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Jets' Sam Darnold Can Start the Next Stage of His NFL Career on Sunday

Sam Darnold starting on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins is more than just a return from injury. 

For the Jets quarterback, it's the beginning of a six-week span that could change the rest of this 23-year-old's career.

Jets head coach Adam Gase revealed on Friday afternoon that barring any significant setback in practice, Darnold—who has missed four of the last six games with a right shoulder injury—will be back under center this weekend.

Brought in with a first-round pick in 2018 with every intention of turning this franchise around, the first three years of Darnold's career in green and white haven't gone as planned. The former third overall selection is 11-21 in his career and has yet to bring this team close to playoff contention. 

This season specifically, to put it bluntly by the numbers, Darnold has been one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. He's ranked 30th out of 30 qualifying quarterbacks with a 39.5 QBR. His passer rating is also the lowest among all qualifying players at his position, sitting at 65.9. Those are both career-lows for Darnold.

Further, Darnold has thrown just three touchdown passes over his six starts, averaging 174.2 yards through the air per game. That's also worst among qualifying quarterbacks. 

That brings us to where the Jets and Darnold presently stand. With New York's 0-10 record heading into Week 12, Darnold appears to be approaching the conclusion of his tenure with Gang Green as presumptive top pick Trevor Lawrence is very much within reach. 

READ: Would Pat Fitzgerald Leave Northwestern to Be the Jets' Next Head Coach?

Clemson's quarterback seems to be the kind of generational talent that franchises simply don't pass up on. If he's on the board when it's New York's turn to make their first-round pick in April—even if general manager Joe Douglas recently called Darnold this organization's "quarterback for the future"—it's safe to assume they'll pick Lawrence. 

Therefore, the next six weeks of this season serve as an audition for Darnold. Can he prove to his current team, despite his enduring injury and poor play this fall, that he's worth building around regardless of the talent on the table next spring? 

Besides, if Darnold can put this winless team on his back and help them win a few games, Lawrence might not even be available for the taking. Then, perhaps the Jets go with Ohio State's Justin Fields, but that's a conversation for another day.

If Darnold can't pave the way to a win (or two or three), then the Jets are guaranteed to have the No. 1 overall selection. The quarterback's performance over the final six weeks of the season will dictate whether or not other teams attempt to trade for him this offseason.

New York will be eager to give Darnold a shot somewhere else, no longer needing his services once they've added a new, skillful signal-caller. Not only will the Jets get more in return based on how well Darnold plays over the next two months, but more teams will be calling New York down the road to inquire about making a trade. 

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Will the Indianapolis Colts, San Francisco 49ers or another franchise make the move for Darnold? Is it even remotely possible the New England Patriots attempt to acquire the QB from a division rival? Only time will tell.

READ: Could the Patriots Be a Realistic Destination for Sam Darnold if the Jets Draft Trevor Lawrence?

Still a young quarterback with plenty of potential, a change in scenery could be exactly what Darnold needs to turn his career around. Playing like a franchise quarterback before the conclusion of this season would be an important step for the 23-year-old to get to that point.

"I think for me, I just have to go out there and play my game, play smart, but continue to play aggressive," Darnold said in a Zoom call with reporters on Friday. "I think, just balancing those two, obviously with a fine line between playing too aggressive and playing smart. So, just have to play my game and play smart out there."

READ: Mark Sanchez Thinks It Might Be Time For Sam Darnold to 'Move On' From Jets

As Gase has alluded to on multiple occasions this year, it's been hard to evaluate Darnold's performance to this point when he hasn't played with all of New York's receivers yet. Rookie Denzel Mims didn't debut until Week 7 while both Jamison Crowder and Breshad Perriman have had their fair share of injuries throughout the season. 

All three of those wideouts will be available on Sunday, at Darnold's disposal for the first time in 2020. Joe Flacco has been able to utilize their presence on offense effectively, throwing just about 150 yards to the trio in each of the last two games to go along with four total touchdowns. 

"Just to watch those guys practice, I wish it was more," Gase said Friday. "We’re kind of in that part of the season where you’re whittling back on some of the reps and things like that, because there haven’t been too many times where we’ve been completely healthy like this where everybody has practicing together. Just every week is important for us. Every week that we can go out and have a practice, every time we get a chance to play a game and all these guys are playing together, I think that’s critical for us."

Should Darnold show he can work well with those weapons, New York may think again about moving on. Then again, considering how Lawrence could perform with Mims, Crowder and possibly a free-agent receiver signed this offseason may tip the scales. 

Perhaps that ship has already sailed altogether and bringing Darnold back is solely to give other opportunities to evaluate how Darnold would do with a healthy group of wideouts.

All in all, Sunday won't just be another chance for the Jets to end their winless skid that's now ballooned to double digits. Keep a close eye on how Darnold performs in his return as he's beginning the next stage of his football career.

"I just got to continue to go out there and play one game at a time, let the narrative kind of write itself," Darnold said. "I am just going to go out there do my job to the best of my ability and go out and try to get a win this Sunday."

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