Dissecting Sam Darnold's preseason and his 'rare' QB traits

Teams haven't formulated game plans to confuse Sam Darnold yet, but he's shown an ability to improvise and adjust. Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Sam Darnold had just completed a 16-yard pass to Quincy Enunwa on the first play of the second quarter last Friday night, and the play clock was winding down as Darnold and his offensive teammates stood in the huddle, seemingly confused. Instead of taking a delay penalty on the New York Giants' 12-yard line, Darnold called timeout.

To the outside world, this was an obvious case of indecision by a rookie quarterback. The golden boy had a brain cramp. He botched the play call.

Except he didn't.

"I tried to correct him," Enunwa said, smiling. "I thought he called the wrong play, but he actually called it right. It was on me. It wasn't like I was being an a--h---. I was trying to help him. It was on me and Terrelle [Pryor]. We thought it was a different play."

Moral of the story: The New York Jets' young quarterback knows what he's doing.

On the next play, Darnold found Pryor on a shallow cross for a touchdown -- the third read in his progression. Instead of forcing a pass to Chris Herndon or Jordan Leggett, both of whom were covered on double posts in the end zone, Darnold spotted Pryor in his peripheral vision and calmly hit him in stride with a short pass. Pryor's legs did the rest.

These are the kind of plays that make the Jets' brain trust believe he's ready to be the youngest opening day quarterback in NFL history. Coach Todd Bowles hasn't made it official, but the Darnold era is upon us. It's down to Josh McCown and Darnold after Teddy Bridgewater was traded on Wednesday, ending the so-called competition.

Let's take a closer look at Darnold as the Jets close the preseason Thursday night against the Philadelphia Eagles:

Accuracy: Solid. His completion rate is 64 percent (the Jets can live with that) and his adjusted completion percentage in preseason games is 79.5, which ranks 14th among 53 qualified quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.

One of Darnold's best attributes is his ability to throw accurately on the move, as he demonstrated with a 14-yard touchdown strike to Charles Johnson in the first game. Some quarterbacks struggle to deliver the ball when their feet aren't set because it throws their mechanics out of whack, but that doesn't seem to faze Darnold. That skill will be critical in offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates' system, which includes a heavy dose of rollouts.

"When I watch him, I see a lot of God-given, instinctual ability that I think is rare," said former quarterback Tony Romo, an analyst for the "NFL on CBS."

It should be noted, though, that Darnold's degree of difficulty hasn't been daunting. He has attempted only one deep ball (an overthrow to running back Trenton Cannon) and there hasn't been much in a way of long sideline throws and deep comeback routes.

Poise/decision-making: This is where Darnold has impressed the most.

A turnover machine last season at USC (22 in 14 games), Darnold has only one giveaway in 101 snaps -- an interception in the second game. Even that wasn't egregious because it came on a fourth-down play, meaning he had to get rid of the ball.

At times, he resembles a savvy vet with his ability to read and react to situations. In the opening series against the Giants, he saw linebackers Alec Ogletree and Ray-Ray Armstrong "mugging" (his word) in the A gaps before the snap. Seeing the blitz, he changed the play, sending tight end Neal Sterling into the flat as a "hot" receiver. Anticipating man-to-man coverage, Darnold figured the linebacker responsible for Sterling wouldn't be able to make it to the flat fast enough to cover him.

He was right. Armstrong was late and Sterling's reception gained 13 yards on third-and-8. Afterward, Darnold called it his favorite play in the game.

"He's playing extremely fast for a rookie," said CBS' Bruce Arians, the former coach whose autobiography is titled, "The Quarterback Whisperer." "To play the position, you have 1.8 seconds to decide man or zone, blitz or no blitz and what the hell is the coverage? There are a lot of guys with great arms -- big, pretty guys -- but can't play because they can't process the information fast enough. He appears to get it."

Darnold has faced vanilla schemes, so it remains to be seen how he handles defenses that actually attack him with a game plan.

Mobility: One of the things that attracted the Jets to Darnold is his athleticism, his ability to extend plays. He does it two ways: Sliding in the pocket to avoid pressure and escaping the pocket to gain yards.

On his second play against the Washington Redskins, Darnold found himself face-to-face with pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan, who waltzed into the Jets' backfield. Seemingly trapped, Darnold gave a head fake and dodged to his right, giving himself a chance to throw the ball safely out of bounds. It went down as an incomplete pass, but he saved a sack.

Against the Giants, Darnold scrambled for 14 yards on a third-and-13, extending a drive that ended with a touchdown. Not only did he display good wheels, but his field awareness was on point. He recognized the Giants were in man-to-man coverage underneath, with two deep safeties -- ideal circumstances to run.

Former quarterback Phil Simms of CBS said Darnold's best asset is his "pocket feet," which is a lot different than happy feet. He's not jittery -- "there's a natural calmness to him," Simms said -- but he can smell trouble and he knows how to avoid it.

Game management: This is a huge issue for every rookie quarterback. Frankly, Darnold didn't do a very good job last season at USC, where his gunslinger mentality resulted in 13 interceptions. In the preseason, he's done a nice job of understanding the risk-reward factor associated with the different down-and-distance situations. His most glaring mistake was an intentional-grounding penalty against the Giants.

One possible red flag: There have been six pre-snap penalties with Darnold at quarterback. While he can't be directly blamed for a false start, he knows the quarterback must answer for everything on offense.

"He looks like the real deal -- he throws accurately and he seems to be unflappable -- but this is what you're going to get this year," said former quarterback-turned-analyst Boomer Esiason. "You're going to see false-start penalties, you're going to see timeouts because of the play clock, you're going to see substitution problems, you're going to see missed reads -- growing pains of a rookie quarterback. Having three games in 11 days doesn't help that."

That's a reference, of course, to the Jets' opening schedule.

Arm strength: Darnold doesn't have a cannon, a la Josh Allen, but he has shown on the practice field he can make all the throws. It's a different story in the games, as he has yet to complete a ball longer than 18 yards. The dink-and-dunk approach works in the preseason, but defenses will adjust quickly when it counts.

"My question is -- same as it was before the draft -- the NFL is about big plays and is he going to rip the ball down the field and make those big plays?" Simms asked. "He can lob it 50 yards, but can you throw it 40 yards or 35 yards and get it between players before the [defender] can get there? That would be my only concern about Sam Darnold."

The Jets couldn't be happier with Darnold, who they believe has passed every test to this point. This might be nit-picking, but he occasionally messes up the play call in the huddle, according to players.

"He still has some rookie tendencies," Enunwa said. "I'm not going to talk him all the way up; I've talked him up a pretty good amount. He still has some rookie tendencies, but he's definitely more mature than a typical rookie. He's not perfect -- he knows that; we all know that -- but he's pretty damn good."