In this series of articles, our resident tape wizard Greg Cosell will take an in-depth look at some of the more interesting fantasy players for the 2020 NFL season. It’s a peek behind the curtain of the film room, as these are Greg’s raw, unfiltered notes he takes as he watches a player.
It seems weird to say that Jet QB Sam Darnold might be entering a make-or-break season since he is only 23, but it’s reasonable to suggest the Jets will want to see the young signal-caller take a big step forward in his third season, following a 2019 campaign marred by a bout of mononucleosis.
Why could this year be pivotal for Darnold? Well, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the Jets just loaded up with future picks, getting two upcoming first-round selections and a third-round selection in their recent trade of S Jamal Adams to the Seahawks. Those picks give the Jets a lot of flexibility for their future.
Darnold has a lot of natural ability. But the tape — from the six games I studied — shows he needs to work on quite a bit.
- vs. Cowboys Week 6, vs. Patriots Week 7, at Jaguars Week 8, vs. Raiders Week 12, vs. Dolphins Week 14, vs. Steelers Week 16
- One of Darnold’s continuing issues is that his eyes and feet do not consistently work together. He does not step to his throws and that negatively impacts both velocity and accuracy.
- Darnold does not consistently play with a firm base and good balance in the pocket – that must continue to be cleaned up.
- Darnold’s lack of consistent footwork and balance in the pocket have been the same since I evaluated him coming out of USC. It may be one of those things that you have to live with and work within that framework.
- Darnold has always had a tendency to be a little frenetic in the pocket. At times, he will break down prematurely, perceiving pressure that is not there by NFL standards.
- What makes Darnold a hard and frustrating evaluation is that he can make high-level throws without proper lower body mechanics — that’s a knack that he has, but as a coach, you do not want to accept poor mechanics.
- Darnold can be both special and reckless on off-schedule, outside-of-structure plays. It is a part of his game, but it still needs some refinement and channeling.
- Darnold threw crossers effectively; it was one of his best throws. He looked comfortable and confident on them – conventional play action with Darnold under center featured post-cross combinations: a crosser with an opposite vertical was a staple shot play concept for the Jets.
- Darnold’s poor footwork – not stepping into his throws – continued to be an issue in the games I watched. The result is too many layups are missed. Quarterbacks simply cannot miss routine throws in the NFL.
- Overall, Darnold must clean up his lower-body mechanics. The result of his poor mechanics is a negative impact on both velocity and accuracy.
- Darnold is capable of outstanding throws, but he must become more consistent with his ball placement, which will ideally come with continued emphasis on his lower-body mechanics and throwing with a firm base and his eyes and feet working together.
- Darnold also showed flashes of throwing with excellent timing and anticipation, but there were other times he was a beat late on basic routes.
- My sense watching these six games was that Darnold must develop a better feel for what he is seeing, both pre-snap and post-snap — that comes with coaching and experience.
- Overall, Darnold has clear talent to work with, but he must become more refined and buttoned up on the details of the position, both physically and mentally – he is a young QB still learning the position, and it takes time.
Week 6 vs. Cowboys
- Darnold’s first throw against the Cowboys came from 11 personnel 2x2 set against nickel Cover 3: it was conventional play action with a post-cross combination as part of the flood concept, with a hi-lo read on the flat defender. It was well executed with a precise ball placement throw by Darnold on the crosser for 17 yards.
- Darnold’s 92-yard TD to Robby Anderson against the Cowboys came out of 11 personnel 3x1 with Anderson the boundary X against nickel Cover 3. Anderson ran a stutter-go beat CB Chidobe Awuzie and post safety Jeff Heath did not get over the top – Darnold showed outstanding subtle pocket movement to make the throw.
- Darnold orchestrated a two-minute drill TD drive at the end of the first half against the Cowboys (begins here). He threw the ball accurately, with a big play to Demaryius Thomas for 33 yards on a crosser.
- Darnold made some excellent throws on crossing routes against the Cowboys — you saw precise ball placement with the needed touch.
- Jets came back to same play concept they started the game with on the first play of the fourth-quarter drive after the Cowboys had cut the score to 21-16 — it was an outstanding job by WR Jamison Crowder recognizing the crosser was taken away by the underneath coverage and settling in an open void in the middle of the zone. It was another example of frenetic movement by Darnold that resulted in a good read and throw for 30 yards.
Week 7 vs. Patriots
- The Patriots’ game plan featured zero blitz as a foundational approach, and both the Jets’ pass protection and Darnold struggled.
- Darnold’s natural tendency to play a little fast and a little frenetic really hurt him against Patriots’ zero blitz. Darnold at times did not recognize quick throws that were there (fumble that ended third possession).
- Darnold’s second interception was another example of Darnold playing fast in the pocket and not seeing things with any clarity. The Patriots showed zero blitz pre-snap but rushed five and blew the coverage with TE Ryan Griffin wide open on the crosser.
- Not only did the Patriots feature zero blitz, but with their high percentage of man coverage, they also featured green dogs (when a LB assigned to a back in coverage blitzes) when the Jets went with six-man protection.
- The Patriots’ game plan was clearly built on pressure, they always play a high percentage of man coverage, but against the Jets they increased their pressure frequency.
- One tactic the Jets used to counter and attack the Patriots zero blitz approach was empty sets — empty forces the defense to declare pre-snap with less disguised and late movement.
- Two of Darnold’s four interceptions came against zero blitz. But the last one (in the third quarter in the red zone) was yet another example of Darnold breaking down in the pocket and losing his lower body mechanics. It was not Cover 0.
Week 8 at Jaguars
- Darnold showed flashes of progression reading, staying poised in the pocket with a firm base and delivering on balance — a Griffin reception for 23 yards was a good example. The Jets ran an excellent full-field route concept against Cover 4 (the Jags play a lot of Cover 4).
- It was good to see Darnold’s first possession against the Jaguars ending with a TD coming off the disastrous Patriots game. Darnold was poised and composed.
- The Jets continued to have protection issues against the Jaguars — Darnold’s first interception came against the inside blitz. It should have been an easy pickup for RB Le’Veon Bell, but he missed his assignment, forcing Darnold into second-reaction mode and an inaccurate throw.
- Darnold’s tendency to break down in the pocket prematurely continued to show up against the Jaguars. The result was some throws that were available to him within a normal progression read were left on the field.
- CB AJ Bouye’s interception in the fourth quarter was not a poor read by Darnold (it was the right read against Cover 4), but Darnold threw the ball up the field rather than taking WR Vyncint Smith across the field – Bouye had excellent coverage overall, and it was a spectacular play by him.
Week 12 vs. Raiders
- What stood out immediately watching the Raiders game in Week 12 was the quick-game, timing-and -rhythm focus in the passing game. This was clearly to allow Darnold to develop a feel and a rhythm.
- In the first half against the Raiders, there were some throws in which Darnold was more firm in the pocket, on balance, and stepping to his target – he needs to do that with more consistency, it needs to become second nature.
- The 69-yard reception for WR Braxton Berrios came on a schemed concept out of wide trips to the field. There was bubble screen action with Berrios running the delayed slant against an expanded Raiders zone coverage (Cover 3). Yet again, Darnold jumped in the air to make the throw, but it was an easy throw so his poor mechanics had no impact.
- The Jets had success against Raiders with well-designed plays, featuring misdirection elements. In addition to Berrios’ big reception, they showed it with Griffin’s 1-yard TD and Anderson’s 30-yard catch on a flea flicker.
Week 14 vs. Dolphins
- While Darnold has some second-reaction ability (Anderson’s 26-yard TD), he will succeed or fail in the NFL based on his pocket ability, NFL QB is a disciplined craft and Darnold must develop and master the subtleties and nuances and details that produce efficient and consistent pocket play.
- The Dolphins game was a good microcosm of Darnold — he had some snaps with excellent pocket movement and second reaction, some snaps with poised patience in the pocket making lat- in-the-down throws with good lower body mechanics, and some snaps with late reckless throws with poor mechanics.
Week 16 vs. Steelers
- Darnold made a great throw on Anderson’s 23-yard TD. It was from a 3x1 set with Anderson in a reduced split as the boundary X running the vertical seam against outside leverage corner Joe Haden and a boundary safety carrying the route. Darnold planted and quick hitched to throw with a firm base and good balance – it was a big-time NFL throw.