Sam Darnold. Daniel Jones. Two quarterbacks that will be forever linked due to decisions made by their organizations, and the proximity to which they ply their respective trades. With these two young passers set to square off for the first time in a regular season game this weekend, the question inevitably arises:
Which young passer would you rather build a franchise around?
At first blush you might think the answer would be a given. Going into his final season at USC Darnold was the quarterback everyone expected to be near the top of the draft. He ended up being the second quarterback selected and the third overall selection by the New York Jets ... thanks to the New York Giants passing on him with the second pick in favor of running back Saquon Barkley.
A year later, Dave Gettleman got his quarterback: Jones out of Duke University. A quarterback with promise, athleticism and experience playing for noted quarterback trainer Dave Cutcliffe. But Jones was also a quarterback that was quite polarizing during the draft process with many - this author included - preferring a variety of quarterbacks above him in the draft.
So again, you might think Darnold would be an easy choice. But as is often the case reality and perception are not quite in alignment.
The answer to that question might come down to who you ask. When I first started to dive into this topic I reached out to a variety of smart minds in and around football. My first call was to, as you might expect, Matt Waldman. Given our relationship and Matt’s years of studying and evaluating the quarterback position I expected wise words, and Matt rarely disappoints:
Quarterback development isn’t a linear path. Players can improve and regress based on the quality of their support, which includes team leadership, offensive line, and offensive skill players. It’s why my answer to this question depends on the quality of my surrounding talent.
If I landed in an ideal situation where I didn’t have the pressure of 1.5-2 years to build a playoff team or else the owner hires the next guy that his auto-dealer magnate friend sitting next to in the health club steam room recommends based on habitual viewing of Skip Bayless rants, then I’m opting for Darnold, staying patient with the build, and maximizing what I believe will be a higher ceiling. Think Jon Gruden with part ownership of the Raiders and a long leash sticking with Derek Carr because he knows he can build a woolly mammoth of an offensive line and restore Carr’s confidence. If I’m building in a realistic situation where I don’t get the time to build the support necessary to maximize development, then I go with Jones because he’s had fewer negative experiences on the field to knot up his technique, assessment of coverage, and his overall confidence.
Well that clears it up …
However, Matt strikes at the heart of this question: Perception versus reality. Idealism versus realism. Addressing these players in a vacuum, or when they were coming out as prospects yet to be exposed to the harsh realities of playing against an NFL defense, the scales would tip in favor of Darnold.
Yet the reality of life in the NFL, both with respect to facing NFL defenses and with demands placed upon organizations from the top, changes the calculus. That brings us to the idea of a player’s “floor.” When looking at quarterbacks during the draft we often discuss and debate their ceilings as a player, and also their floors. What can they potentially be if everything breaks right? What could they be if everything does not?
It is Jones’s floor vis a vis Darnold’s that has Jeff Risdon selecting the Giants’ rookie passer. Risdon, who covers the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions, has seen his share of both good and bad quarterback play. As he told me, it’s the fact that Jones can keep his team competitive even when struggling that shifts things in his favor:
I would take Jones because I think he will more consistently put his team in position to win. Darnold has a higher talent ceiling but also a much lower floor. And we’ve seen that his floor can devastate a team. On Jones’ bad games his team should still have a chance.
That is a strong argument, and it blends well with Waldman’s points. Even when Jones is struggling he can keep his teams in games, and when paired with the weapons the Giants are trying to put around him that can work in the NFL. Again, the distinction between the ideal situation, and the real world situation. Jones’s floor as a quarterback might be a more valuable commodity than Darnold’s potentially higher ceiling.
This is not to say that some still would not choose Darnold. Jon Ledyard, who most recently covered the NFL and the NFL Draft for The Draft Network, picked the Jets’ signal-caller. As he put it, Darnold’s ability to play off-structure made the difference in his mind:
We’re talking about two QBs with Winston’s low points and turnover rate that don’t have his high points yet. I still like Darnold’s upside but Jones has been a more aggressive passer than I expected. Just think Darnold is better out of structure and more accurate so I’ll take him.
Ledyard’s former colleague at TDN, Joe Marino, also went with Darnold.
Two for Jones. Two for Darnold. This article was becoming tougher than I expected.
But then some more wisdom was provided. This came via Arif Hasan, who covers the Minnesota Vikings for The Athletic, and this bit of insight struck me: “I’d take Jones simply because we know less about him.”
There it is. The concept of the “grass is always greener” when it comes to quarterback evaluation, albeit with a twist.
Back when Darnold became the talk of NFL circles, after his huge game against Penn State in the Rose Bowl his redshirt freshman season (against Barkley no less) he was the player that most scouts and evaluators were salivating about when the 2017 NFL Draft approached. So much so that he was the talk of the Scouting Combine that year, and it prompted me to write this piece over at Inside the Pylon: The Grass is Not Always Greener. To date it remains one of my favorite pieces, and I revisit it often. Particularly in recent weeks.
The premise was this. With everyone hyped about Darnold before he could even come out for the draft, people were enticed by the promise of the unknown. We had spent a year or more breaking down the quarterbacks in that class, but the allure of Darnold and what he could be - his ceiling - had everyone looking ahead to his entry in the draft.
Now that both Darnold and Jones are in the league, the calculus changes. No more is Darnold an unproven fantasy. He is in his second year as a starter and we are getting a truer sense of what he is, and what he is not, as an NFL quarterback.
With Jones, however, while we might not know yet what he can become, we are also getting a sense of his floor. There is still much to learn, but the idea of his floor as a quarterback, and the notion that his team can still be competitive when he struggles, is very enticing.
So it is one thing when the debate is over unknown draft prospects, one right in front of you while the other lies a few years away. It is another thing completely when discussing two young NFL passers. When you have seen what they can do, and what they are doing, and what they look like at their worst.
I’ll roll with the higher floor and unknown potential, over the higher ceiling and known lower floor.
I’ll roll with Jones.