ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky turned some heads last month when he said on the network that he would take Jets quarterback Sam Darnold if he had his pick of any of the quarterbacks drafted from 2018-20.
That means, yes, he would take Darnold over Lamar Jackson, who won the league MVP last year with the Ravens. Even though Darnold has been inconsistent and has not proven he will be an elite starter in the NFL, Orlovsky believes Darnold has been a victim of being on a bad team.
“I love Lamar Jackson,” Orlovsky, who played 13 seasons in the NFL, told The Post recently. “He is a superstar, but if you mean to me that if Sam Darnold went to a team with a top-five run game and some pretty darn good skill players and a scheme that was absolutely perfect for him and a top-five defense, we wouldn’t think of him differently? We’re in a team where it’s not 20 years ago when quarterbacks make all these other guys better. The other guys make the quarterback better because of the timing and the space of football and the matchups.
“If I had to take a guy in the last three draft classes for the next 10 years, it would still be Sam.”
Darnold is entering his third season with plenty of questions still surrounding him. He has thrown 36 touchdowns and 28 interceptions in his 26 games. He has shown flashes of being special but has yet to put together sustained success. Darnold turns 23 on Friday, so he is still very young. Orlovsky argues we have no idea exactly what Darnold can be yet.
“Anyone who sits there and tells you they can make an evaluation of Sam Darnold, how?” Orlovsky said. “Tell me how. How can you sit there and honestly tell me you can make an evaluation of him of what he is or what he’ll become? He’s been playing with one hand tied behind his back for an extended period of time.”
Orlovsky is not the only analyst who expects better things from Darnold in 2020. Chris Simms, who works for NBC now after eight years as an NFL quarterback, saw progress last season from Darnold.
“I’m really excited with Sam,” Simms said. “After weathering the storm last year, you can see what kind of player Sam is. He’s phenomenal in the pocket. He’s one of the best at moving in the pocket and delivering the ball from awkward deliveries. He’s got a great way of hopping around and finding a crease to make the throw. He is a phenomenal intermediate-to-short passing game quarterback. I thought last year he really took strides with his deep ball and pushing the ball downfield.”
Boomer Esiason, who was the 1988 NFL MVP, sees this as a critical year for Darnold and fellow third-year quarterback Josh Allen of the Bills.
“It’s where poise meets ability,” said Esiason, who is a WFAN host and CBS analyst now. “When that arrives for all of us, anybody who started over 100 games in the NFL can tell you exactly when the seminal moment was where we all started to understand what we needed to do to become the players we ended up becoming. I would suggest both of these players Allen and Darnold are both at that intersection of where their poise should meet their ability. They just need to refine themselves.”
Esiason said Darnold has played “frenetically” and needs to slow his game down.
“I just want to see Sam play like 12 games in a row. I don’t want to see any interruption,” Esiason said. “I want to see how he gets better in the middle of the season all the way to the end of the season. He’s done that in two seasons where he’s gotten better at the end of the year. But, man has he really struggled coming out of the gate.”
Orlovsky believes the Jets are now heading in the right direction and Darnold might be able to show what he can do. He lauded the selection of tackle Mekhi Becton by the Jets in the first round of the draft.
“I said that Jets fans would know what their future was going to be like by the 11th pick,” Orlovsky said. “I said that if those receivers that were so enticing fell to the 11th pick and Joe Douglas took one, I’d be upset if I was a Jets fan. As appealing and sexy as they are, it wasn’t the right pick. The right pick was to make the offensive line the priority times 10. I’m hopeful for the Jets and Sam and their fans that there’s a trend that their general manager is starting to get it and solidify what’s around Sam. I’m hopeful that he’s in a good situation going forward.”