Is Sam Darnold Poised for a Year 2 Fantasy Football Breakout?

Is Sam Darnold Poised for a Year 2 Fantasy Football Breakout? article feature image

Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Sam Darnold

  • Ian Hartitz analyzes whether Sam Darnold is primed for a Year 2 breakout and if he should be on your fantasy football radar.

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2019 season; this is part of that series.

The New York Jets drafted Sam Darnold with the third overall pick of the 2018 draft. The former University of Southern California signal-caller offers pro-ready size at 6-foot-3 and 221 pounds and quickly proved to have enough arm strength to make pretty much any throw on the field.

Darnold’s rookie season had a mix of ups and downs, but with his strong finish to 2018 and the Jets’ decision to make several splashy free-agent signings, there’s reason to be optimistic about 2019.

What follows is a breakdown on just how good Darnold was in Year 1 and what we should expect from a fantasy football prospective this season.

Sam Darnold’s Strong Year 1 Finish

The Jets handed Darnold the starting job right out of training camp, making him the youngest quarterback to start a season opener in the Super Bowl era. A resounding 48-17 victory over the Lions in primetime was one helluva start, but Darnold and the Jets would go on to battle inconsistency through the first two months of the season.

Darnold’s worst game came against the Dolphins in Week 9, when he completed just 21-of-39 (54%) passes for 229 yards with zero touchdowns and four interceptions. He also sprained his right foot, sidelining him for the next three games.

Things started to turn around once he returned. He demonstrated the ability to beat defenses from the pocket, but also revealed a knack for making something out of nothing.

Darnold found himself ranked among the league’s top-12 signal callers in most categories over the final month of the season.

  • QB Rating: 99.1; 10th among 33 quarterbacks with at least 50 pass attempts in Weeks 14-17
  • Yards per attempt: 7.45; T-10th
  • Adjusted yards per attempt: 8.05; eighth
  • Touchdown rate: 4.8%; 10th
  • Completion rate: 64%; 17th
  • Fantasy points: 65; 13th
  • Pro Football Focus Grade: First

Per ESPN’s Rich Cimini, 20% of Darnold’s pass attempts were deemed to be made in tight windows for the third-highest mark in the league (per Next-Gen Stats). The Jets’ offseason moves to increase the talent level around him could help alleviate some of the consistent tight-coverage burden he faced as a rookie.

The Jets Surrounded Darnold with Talent

There are at least five pass catchers Darnold should feel confident throwing the ball to in 2019.

  • The Jets handed Jamison Crowder a three-year deal worth $28.5 million, including $17 million guaranteed. That type of deal — for better or worse — indicates that the former fourth-round pick will have a significant role in the offense. He’s a reliable target in the slot and occasionally offers big-play ability after the catch. Gase’s history of featuring slot receivers and financial investment indicates Crowder should be favored to lead the Jets in targets.
  • Of course, Robby Anderson has worked as the Jets’ No. 1 receiver for the better part of the past two seasons. He was the overall PPR WR6 from Weeks 14-17 last season, posting 4-76-1, 7-96-1, 9-140-1 and 3-24-0 lines against the Bills, Texans, Packers and Patriots, respectively. Anderson is anyone’s idea of an elite and efficient field-stretcher who should continue to be able to impact games regardless of if he’s being fed targets.

  • Say what you will about Le’Veon Bell’s decision to sit out the 2018 season, but make no mistake: The man can ball. Bell worked as anyone’s idea of one of the league’s best running backs from 2013-2017, regularly displaying fantasy-friendly ability as both a rusher and receiver in the Steelers’ ever-potent offense. Bell should provide Darnold with a consistent safety valve underneath who is also capable of attacking defenses as a true receiver: Bell joins Larry Centers, Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig as the only running backs with at least three seasons with 75-plus receptions in NFL history.

  • Tight end Chris Herndon was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2018 for the Jets. Herndon caught 39-of-56 targets as a rookie for 502 yards and four touchdowns, regularly demonstrating both impressive contested-catch ability as well as elite-level consistency.

  • Quincy Enunwa was Darnold’s early-season BFF. Things changed once he was moved out of the slot, as Darnold targeted Anderson (39 targets from Weeks 14-17), Herndon (16) and Eli McGuire (15) as much as the the combination of Enunwa (four in one game) and current-Lions receiver Jermaine Kearse (11 in three games).

The Jets and their new-and-improved band of weapons in the passing game are particularly intriguing considering the low fantasy football cost of their conductor.

Darnold Is Essentially Free in Fantasy Football at the Moment

This year’s crew of quarterbacks offers an abundance of late-round talent.

Personally, I’m trending towards dual-threat talents like…

…but Darnold has still been a player I’ve been happy to grab in the final rounds of best ball tournaments due to his non-existent market.

Darnold is the 25th quarterback in average draft position, behind Matthew Stafford and (throws up in mouth) Derek Carr. His FFPC average draft position has consistently moved down throughout the month of May, potentially because of the Jets’ laughable front office musings surrounding the dismissal of general manager Mike Maccagnan in favor of new head coach Adam Gase.

The biggest obstacle the offense will have to face under their new jurisdiction is the painfully slow pace that Gase and Co. have played at since parting ways with Peyton Manning and the Broncos:

Situation Neutral Pace Ranks (per Football Outsiders):

  • 2015 (Bears): 27th
  • 2016 (Dolphins): 31st
  • 2017 (Dolphins): 29th
  • 2018 (Dolphins): 31st

Gase and Co. ranked 25th, 31st, fourth and 30th in pass attempts from 2015-2018, respectively. Yes, neither Jay Cutler nor Ryan Tannehill managed to crack the top-20 fantasy quarterbacks during these seasons.

But Darnold is objectively a better prospect than an elderly-version of smokin’ Jay or an often-injured Tannehill.

You shouldn’t consider Darnold as your Week 1 fantasy football starter in single-quarterback leagues at this point due to his projected lack of volume and limited value as a rusher. Still, he’s essentially a free late-round dart in two-quarterback leagues or best ball formats who is plenty capable of returning above-average production for stretches of the season.

There’s certainly a chance we see the Jets participating in their fair share of shootouts next season if the league’s 21st-ranked defense in Football Outsiders’ overall DVOA doesn’t improve.

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