Sam Darnold will get thrown into the fire in his NFL debut. The New York Jets are counting on Darnold to become a bright star and carry them back to prominence.
The third overall pick in the draft was the named the team’s No. 1 quarterback by coach Todd Bowles at the end of training camp. The former USC star will face the Detroit Lions on Monday night at Ford Field.
The 21-year-old Darnold will be the youngest quarterback to start an opener since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970. Darnold beat out veterans Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater, who was subsequently traded to New Orleans.
“It was close, obviously,” Bowles said. “Sam had a good preseason. We weren’t holding him back, but we weren’t rushing him at the same time. He’ll have some things to learn, but his poise in the pocket, the way he grasped the offense coming in right away .. he gives us a very good chance to win.”
Darnold appeared in three preseason games, completing 64 percent of his pass attempts, including two touchdowns, while getting intercepted once.
“As a football player, whether it’s Pop Warner, high school, college or now the NFL, your dream is to play the game,” Darnold told ESPN.com. “That’s what I want to do. I just want to go out and play every single day. If Josh got the nod, I was going to be pumped for him and be the best backup I could be. Now that I know I’m the starter, it’s just an amazing feeling.”
Coming off a pair of 5-11 seasons, the Jets need Darnold to live up to his draft status. He’s being asked to do it without top personnel. The Jets are likely to be down multiple starters, including wide receiver Jermaine Kearse. Kearse led the Jets with 65 receptions last season.
The Lions are also entering a new era.
Former New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has replaced Jim Caldwell as head coach with expectations he’ll finally be the one to lead them to playoff success. The Lions, who failed to qualify last season with a 9-7 record, haven’t won a postseason game since 1991.
Patricia is familiar with many of the Jets’ players and schemes after preparing New England’s defense twice a season to face them.
“I’m pretty fired up every day. Sometimes I come in here and you guys (the media) suck the life out of me but other than that I’m pretty good,” Patricia said good-naturedly. “I’m not going to let you guys do that to me today because we’re going out there and getting ready to go win the best we can. Look, this is a really good team. Todd Bowles, I have the utmost respect for him and his staff and what they do week in an week out.”
Figuring out what the Jets will do with a rookie quarterback adds a layer of mystery to that preparation.
“It’s going to be a challenge and my sense is we’re going to have to be able to adjust as we get into the game,” Lions defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni said. “We’re going to have to able to adjust to exactly what they decide they’re going to do. It’s going to be a challenge because there isn’t a whole lot of tape.”
Patricia is familiar with Bowles from their time in the AFC East. But Patricia is anticipating a new approach from the Jets and in particular the offense. Darnold, the Lions sense, will roll out of the pocket and attempt to set up misdirection running plays.
The Jets’ defense is not certain to have outside linebacker Josh Martin or safety Marcus Maye. Neither practiced Thursday.
—Field Level Media