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Sam Darnold has been elite on 3rd down, but has struggled on early downs

Denver Broncos v New York Jets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Sam Darnold has had the typical start for a rookie quarterback in the NFL, showcasing some eye-popping highs and some face-palming lows. All in all, his numbers line up almost dead on with the league average expectancy for rookies in recent history. Over the past decade (from 2008-2017), 21 rookie quarterbacks have thrown 100 passes or more over their team’s first five games of the season. Those players posted an average passer rating of 74.8 - Darnold is currently at 77.2. There have been players who have gone on to become greats who have started off worse (Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan), and players who went on to become busts who started off better (Robert Griffin III, Geno Smith, EJ Manuel).

Still, it’s interesting to chop up the numbers and see exactly which situations a quarterback has thrived and struggled.

While looking through Darnold’s splits, I noticed a particular area where the discrepancy in his production is noticeably large. He has produced at elite levels on 3rd down, but put up backup-quality numbers on 1st and 2nd down.

Sam Darnold, on 3rd down:

*- Ranks among the 29 quarterbacks with 30+ passing attempts on 3rd down.

Raw numbers: 22/43, 344 yards, 5 touchdowns, 1 interception.

  • 107.1 passer rating (4th)
  • 8.0 yards per attempt (7th)
  • 15.6 yards per completion (1st)
  • 51.2% completion rate (27th)
  • 5 touchdowns (2nd)
  • 1 interception (T-11th fewest)
  • 13 first down completions (T-13th)

Sam Darnold, on 1st and 2nd down:

*- Ranks among the 27 quarterbacks with 90+ passing attempts on 1st-2nd down.

Raw numbers: 58/102, 687 yards, 2 touchdowns, 5 interceptions.

  • 63.6 passer rating (27th)
  • 6.7 yards per attempt (26th)
  • 11.8 yards per completion (12th)
  • 56.9% completion rate (27th)
  • 2 touchdowns (27th)
  • 5 interception (T-4th most) > 4.9% INT rate, 2nd highest
  • 29 first down completions (27th)

What gives? On the early downs, Darnold has easily been the league’s worst starter. He’s gotten yardage out of the passes he has completed, but he has turned the ball over too much and has not made nearly enough plays.

On 3rd down, Darnold has been explosive, throwing the second most touchdowns with 4 of those coming from a distance of 20+ yards. He’s only thrown one interception, which was the deflected pass against Denver. He’s moved the chains at a league average rate.

How does this compare to the other rookie quarterbacks? Let’s put Darnold’s numbers alongside those of the other rookies who have played significant time so far.

3rd down:

Darnold - 107.1 rating / 5 TD-1 INT / 8.0 Y/A

Baker Mayfield - 75.5 / 0-1 / 8.2

Josh Rosen - 54.4 / 0-0 / 3.8

Josh Allen - 36.6 / 0-3 / 6.2

1st-2nd down:

Rosen - 96.1 / 2-0 / 7.9

Mayfield - 85.4 / 3-2 / 7.8

Allen - 69.0 / 2-2 / 5.8

Darnold - 63.6 / 2-5 / 6.7

What do you make of these numbers? Are these numbers just random chance? If not, is the gap on Darnold himself, or can some of it be attributed to play-calling?