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What Sam Darnold must fix to become the Jets' QB savior

The New York Jets were absolutely giddy when Sam Darnold fell to them in the draft. Nearly two weeks later, the energy level at One Jets Drive remains elevated. They feel like they hit the jackpot.

But there's work to be done. For all his success at USC, Darnold isn't without flaws. Let's take a closer look at some of those issues and how his skills translate to the pro game:

Too many interceptions. He threw 21 interceptions in 24 career starts, a rate of one every 38.5 attempts. The good news is many of the league's top quarterbacks posted similar rates in college, including Tom Brady (37.5), Ben Roethlisberger (38.4), Eli Manning (38.9) and Kirk Cousins (37.6). So, yes, interception-prone college passers can grow out of it.

A film review of Darnold's interceptions last season reveals a few common themes: On many of the 13 picks, he stared down his receiver instead of reading the entire field. That resulted in forced throws into double- and triple-coverage. It was glaring against Stanford, Oregon State and Notre Dame.

In some cases, he also was guilty of poor footwork, which hampered his ability to drive the ball with necessary velocity. Only one of his 13 interceptions can be blamed on the receiver (a deflection on a well-thrown ball). There weren't many bad throws, per se, just bad decisions, such as a risky throw into the end zone on second-and-goal against Arizona.

"Matt Ryan threw a lot of interceptions as well," said ESPN analyst and former NFL player Matt Bowen, who studied Darnold and believes he should've been the first pick in the draft. "When you have the arm talent, you try to make those tight-window throws. Sometimes guys do lock on guys and say, ‘Hey, I can make this throw.’ If you do that at the NFL level, we all know that will get your team in trouble. That loses games."

Bowen described your typical gunslinger, a quarterback who plays with a big risk/big reward mentality. Darnold has "a little Brett Favre in him," according to NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock.

Jets coach Todd Bowles believes Darnold's interception issue is "very fixable." One thing about Darnold that impresses the Jets is his ability to rebound from a bad play. In 2017, he never threw interceptions on back-to-back possessions. In fact, he never had two in the same quarter.

"You worry about a guy who turns it over and then goes into a shell, as opposed to a guy that turns it over and then comes back even feistier than before," Bowles said, putting Darnold in the latter category.

Too many fumbles. Darnold lost nine fumbles last season, including five on sacks. During his pre-draft preparation with personal quarterback coach Jordan Palmer, Darnold determined that most of the fumbles resulted from his not keeping two hands on the ball while under duress. Well, yeah, that's kind of obvious. Can the problem be fixed?

Bowen said Darnold tends to get "a little too comfortable" with the ball, adding, "He holds it with one hand. He holds it down on the side of his hip. That maybe invites the defensive player to knock it out. Can that be corrected? Sure, but through a lot of repetition. There will be a lot of repetition with him."

Darnold knows the deal, and he isn't backing away from it.

"It's just something that I need to continue to work on and be aware of it in games and in practices," he said at last weekend's rookie minicamp.

Sloppy footwork. This showed up in no fewer than six of his 13 interceptions last season. Instead of stepping into his throws, Darnold displayed a tendency to pull out his left leg. In some cases, it was so severe that he finished with both feet parallel to the line of scrimmage. Scouts call that stepping in a bucket.

"I think at times he doesn’t have his foot and arm mechanics working together in unison," Bowen said. "On the pro level, those things have to be in unison, the arm and the footwork, to make tight-window throws."

The Jets are relying on offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, who cut his teeth in the business as a quarterbacks coach, to clean up Darnold's lower-body mechanics. When Darnold arrived at the facility on the 6:45 a.m. bus last Friday for the start of rookie camp, he headed straight for Bates' office after routine blood tests with the medical staff. Darnold and Bates will be spending a lot of time together.

Funky throwing motion. The Jets don't seem alarmed by Darnold's motion, an elongated delivery in which he lowers the ball as he brings it back. It probably adds a fraction of a second to his release time, and everybody knows fractions are big in the NFL, in which the throwing windows are smaller and the defensive backs are quicker to the ball than in college.

Darnold addressed that during his pre-draft prep, but it would be wrong to say that he made any radical change. He's confident in his current delivery, and so are the Jets.

"He can get the ball out quick when he wants to," Bowles said. "He can change his arm motion a little bit here and there, but we’re fine with his motion."

Scheme adjustment. Of the top draft prospects, UCLA's Josh Rosen was deemed the most pro-ready because he played from under center more than the others and was familiar with three-, five- and seven-step drops. Darnold played in a spread system at USC, but with a caveat.

"They did have spread concepts, there's no question about it -- a lot of shotgun, a lot of spread, RPOs -- but he went through full-field reads within that because they did run a pro-style route tree," Bowen said. "So I don't think there will be much adjustment in that regard. They'll be running the same routes they used at USC and going through the same progressions. I think he processes very quickly with his eyes."

Bowen's favorite play came in the win over Texas, when USC ran double post routes against quarters coverage (four DBs across the back). Darnold saw the safety break toward the inside post, which left the receiver on the outside post in man-to-man coverage. He reacted quickly and delivered a strike for a touchdown.

"That's high-level processing," Bowen said.

That innate skill will aid Darnold in his ascent to the starting job.

Conclusion. Yes, Darnold tied for the FBS lead with 22 turnovers in 2017. Yes, he developed some bad habits, especially with his footwork and occasional double-clutching. But he has what scouts love: a strong arm, pro size at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds and the ability to make plays off script. That's why he was widely regarded as the best quarterback prospect in the draft.

"The No. 1 thing I took away from his film is he has the pro traits to succeed," Bowen said. "I think that's what the Jets were looking at. If I'm the New York Jets, I'm really excited because the traits are there. Now what you have to do is put him in the right system, cater more to what he does best -- short and intermediate passing game and bootlegs.

"The natural traits Sam has, you can't teach that stuff. You either have it, or you don't."