Sam Darnold threw for 2,865 yards and 17 touchdowns in his rookie season with the Jets. David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Baker who? Jets' Sam Darnold has massive opportunity to win

In his second year in the league and second as a starting quarterback, he faces intense pressure. His team has a new head coach and made a splash in the off-season by acquiring one of the league’s elite offensive talents. Fans are thirsty for a major improvement this season, one that thrusts the quarterback and his team back into league’s upper echelon.

The player in question is Sam Darnold of the New York Jets. What, you thought this was another piece on Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns? That’s understandable, considering the amount of ink and air time expended on them this off-season.

While Mayfield gets huge media attention, and the Browns are a trendy Super Bowl pick, Darnold has a fantastic opportunity to make New York a Jets town. There are plenty of reasons why.

He has a quarterback guru for a head coach in Adam Gase, who got the job specifically to get the most out of Darnold, and running back Le’Veon Bell, AWOL last season in Pittsburgh, is around to provide desperately needed star power for an offense devoid of it last season. Bell’s presence alone should be transformative for the Jets’ offense, but they also brought in Jamison Crowder, a productive slot receiver in Washington in 2017 (66 catches, 789 yards), as another piece to make Darnold’s life easier.

No. 3 overall pick Quinnen Williams, the "300-pound bar of soap" defensive lineman at Alabama,  might have a bigger instant impact than any defensive player in this year’s class. A five-year, $85 million contract brought C.J. Mosley into the fold to further fortify a linebacking corps that already features Avery Williamson, and Jachai Polite of Florida is an intriguing edge rushing prospect.

The Giants are in a state of upheaval, with Eli Manning’s career circling the drain, and Daniel Jones, his potential successor, is widely regarded as a major draft reach. If ever there was a time for the Jets to capture New York’s imagination, it is now.

To do that, Darnold must make a major leap in Year 2. If it doesn’t happen, Jets fans will be relegated to yet again rehashing the franchise’s glory days, talking about Joe Namath’s guarantee, and wondering when they’ll ever see another Super Bowl appearance.

Since their win in Super Bowl III in 1969, the Jets have been to the playoffs 13 times. They’ve never made it back to the Super Bowl, and have only made four AFC Championship Game appearances. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2010. Most of their struggles are connected to futility at quarterback.

There’s a case to be made that Gang Green’s best signal-caller since Namath was Chad Pennington, who was a solid but oft-injured player, and never able to gain long-term traction at the position. The most notable recent play involving a Jets quarterback was Mark Sanchez’s humiliating “butt fumble” against New England in 2012.

The Jets have a tortured history with quarterbacks, but Darnold’s pedigree suggests he can end it. Until Mayfield became the darling of draft experts, Darnold was seen as the best pro prospect in his draft class. The 22-year-old has the big-school pedigree, a great arm, and the classic physical attributes teams look for in a franchise quarterback.

His numbers last year were average -- 2,865 yards passing, 17 TDs and a 4-9 record in 13 games -- but that is a direct result of having minimal talent around him, and being consistently under pressure. Darnold’s 6.8 sack percentage was in the bottom third of the league; he was regularly under duress, with below-average playmakers at his disposal — not exactly a winning combination.

We’ll know whether or not Darnold and the Jets are ready for their close-up before September ends. They open up with the Bills at home, then have a prime-time showdown at home against Mayfield and the Browns in Week 2. A trip to Foxborough in Week 3 seems like a certain loss, but if the Jets enter that game 2-0, they’ll have a chance to make a major early statement.

After a Week 4 bye, New York has Philadelphia on the road, Dallas and New England at home, and Nick Foles and the Jaguars on the road. If the Jets survive those first seven games at 4-3 or better, they’ll have a chance to make hay in the soft middle portion of their schedule.

It won’t be easy, but the opportunity is there. The Jets have surrounded him with talent, and if Sam Darnold delivers the goods, he can become the next king of New York.

Chris Mueller is the co-host of The PM Team with Poni & Mueller on Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan, Monday-Friday from 2-6 p.m. ET. Owner of a dog with a Napoleon complex, consumer of beer, cooker of chili, closet Cleveland Browns fan. On Twitter at @ChrisMuellerPGH – please laugh.


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