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On Sam Darnold's future, scouts and analysts see past the picks

Even though he's on pace to throw 20 interceptions, experts see glimpses of greatness in some throws Sam Darnold makes. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- In the ever-growing world of analytics, where statistics are treated as gospel, Sam Darnold's first eight games were only slightly better than those of the New York Jets' previous rookie starter, Geno Smith. Numbers can be powerful, but they have a blind spot. Sometimes they can't see potential greatness.

Let's go back to last Sunday in Chicago. In the fourth quarter, Darnold threw a slant route to Deontay Burnett. It went in the books as a 13-yard completion and a first down, resulting in a fractional bump in his passer rating, Total QBR and countless other statistical categories. In reality, the play was so impressive that it resonated for days at One Jets Drive. He made a next-level move that belied his inexperience.

Darnold maneuvered the Bears' free safety, Adrian Amos, with a subtle head-and-shoulder fake, opening a window for Burnett. He did it by glancing at running back Isaiah Crowell in the left flat, prompting Amos to vacate his area in the left-middle of the field. With Amos crashing down hard to cover Crowell, Darnold shifted his eyes slightly to the right and, without resetting his feet, rifled a completion to Burnett. That play never would've happened if Amos hadn't been fooled by Darnold's lookaway.

Try punching that into your database.

"This is why the future is bright," former quarterback Tony Romo gushed on the CBS telecast.

The Jets think so, too -- and the midseason sentiment around the NFL is similar.

Even though he ranks near the bottom in most of the major statistical categories -- he's tied for the league lead with 10 interceptions -- Darnold hasn't done anything to dampen the optimism that marked his arrival on draft day. ESPN interviewed five experts -- two former quarterbacks-turned-analysts and three talent evaluators -- and they all said Darnold has met or exceeded expectations.

"If you're a Jets fan, you have to be happy with the quarterback right now," Phil Simms of CBS said. "He has enough arm strength, he can make enough throws, he can be a championship quarterback. But we're talking about -- what? -- eight games."

Darnold played well in the Jets' three wins (seven touchdowns, three interceptions), but struggled in their five losses (four touchdowns, seven interceptions). At no point has he looked overwhelmed, which says a lot about his mental toughness. That 13-yard slant against the Bears came after three quarters of offensive futility, yet he still had the wherewithal to play with that safety's mind. He was still fighting, still plotting.

"He came in with high expectations and he has exceeded them, absolutely," Dan Orlovsky of ESPN said. "He's very good at getting the ball out of his hands, anticipating. His ability to release the ball at the top of the route is really good. His spatial awareness is great. His subtle movements are awesome. He can see color downfield. Some guys see only blurs, but he can see colors. He can feel the color; he can see the color. Every game, he makes two to four special throws that are pretty sweet."

Darnold became the youngest player to throw for 300 yards in a game and, a few weeks later, he shredded a respectable Denver Broncos secondary. That day, he threw a 35-yard touchdown that still has people in the organization buzzing. It went off like a rocket and fell like a feather, through the tiniest of openings.

On the flip side, he's on pace for 20 interceptions, which would be the most by a Jets quarterback since Smith's rookie year in 2013 (21). As Peyton Manning always said, every interception has a story. In Darnold's case, three weren't his fault. One went off his receiver's hands, and two others resulted from poor routes by the receiver. On the flip side, he has had four potential interceptions that were dropped. It probably evens out in the end.

For Darnold, it's the continuation of a trend from his last season at USC, where he tied for the FBS lead in turnovers -- 22 in 14 games. A red flag? No, it shouldn't be viewed as a long-term concern, according to the talent evaluators.

"Typically, if you're a risk-taker in college, it continues to be that way," an AFC personnel director said. "But you can work with him within the offense as he grows. No, I don't see it as a major problem. At USC he was scrambling around, trying to make plays. Now he's dealing with a number of injuries at wide receiver, so he's making plays off schedule and maybe forcing some throws."

Manning threw 28 interceptions and went 3-13 as a rookie. He turned out pretty well.

"Hey, some of them have been bad, but you know, I really don’t care. It means nothing to me. Nothing," Simms said of Darnold's interceptions. "If he throws 35 this year, then I'd worry. Obviously, a couple of them, they’ve been aggressive throws. He's had to anticipate more than you’d want him to because he was getting pressure and tried to make the play instead of taking the sack or throwing it in the ground."

Darnold's first NFL pass was intercepted by a safety -- the pick-six in Detroit -- the first of four interceptions by a safety. Like a lot of rookies, he can lose track of the safeties, according to the evaluators. It also happened in Week 2 against the Miami Dolphins, whom he faces again Sunday. The personnel director said Darnold appeared a bit confused at times last week, when the Bears dropped eight into coverage.

"There are some games where you see some really good flashes, and then there are some games where you can see he's fighting through a couple of things," Dolphins coach Adam Gase said.

Darnold is working behind a veteran offensive line, which helps, but his skill-position talent is considered pedestrian, according to scouts. He has no 1,000-yard receivers, no 1,000-yard rushers and an unproven cast at tight end. As Orlovsky said, "I don't want to bash any players, but they don't have the guys. You have to give him better weapons. The NFL is about ball distribution. If you have a good point guard, you have to surround him with shooters."

Darnold said he measures himself based on the number of completions and, of course, turnovers. He knows he must cut down on the interceptions, but he's still encouraged by his first half-season. He's aware of the growing-pains narrative, but he realizes there are exceptions to the rule. He cited Deshaun Watson, who dazzled last season before suffering a major knee injury.

There's an understated confidence about Darnold. He knows he's good, but he doesn't feel the need to broadcast it.

"He's going to get better. I'm not worried about him," an AFC scout said. "Now, Baker [Mayfield], he worries me. What makes him special is the juice he brings to a locker room, the moxie, but that only works if you're winning and doing well. That ain't gonna matter at 2-14. You don't have to worry about that with Sam Darnold. He's always the same, and he'll get better from his mistakes."

What can be expected in the second half of the season? Darnold should improve when his top weapons, Quincy Enunwa and Robby Anderson, return from injuries. Simms said he expects the Jets will "slowly try to grow" their offense around the rookie, meaning they will expand his repertoire of plays and options.

"You just can't give him the Tom Brady offense in Year 1," Simms said.

Chances are, Darnold's end-of-the-season stats won't dazzle. The analytics folks will call it a mediocre year. Darnold will have them fooled, just like he did Adrian Amos.