‘It’s close’: Inside the Daniel Jones vs. Sam Darnold debate

‘It’s close’: Inside the Daniel Jones vs. Sam Darnold debate

September 12, 2020

He was selected near the top of the NFL draft and thrust into a floundering franchise in New York.

He already has endured a coaching change, learned a new offense and mixed moments of brilliance with head-scratching turnovers.

He says all the right things when controversy swirls, factors heavily into all team personnel decisions and provides fans a reason to hope.

He is Jets quarterback Sam Darnold. He is Giants quarterback Daniel Jones. He is both.

But what if you could have only one of the two 23-year-olds?

The Post asked a mix of scouts and NFL analysts: If you had to invest in Darnold or Jones over the long term, who would you choose and why? Talent, playmaking ability of teammates and organizational stability became the talking points in a debate that could be as close as any this fall — and could continue to rage in this city for the next decade.

“Their career trajectories are comparable,” an AFC scout said. “It’s close.”

Vote for Jones!

Jones — not Dan Marino, Peyton Manning nor anyone else — is the only rookie in NFL history with three games of four or more passing touchdowns and no interceptions.

And he did it without Saquon Barkley, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram playing one snap together all season. Add in Darius Slayton and Golden Tate to give Jones the unanimously preferred supporting cast.

“Taking what I saw initially and knowing the market is volatile and there are times it’s going to dip, the Daniel Jones stock is going to rise,” said Nate Burleson, co-host of NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football.” “I’m not calling it Disney just yet. In due time, maybe it can be.”

Burleson is the most bullish analyst on Jones — and it’s not just because of his arm or his legs. The way in which Jones handled backing up and then replacing legend Eli Manning was a selling point — and Burleson suspects it won’t be long before Jones has made his own name rather than being looked at as “Diet Eli.”

“I’m going to invest in him because I’ve seen him in a front of a microphone. I’ve seen him in the huddle, I’ve seen him pick himself up off the ground,” Burleson said. “He’s handled it all with ease. If he can handle the market as well as he can handle the blitz, I know he is going to be perfectly fine.”

The Giants revealed their opinion when they bypassed Darnold in the 2018 draft to select Barkley. One year later, they selected Jones.

“Darnold was more pro-ready coming out of college,” the AFC scout said, “but Daniel has more athletic tools. With the way the game is going, I’m always going to side with that, because he can get himself out of trouble better.”

“Pro Football Talk Live” co-host Chris Simms ranked Jones and Darnold as the No. 22 and No. 23 quarterbacks, respectively, for 2020. He’d rather build a long-term Franken-quarterback with Jones’ deep throws and mobility and Darnold’s pocket presence. But …

“Daniel Jones’ ceiling is a little higher,” Simms said. “When I think about decision-making, overall arm and the ability to run, those are three elite traits Daniel has.”

Jones’ main flaw as a rookie was a continuation from Duke: an NFL-high 18 fumbles (11 lost). Consensus opinion is fumbles are correctable with coaching — especially when the problem is patting (instead of gripping) the ball with the off-hand — and NFL history is filled with examples of quarterbacks whose biggest steps forward came in Year 2.

“Now when he steps on the field, the game has slowed down quite a bit,” Burleson said. “Instead of doing what rookies do — their helmet is bouncing up and down or side-to-side, like crossing a busy New York street — it’s like sitting in your backyard enjoying a beautiful sunset. You are looking around slowly and you know by the defense where you are going with the ball.”

Vote for Darnold!

Considering Dan Orlovsky prefers Darnold to every quarterback to enter the league since 2018 — even, shockingly, reigning MVP Lamar Jackson, as well as three No. 1-overall picks (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Joe Burrow) — Jones never stood a shot here.

“He’s a better athlete, he’s a more efficient thrower, he’s better at making plays that you can’t explain,” said Orlovsky, co-host of ESPN’s “NFL Live.” “There’s just a significant level more, talent-wise.”

There are two schools of thoughts on drafting in the top 10: pick for need or because the player is too good to pass up. Blake Beddingfield, former director of college scouting for the Titans (1999-2017), says the Jets checked both boxes with Darnold.

“He has more big-play potential and a toughness factor,” Beddingfield said. “When I look at a franchise quarterback, I look at someone who really raises the level of play around him. Darnold has a little more of that ability.”

Darnold has an extra season to scrutinize inconsistencies on his résumé. Six missed games raise questions about durability, and a two-game stretch with nine interceptions last season renewed pre-draft critiques of too many high-risk throws.

“The one area where he has a leg up is Darnold is like [boxer] Manny Pacquiao in the pocket,” Simms said. “He can move his feet and throw the football from weird, awkward angles. I think it’s one of the best things he’s got about his game.”

Patrick Mahomes and Deshuan Watson just received mega-extensions after their third seasons. That timeline on Darnold arrives for Jets general manager Joe Douglas next offseason.

“Between the first-year foot injury and second-year mono, you get one year out of that,” Simms said. “The pressure is off the quarterback when the season is lost. I want to see how Darnold plays when the Jets are 3-3 and it’s a big football game.”

Even those who prefer Darnold worry the Jets haven’t done enough to help him succeed.

Poor offensive lines and a dearth of offensive weapons ruined other young quarterbacks’ confidence. Douglas brought in four new starting linemen, but it’s possible none of the Jets’ running backs, wide receivers or tight ends would start over their Giants’ counterparts.

“Joe Douglas has the ability to get this thing right, because of the people he learned under and his moves so far,” Orlovsky said, singling out drafting Mekhi Becton [the fourth offensive tackle selected] over his top-graded receiver. “The fact he realized that [Becton] is the long-term, boring play that leads to big results is a really good sign. It’s going to take time, but I’d happily invest in Sam.”

The future

Giants general manager Dave Gettleman and Jets coach Adam Gase both are on the hot seat.

Fans will want people held accountable if years of losing continues, but a lack of patience is “a recipe for disaster,” according to Beddingfield.

“Very few Super Bowl quarterbacks had changes throughout their career,” Beddingfield said. “When there is a new standard in the building that’s different from the one that drafted you, that’s tough to overcome initially. You want to continue to progress your game, not constantly make a young player learn what he should’ve learned as a rookie.”

Since 1987, the Jets and Giants have both made the playoffs in the same year three times, most recently in 2006. If choosing between Darnold and Jones is splitting hairs, the agreement lies in predicting fewer gray-inducing moments than the past produced.

“I’ve seen enough already to say you can build a consistent contender with both guys as long as you put the right pieces in place around them and have some stability with the coaches,” Simms said. “It’s impossible to know, but when I look purely at the player and then the human being behind the player, I would say they are both still here years from now.”

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