Sam Darnold’s Not Starting Yet, But He’s Adjusting Well to Life in the Pros

The future of the franchise opens his rookie training camp third on the Jets’ depth chart, playing with all kinds of personnel around him. But don’t worry Jets fans, there’s still plenty of time for him to move up...
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WHO: New York Jets
WHERE: Florham Park, N.J.
WHEN: Wednesday, Aug. 8
HOW: 42-mile drive from New York City

The Jets were deep into a 2.5-hour practice in 90-degree heat, running 7-on-7 drills in the red zone. In every part of practice, Sam Darnold takes his turn behind Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater—the future face of the franchise a third-stringer for now. On one of Darnold’s reps, he threw a well-placed corner route to tight end Neal Sterling, who tumbled as he made the catch in the corner of the end zone. Nearby, a VIP tent of Jets fans went crazy. On the field, receiver Terrelle Pryor jumped on the back of his teammate, patting him heartily to congratulate him on the throw.

“That’s like some Tom Brady stuff, back shoulder on a corner route vs. man coverage. It’s pretty darn good,” Pryor, a former QB himself, gushed after practice. “You don’t even see some vets make that throw. It’s all about ball placement. He’s a great ball placer, and the fact that he knew that and saw that, it was excellent.”

That reaction to a play in 7-on-7 drills in practice, where the linemen are approximated by garbage cans and Darnold is wearing a red non-contact jersey, may sound a little bit extra. And on the whole, this wasn’t one of Darnold’s best practices; for the second straight day, he was intercepted on a deep pass, this time floating an underthrown ball on a deep corner route. But throws like that one in 7-on-7s show the palpable excitement that exists around Darnold, the former USC passer drafted by the Jets No. 3 overall.

The Jets’ Long Road to Sam Darnold

Todd Bowles told ESPN Radio this week that all three quarterbacks will play in the preseason opener Friday night. But smart money is on McCown, the 16-year veteran, playing sparingly—perhaps just a single series—and Bridgewater and Darnold seeing the majority of the playing time. In practice this week, Bridgewater got more reps than McCown, and Darnold took more reps than both veterans combined. The rookie played with a mix of personnel around him, at times with some members of the starting offensive line and other times with all back-ups. The Jets have said all along that they won’t rush Darnold, but they won’t hold him back, either. It’s too early to know for certain when they’ll be ready to turn over the reins, but this week’s first preseason game will be his biggest test yet.

“I think he makes spectacular throws,” Pryor says. “A lot of QBs aren’t the same when pads come on and there are guys who can hit you, but Sam, he’s the type of guy who is going to be be the same player. This is how he is.”

In assimilating to the NFL, Darnold has had the help of veterans like McCown, who patted Darnold on the helmet and spent time talking with him after his practice interception, and also the Jets’ young core players. During OTAs, fellow Trojan Leonard Williams invited Darnold to join him and a group of about 20 teammates for a dinner at Tao restaurant in Manhattan. Knowing that the transition from college—where players are always around each other in the dining halls and dorms—to the pros can be a lonely one, Williams made sure to include the rookie. Sitting around the table were the Jets’ last four first-round picks: Darnold, safety Jamal Adams, linebacker Darron Lee and Williams.

“He doesn’t look like there’s too much pressure on him,” Williams says. “He just looks really comfortable and poised. I even heard it from some of his receivers, they say in the huddle, he’s ready to go, he looks professional, and that’s what I love about him the most: he already looks like a pro.”

Here’s one example we could see. We mentioned earlier how Pryor cheered on Darnold after that throw in 7-on-7s. Later in practice, Pryor dropped a pass in the end zone during a two-minute drill, and Darnold went right over to him afterward to offer his own kind of encouragement. That’s definitely a pro move.

Terrelle Pryor saw action in 11 games last season before being shut down with an ankle injury, from which he is still recovering.

Terrelle Pryor saw action in 11 games last season before being shut down with an ankle injury, from which he is still recovering.

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OH, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT: It’s almost hard to believe, but the Jets haven’t had a return touchdown since 2012 (credit longtime beat man Rich Cimini for sharing the stat). Rookie RB Trent Cannon has the speed for the role, but the sixth-round pick from Virginia State muffed a punt during practice and might not be ready to be a reliable option at returner. The Jets also haven’t had a defensive TD since 2013. That’s a long time to not even get a lucky break.

STORYLINE TO WATCH: What will the Jets do with Teddy Bridgewater? The team stocked up at quarterback this offseason, similar to what the Eagles did in 2016 when they re-signed Sam Bradford, added Chase Daniel and drafted Carson Wentz. We all know what happened next—they traded Bradford to the Vikings in early September, after Bridgewater suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice. Now with the Jets, Bridgewater will need to show signs in live preseason games of the player he was pre-injury, or at least demonstrate his health to the rest of the league, after sitting out the 2016 season and playing just a handful snaps in ’17. But he’s the leading trade candidate if another team’s starting QB suffers a season-ending injury.

TOP POSITION BATTLE: Quarterback, of course, is the big one. The Jets also continue to forge ahead in their seemingly never-ending quest to find a pass rusher. They ranked among the bottom five teams in the league in sacks each of the last two seasons, and their last edge rusher with a double-digit sack total was Calvin Pace in 2013. Among the players in the mix are sixth-year OLB Josh Martin, former third-round pick Lorenzo Mauldin and 2017 fifth-round pick Dylan Donahue.

OFFBEAT OBSERVATION: Depending on which direction your room faces at the new Archer Hotel that opened up just down the street from the Jets facility, you could almost catch a glimpse of the Jets’ practice fields. Turns out, that’s where Darnold was staying during the opening days of training camp while he was waiting to sign his rookie contract. Amazing he was able to stay incognito there.

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PARTING THOUGHTS: Pryor has had one of the more interesting paths in football. The former starting QB for Ohio State was drafted by the Raiders in the 2011 supplemental draft and converted full-time to WR for the Browns in 2015. He had a breakout 1,000-yard receiving season for Cleveland in 2016, but after signing a one-year, $8 million deal with Washington, was hobbled by an ankle injury suffered in Week 2. He caught just 20 passes for 240 yards before having season-ending surgery in November. Pryor signed with the Jets on another prove-it type deal and needed another clean-up scope on his ankle this offseason. He is still working his way back to 100% and, during a Q&A, was candid about how difficult that process can be physically and mentally.

THE MMQB:How does your ankle feel now?

PRYOR: I’m getting more comfortable; there are little things that I am still afraid of. Like if I come down on a weird angle, and I think gosh, I’ve never been in that position before (post-surgery). That happened to me today on one play in the end zone; I was worried about falling, and I really have nothing to worry about. (My ankle) is strong, I put a lot of work in it, and I have very good people to give me advice and help take care of it. I shouldn’t worry. It’s the state of, I’ve gotta get past it. It’s 100% mental. But for the most part, I feel better than I have in over two years.

THE MMQB:Do you think you can return to the player who had a 1,000-yard season in 2016?

PRYOR: I’m too dominant, I work too hard, to fail or not to have the success I was supposed to have. That’s nothing arrogant or cocky, that’s just what I work for. I believe I’ll be back to doing the things I know I can do. Being injured, I don’t wish that on nobody. It’s all a headache. The thing that sucked the most probably was my ankle being flared up, and I really had no control of what I could do. That’s the worst part, is that no matter how hard I tried, there were a lot of times when guys were in front of me and I just couldn’t beat them. I couldn’t do it, because my ankle looked like it had two softballs on each side. … There was no stability. I tore three ligaments in my deltoid, and I was playing on that for six weeks. When you try to plant, it’s like trying to plant with no support; like you fall on your wrist and your wrist just snaps. That’s what it was. Thank God I did decide to call it quits last year because I had blood in my cartilage, a lot of it. The doctors said that could make (the cartilage) dissolve if it’s in there for a while, so I needed to get it fixed.

THE MMQB:You had a big play in camp recently, a leaping, one-handed catch in the end zone on a pass from Darnold, per accounts from the beat reporters. How did that feel?

PRYOR: It was a crazy catch. You’ve gotta see it. It was a pop-up, and it was behind me as I was running, and I snagged it. (He demonstrates the catch, appearing like a ballet dancer doing an arabesque). It was real good. That also is a confidence-builder. Last year, I vividly remember like three or four times, we were trying to run a comeback route or a curl, and me falling forward on my face literally (because of my injury). The fact that I couldn’t plant, jab, press off and explode up the field man to man, that’s a problem. And I had a couple drops, so that was a problem, too. A lot of stuff is confidence and having faith and continuing to work hard. Now on the other end, I feel great, energized, a new person.