2019 NFL preview: Sam Darnold might be good, and Adam Gase and Jets need to not screw it up

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, complete with our initial 2019 power rankings.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

If you want an idea how excited the New York Jets are for the Sam Darnold era, let’s check in with receivers coach Shawn Jefferson.

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“Excuse my French when I say say this, but he’s a f------ dude,” Jefferson said, according to NJ.com. “He’s a f------ dude with a f------ arm and he’s accurate as s---. So excuse that."

Jefferson went on to describe Darnold in more family-friendly ways, talking about how the second-year quarterback carries himself like a veteran, working constantly to master his craft. Jefferson was a 13-year NFL veteran with four different teams and he has been an NFL assistant coach since 2006 with four teams. He has seen a lot of quarterbacks.

“I haven’t been around a guy like that and it’s awesome to be around a guy like that,” Jefferson said, according to NJ.com. “He’s a dude."

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When the Jets paid a significant price to move up in the 2018 draft, the highest they could get was the third pick. To get Baker Mayfield or Sam Darnold they needed one of the two teams ahead of them to pass on a potential franchise quarterback, and the Giants passed on Darnold to take Saquon Barkley. That decision could change the trajectory of both New York teams.

Darnold’s rookie season was rough at times. He dealt with injuries. He threw 15 interceptions. He had really bad games against the Browns and Dolphins, in which he posted ratings under 40.

But go find some Darnold highlights from last season. His best throws are jaw-dropping. To understand why Jefferson is raving about Darnold being “a dude,” watch his impeccable deep pass to Robby Anderson in Week 5. He has remarkable potential and showed it at times last season.

Now it’s on the Jets to not screw Darnold up, and for most of the Jets’ existence, they couldn’t be trusted to not screw things up. This offseason wasn’t exactly comforting in that regard.

Adam Gase was hired, mostly still on the fumes of him being the offensive coordinator of the 2013 Denver Broncos, an offense led by the great Peyton Manning. Nothing Gase did with the Miami Dolphins indicated he deserved an immediate second chance as a head coach. But, by May, he was given the run of the franchise.

Gase won an apparent power struggle when general manager Mike Maccagnan was fired, after Maccagnan ran almost all of the offseason (CEO Christopher Johnson said Gase had nothing to do with the firing). Reports said Gase didn’t agree with Maccagnan’s moves, including spending a lot on running back Le’Veon Bell and linebacker C.J. Mosley — immediately making the relationship between Gase and the Jets’ two biggest free-agent additions an awkward one. Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News said Gase positioned himself to be out of the view of television cameras in the team’s draft war room, to apparently send a message about his lack of involvement in the draft. That’s the dysfunctional Jets in one sentence.

Joe Douglas is the team’s new general manager, and while Gase insisted he wasn’t involved in the hire, it’s hard to believe he had no say in it. The two worked together with the Chicago Bears and Douglas said he has a “special bond” with Gase. The combination of Douglas and Gase could work very well, it was just a very Jets way to get to that point.

The weirdness of the general manager firing and all the stories that came out of that shifted the spotlight from the fact that the Jets seem to be making progress.

The Jets have a star defensive player in safety Jamal Adams and good veterans around him. They might have grabbed the best player in this year’s draft, Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, with the third pick. While there was some disagreement about Bell’s value and Gase might not have been on board, Bell still is one of the great running backs of this era. And Mosley has made four Pro Bowls in five seasons and just turned 27 years old. Other young players like tight end Chris Herndon, safety Marcus Maye, receiver Robby Anderson and defensive end Leonard Williams either have arrived already or have shown promise. Everyone seemed to love the hire of Douglas, and Gase still has a reputation that survived some unimpressive years in Miami. And, it’s quite possible the Jets have finally found their quarterback.

Darnold was once considered a potential generational prospect. The shine came off a little bit during his final season at USC, but you could still see that upside in his best plays as a rookie. He needs a lot of work, and that’s where Gase comes in. If he’s really an offensive genius who was just stuck with a bad hand in Miami, that will be a perfect match for the Jets.

The Jets’ quarterback history since Joe Namath, and their history in general since Namath, has been pretty bad. There are signs the franchise is moving in a good direction, if the Jets can stay out of their own way. That hasn’t been a strength of theirs through the years.

New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold is the franchise's best hope to return to glory. (AP)
New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold is the franchise's best hope to return to glory. (AP)

As usual, the Jets made big splashes. Running back Le’Veon Bell is undeniably talented but plays a position that most teams have devalued; the Jets gave Bell $52.5 million over four years. Off-the-ball inside linebackers aren’t valued like they once were either, but the Jets paid C.J. Mosley $85 million over five years. They also paid slot receiver Jamison Crowder $28.5 million over three years. That’s a lot of money to splash around, and the Jets didn’t address spots like edge rusher, center or No. 2 cornerback, but those are three good players. The Jets did lose Pro Bowl kicker Jason Myers and All-Pro kick returner Andre Roberts, which will hurt their special teams. The Jets traded former first-round pick Darron Lee, who was a disappointment at linebacker, but got guard Kelechi Osemele from the Raiders for practically nothing in a deal. The draft pick of Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams was a no-brainer. The rest of the draft wasn’t great unless one of their two third-round upside plays pays off big (edge rusher Jachai Polite and offensive tackle Chuma Edoga). The offseason as a whole looks pretty good, even if it was really expensive.

GRADE: B-plus

The Jets should feel they landed an instant star in Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams. Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm had Williams as his top prospect in this year’s class and it’s easy to see why. Williams is big, athletic and was unblockable in college. Here’s part of Edholm’s profile:

“His 2018 production – 19.5 tackles for loss – doesn’t even begin to demonstrate how active and disruptive he was. It’s hard to find a game tape last season where Williams wasn’t double-teamed frequently. Turn on the tape of the CFB playoffs against Oklahoma and you see Williams, according to Bill Belichick, “basically ruining their scheme right now.”

When you draft a player this gifted, it’s OK to dream big. Could Williams be a Pro Bowl player right away for the Jets? Sure, why not? And if Williams hits the high end of his potential, and does it right away, the Jets defense gets a big boost.

The Jets still have a big post-Nick Mangold question at center and cornerback depth is an issue too, especially if big 2018 free-agent addition Trumaine Johnson doesn’t play better than last season. But let’s focus on edge rusher, which has been a question seemingly for forever. On the line of the Jets’ 3-4 defense, Quinnen Williams, Leonard Williams and Henry Anderson are a great foundation. Passing on edge rushers like Kentucky’s Josh Allen for Williams was smart, but there’s still not much coming off the edge. Jordan Jenkins did have seven sacks at outside linebacker last season and Brandon Copeland had five. Neither appears to be a big difference maker. The Jets did try to land Anthony Barr to help, but he changed his mind after agreeing to a deal and stayed with Minnesota. The Jets won’t have a great rush off the edge unless some players surprisingly emerge.

The question with Sam Darnold before the draft is the same one he faces after his rookie NFL season: Can he cut down on turnovers? One reason Darnold slipped a bit as a prospect in his last USC season was ball security. Darnold threw 15 interceptions last season and fumbled five times in 13 games. It’s not unusual for a rookie to turn the ball over too much, but combine it with Darnold’s ball security issues in college and it’s troubling. Darnold has the ability to be a very good quarterback, but turnovers could derail that. Adam Gase’s biggest job is to get Darnold into better ball security habits.

The last time we saw Le’Veon Bell on a football field was Jan. 14, 2018. Bell wants everyone to know he’s still a world-class running back.

"Maybe people forgotten a little bit because they haven't seen it in a long time. It's normal. That's what humans do," Bell said, according to the team’s site. "But I feel like once I get here and play, first game coming up, people will be reminded.”

It’s hard to know what a year off does for Bell. Maybe he’ll be rusty, or perhaps rested. We do know his Jets career got off to a weird start.

Before Bell ever showed up for a Jets practice — and there was a delay because he made the curious decision to not show up for voluntary work — there was a report from Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News that Adam Gase “did not want to sign” Bell. It was a signing that CEO Christopher Johnson pushed, the report said. The Bell issue seemed to be a big part of the Gase-Mike Maccagnan rift that ended with Maccagnan fired. Gase had to deny a report that Bell could be traded before the season. That possibility never made sense, but it summed up how awkward the situation is.

Even if Gase wasn’t fully on board with the Bell signing, presumably he understands Bell is an incredible talent and will use him to his fullest. Though, after Gase practically ignored Kenyan Drake for some weird reason in Miami, who knows. Bell should be a centerpiece, hopefully he didn’t lose anything after a year off, and will help Sam Darnold and the rest of the Jets offense.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “There doesn’t have to be a ‘this year’s George Kittle’ — and there probably won’t be — but Chris Herndon deserves our attention into his second year. Herndon caught 69.6 percent of his targets as a rookie and averaged 12.9 yards per reception, swanky numbers at a position where it’s notable simply if the player in question isn’t overwhelmed. If we focus on the second half of the year, when Herndon really got going, he grades out tenth in fantasy points at tight end (including seventh in catches, sixth at yards).

“Scouts fell in love with David Njoku at Miami, not Herndon, and perhaps that’s carried over to the pros. And maybe it’s going to allow us a tidy discount at the draft table. Herndon is currently the TE15 in Yahoo drafts, and one slot pricier in NFFC rooms. We can make a profit at those slots, especially if Sam Darnold takes a very plausible second-year leap.”

[Yahoo fantasy preview: New York Jets]

The Patriots aren’t the only team that could take advantage of a soft AFC East schedule. According to Warren Sharp, who calculates strength of schedule using Las Vegas’ projected win totals, the Jets have the second easiest schedule in the NFL. The Patriots, of course, have the easiest. The Jets have a league-high five games against teams projected to be in the bottom five of the NFL, and also have the most games against bottom 10 teams (eight). That’s a lot of winnable games.

WAS GREGG WILLIAMS THE RIGHT CHOICE TO LEAD JETS DEFENSE?

Williams, the Jets’ new defensive coordinator, has run five defenses since his reemergence from the Saints’ bounty scandal. The ranks in yards per game allowed: 17th, 23rd, 9th, 14th, 30th. The ranks in points allowed: 16th, 13th, 23rd, 31st, 21st. His ranks in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric were better those first three years when he was with the Rams, so perhaps the raw numbers don’t tell the whole story. Still, there were questions about whether he used his Browns personnel to its best. For example, Williams strangely told defensive end Myles Garrett to only use two pass-rush moves, according to Garrett.

“The reason I keep getting hired is culture,” Williams said, according to the team’s site. “Culture beats strategy any day of the week.”

Ummm, OK.

Williams had a good, long run as an NFL defensive coordinator, but he comes in with questions. Perhaps his fiery personality plays well with the Jets players and his scheme is more conducive to pressuring the quarterback. Williams always draws attention, and that will definitely be the case in New York.

Let’s get a little crazy here ... is it that unrealistic to think the Jets have a shot to be the team that finally knocks off the Patriots in the AFC East? If Tom Brady slips (it’ll happen at some point) without Rob Gronkowski, and if Sam Darnold takes a big leap with Le’Veon Bell and an offensive skill group that isn’t too bad, and the Jets defense with its stars becomes a top-five unit under Gregg Williams, maybe it could happen. Nobody should rush to Las Vegas to put a mortgage payment on the Jets winning the AFC East or anything, but there is real potential with this group if Darnold becomes a stellar quarterback. And he might.

We have enough of a track record to know the Jets could mess up a cup of coffee. Maybe what we saw from Adam Gase in Miami, when he went 23-25 and some players seemed happy when he was fired, is actually what he is. Perhaps he can’t help Sam Darnold become a good quarterback, and Darnold just remains a physically gifted player who can’t get out of his own way. Maybe paying fortunes to a running back and inside linebacker won’t work out because the Jets have no cornerbacks or edge rushers. There are a handful of dysfunctional franchises in the NFL, and the Jets are firmly on that list. It’s hard to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The Jets are interesting. They have some true blue-chip defensive talent. Sam Darnold has all the tools to be very good, and Le’Veon Bell will help him. So could receiver Robby Anderson, who has the ability to take yet another step this season. People seem to think Adam Gase is still a very good coach who failed for reasons out of his control in Miami. I believe Darnold will take a nice step this season, the Jets will take a small step as a team and they’ll be a team we’re all tracking for the 2020 season.

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Miami Dolphins

30. Oakland Raiders

29. New York Giants

28. Cincinnati Bengals

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Washington Redskins

25. Detroit Lions

24. Buffalo Bills

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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! Follow @YahooSchwab

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