CEO Christopher Johnson talk about Sam Darnold, the third pick in this year’s draft.

“I think people are going to look back 20 years from now and say that this is the moment that the Jets shifted into a new gear and became a great team,” Johnson said a couple weeks after Darnold was drafted, according to the New York Daily News.

No pressure at all.

Maybe in 2038 we’ll be blown away at how Johnson called his shot on Darnold, that he ended up being different than Mark Sanchez, Chad Pennington, Browning Nagle, Ken O’Brien, Richard Todd or any of the other quarterbacks who were supposed to be the next Joe Namath. It’s certainly a new era in Jets history. We’ll see if it’s the raging success Johnson thinks it will be.

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Darnold enters the picture at a strange time for the Jets. There was such little faith in the Jets before last season that 5-11 was considered a nice year. Todd Bowles kept his job, and deservedly so. Everyone was convinced the Jets were tanking, but Bowles had them at 4-5 shortly after Halloween. They played the New England Patriots very tough in Week 6, and could have knocked off the eventual AFC champs had a very controversial call not overturned an Austin Seferian-Jenkins touchdown. The wheels came off late in the Jets’ season but it had to be considered a successful year, especially considering wins over playoff teams Buffalo, Kansas City and Jacksonville.

Yes, five wins last season was something to feel good about. Darnold isn’t exactly joining a ready-made winner.

The Jets have to build a better roster around Darnold. Despite overachieving last season, it’s still a team with a lot of flaws. That’s why trading three second-round picks to move up from No. 6 to No. 3 was steep, though understandable. The building process is ongoing, and in the meantime all eyes will be on Darnold.

The New York Post’s long story in May about the Jets’ draft process said they coveted Darnold all along, and that could very well be true. It’s worth remembering that before the 2017 draft, Darnold was shaping up as an Andrew Luck-level prospect. That didn’t come to pass because Darnold’s warts became more apparent, most notably in his issues with turnovers. But he’s a top-level prospect, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he became the best quarterback in this class.

Darnold better be ready for all of those turnovers to get picked apart. He’s in an intense market with fans desperate for an answer at quarterback. Johnson’s proclamation of greatness won’t slow down the hype train. Darnold has the temperament to handle it all. He was curiously humble at the scouting combine, refusing to say he was the best quarterback in the draft. The other three top quarterbacks were fine proclaiming themselves the best in the class. Josh Rosen even said the nine picks before he was selected were “nine mistakes.” In comparison to the others, Darnold was a bit bland. That could serve him very well as he steps into a cauldron.

“I’m taking it head-on,’’ Darnold said, according to the New York Post. “I’m a pretty confident guy. I’m pretty comfortable in my own skin. I’m going to come in there, do my thing, do what the coaches ask me to do and do that at the highest level. That’s my plan.’’

We’ll see if he can maintain that attitude with the inevitable criticism that’s about to come. The best way to keep that criticism at reasonable levels would be to play well. The hope of a franchise rides on it.

New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold was the third overall pick of this year’s draft. (AP)

While I get the Jets trading up three spots to eventually land Sam Darnold, second-round picks should be starting-level players and the Jets gave up three of them. The price won’t matter if Darnold is great, but that’s a stiff cost for a thin team. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson cost $72.5 million over five years, but he’s a quality player. Linebacker Avery Williamson, formerly of the Tennessee Titans, is a good player and a smart addition. Some major issues like the offensive line remain, but you can’t fix all the holes the Jets have in one offseason.

GRADE: B

Last season does provide a foundation for optimism. The Jets fought hard with an undermanned roster last season, and weren’t wholly deficient in any area. Some young players like safety Jamal Adams, defensive end Leonard Williams and receiver Robby Anderson looked good. With some nice free-agent additions like cornerback Trumaine Johnson, linebacker Avery Williamson and running back Isaiah Crowell, things should be looking up. That’s assuming Sam Darnold – who is probably the safest bet among all rookie quarterbacks to start 16 games – looks the part.

It’s almost impossible to field a good defense without a decent pass rush, and the Jets have almost no pass-rushing talent. The only player to have more than 3.5 sacks last season was inside linebacker Demario Davis, with five, and he’s not on the roster anymore. Coach Todd Bowles is known for his pressure schemes on defense, but you still need players who can actually get to the quarterback. The Jets have ranked 29th and 28th in the NFL in sacks the past two seasons, and it probably won’t be much better this season. Avery Williamson is a decent situational pass rusher, but that’s not his strength. The Jets didn’t add a true pass rusher this offseason. Now that quarterback has been addressed, finding a pass rusher should be next on the priority list. That won’t happen until next offseason at the earliest.

One of the most surprising stories of the 2017 Jets was Josh McCown. He had a 94.5 rating over 13 games, perhaps his best season at age 38. McCown was re-signed in the offseason, so the Jets don’t have to rush Darnold. But it’s clear they want Darnold to win the job by the season opener.

“Our thought process is not necessarily to just throw him in there when he’s not ready, but we’re going to throw everything at him to give him the ability to go in there and earn that position and see how quickly he comes along,” Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan told WFAN after the draft.

“Are we giving him bits and pieces of the offense or are we throwing everything at him? We’re throwing everything at him,” offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates said at the team’s June minicamp, the New York Daily News reported. “If he can handle it, if he can prove that he’s the starter, then that will take place when the time comes.”

In other words, the Jets are giving Darnold every chance to win the job. It will be a mild concern if he doesn’t.

The emergence of undrafted second-year receiver Robby Anderson was a great development for the Jets last season. Anderson, who turned 25 years old in May, had 63 receptions, 941 yards and seven touchdowns. Anderson saved the Jets, who looked incredibly thin at receiver after Quincy Enunwa’s preseason injury ended his 2017. Anderson has promise but he needs to stay out of trouble off the field. He has been arrested twice in two years, although charges for a 2017 arrest were dismissed and felony charges were dropped from a January arrest after he was accused of driving 105 mph and making vulgar threats toward an officer’s wife. No matter the legal outcomes, the Jets don’t want this to become a pattern for one of their best young players. If Anderson can stay clean off the field, he has a bright future with the Jets. 

From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “Don’t sleep on Quincy Enunwa. With Austin Seferian-Jenkins in Jacksonville, Robby Anderson facing a potential suspension, and Terrelle Pryor learning another playbook, Enunwa remains New York’s most seasoned and solid pass-catching option. A WR/TE hybrid, the Nebraska product brings size and physicality to the slot. He could also work as a security blanket for a young and developing quarterback … which is particularly beneficial this year. Currently being drafted outside of the top-sixty players at the position, Enunwa presents incredible value, particularly in leagues that start three receivers.”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Jets.]

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Since Joe Namath’s last Pro Bowl in 1972, the Jets have had four quarterbacks make a combined five Pro Bowls. Ken O’Brien made two. Last-gasp Band-Aid veterans Brett Favre, Boomer Esiason and Vinny Testaverde made one each. In other words, Sam Darnold doesn’t have to be great to be the best Jets quarterback in more than 40 years.

WHICH YOUNG PLAYERS ARE EMERGING? 

Every rebuild needs promising young pieces, and not just at quarterback. Because the Jets paid a ton to move up and get Sam Darnold, the only other top-100 pick this year was small school defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd, of Fort Hays State. That puts a ton of pressure on the last couple drafts, and that picture doesn’t look great. The good news is the top-two picks last year, safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, looked good. Linebacker Darron Lee, the 2016 first-round pick, has had some moments but has been a little underwhelming. And who else? Here are the other picks from 2016 and 2017, and we won’t include quarterback Christian Hackenberg, an already-dumped 2016 second-round choice who is one of the worst picks in recent NFL history: Outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins, cornerback Juston Burris, offensive tackle Brandon Shell, punter Lac Edwards, receiver Charone Peake, receiver ArDarius Stewart, receiver Chad Hansen, tight end Jordan Leggett, defensive lineman Dylan Donahue, running back Elijah McGuire, cornerback Jeremy Clark, cornerback Derrick Jones. Edwards looks like a good punter, Jenkins is a low-impact starter, Shell was an average starting right tackle last season and McGuire showed a little big-play promise. That’s it. Very little, outside of defensive end Leonard Williams, remains from the 2014 and 2015 drafts either. Players are allowed to improve and there’s still hope some of those guys on their rookie deals emerge. But at this moment those drafts are light on impact players other than the safeties, and this year’s draft is relying on late-round picks because of the price to get Darnold.

It would be great if the Jets won enough that they stuck with Todd Bowles, who has done a pretty good job as head coach. For the Jets to improve upon last year’s five wins, Sam Darnold probably needs to have a solid rookie season. If Darnold plays poorly, the Jets will have the type of record that usually leads to a coaching change. And if Darnold really struggles and the Jets take a step back, general manager Mike Maccagnan’s seat will be hot too. To say there’s a lot riding on Darnold’s success is an understatement. It’s hard to see the Jets battling for a playoff spot, but incremental improvements with a good showing from Darnold would be just fine.

The Jets lost six of their last seven last season (Josh McCown didn’t play the final three due to injury), and maybe that was more representative of what they were as a team. A team likely to start a rookie quarterback, which can’t rush the passer, has a bottom-five offensive line and doesn’t do anything particularly well is going to have its struggles. A top-five pick in 2019 is a possibility. Even worse, what happens if Sam Darnold has a terrible rookie season?

Sam Darnold should be fine long term, but he’ll take some lumps as a rookie. The team around him isn’t good enough to elevate his play, though it’s better than we thought heading into 2017. My hope for the Jets is they play well enough to keep Todd Bowles, who I believe in as a coach, because some continuity might be good for them. Whether Bowles is back probably depends on how well Darnold plays in Year 1. Overall, I’m not optimistic they’ll be better than last year’s five wins.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!