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Sam Darnold’s production broken down by route type: Games 1-2

New York Jets v Detroit Lions Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Previously, I have taken a look back at the seasonal campaigns of a few different Jets wide receivers, breaking down their production by route type. I thought I’d expand on that concept by using it to learn more about the opposite perspective — that of the quarterback.

I’ve begun re-watching all of Sam Darnold’s throws from the 2018 season, going game-by-game charting his production broken down by route type and a few other different factors. In addition to looking at how well Darnold executed different route concepts, I’ve been charting his performance based on:

  • The side of the field his targeted receiver lined up
  • The depth of the throw
  • Whether the targeted receiver was primarily covered by man or zone coverage
  • The number of rushers sent by the defense

I thought it would also be prudent to tally any blatant drops by Darnold’s receivers to get a better handle on his personal accuracy. Finally, I’m tallying any “improvised” production from Darnold — plays where the receiver broke off their initial route. It’s a trademark ability of his, and I wanted to see just how often he was making plays in that fashion.

Before we start diving in, here is a look at the collection of route types I’ve been tracking.

Obviously, there is a seemingly infinite number of complex route concepts that could not possibly fit in that picture. I went with a simplified collection of 15 route types. I thought this lineup was perfect for having enough variety to capture every throw while not going overboard with specificity.

It’s sometimes difficult to tell exactly what route a receiver is trying to run. Other times, there will be instances where a receiver will run a more complex route that features combination of a few routes seen above, such as an out-and-up or slant-and-go among others. I assigned route types based on the nature of the throw for Darnold. Whichever route type best matched the angle, depth, and essence of the throw Darnold had to make, would be the one I’d go with.

So far, I’ve gotten through Darnold’s first two games — his victorious visit to Detroit on Monday Night Football, and the sloppy loss in the home opener against Miami.

Here are some of my observations from those two games.

  • Darnold was really solid in the intermediate game to start the year. On throws 10-19 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, he completed 13 of 22 passes for 243 yards and 13 first downs against Detroit and Miami, for robust marks of 11.0 yards per attempt and a 59% first down rate. On the downside, he threw no touchdowns and three interceptions in that range.
  • A huge reason for that effectiveness was his efficiency with the curl route. Over the first two games of the season, Darnold threw nine curls (tied most among all routes), completing seven of them (tied for second-most), for 93 yards (most) and six first downs (most). Most of those were against zone coverage, where Darnold was doing a good job of finding open receivers sitting down in the middle-intermediate part of the field.
  • The screen game was Darnold’s friend early in the year. Through two games, he threw nine screen passes (tied most among all routes), completing eight of them (most) for 71 yards (second-most) and three first downs (tied for second-most).
  • In spite the abundance of screens he threw during the early parts of the season, Darnold was certainly not playing conservatively to ease into the league. Over these first two games, I haven’t seen Darnold throw the ball away a single time, while he only threw three checkdowns. This aggressiveness can be a good thing, but only when done so smartly. Particularly in the first half of the Dolphins game, Darnold threw some ill-advised passes downfield while there wide open receivers parked near the line with free space to run. His lack of “safe” throws is likely a huge contributor to the next point.
  • Darnold was really aggressive pushing the ball downfield in both of these games, a signal of what was to come over the rest of the season. On the year, Darnold’s average target depth was 9.3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, via NFL Next Gen Stats. That was the highest mark in the league among quarterbacks to throw at least 400 passes. Over the first two games of the season, Darnold’s average target depth by my tracking was 9.48 yards, slightly above his eventual season average.
  • Through two games, Darnold has suffered from four drops over a combined 71 air yards. Quincy Enunwa had one in the Detroit game. Terrelle Pryor had two in the Miami game, while Chris Herndon had one.
  • The Jets didn’t need Darnold to do much down the stretch in the Detroit game, thanks to a stellar run game, plenty of takeaways, and great special teams, but he delivered when they needed him to. That, of course, was early in the game. After his game-opening interception, Darnold completed 16 of his final 20 passes for nearly 10 yards per attempt. He made clutch plays to extend drives in key spots, until halfway through the third quarter when he was already handing the ball off to run the clock out.
  • Darnold struggled with inaccuracy in the first half of the Miami game, but ultimately finished with one resilient performance. He finished 25 of 41 for 334 yards (8.2 per attempt) and 17 first downs (42% rate), despite taking three sacks, suffering from three drops, a Robby Anderson fumble, Terrelle Pryor seemingly quitting on an end zone post route causing an interception, and the run game gaining 41 yards on 2.4 yards per carry. Darnold bounced back strong in the second half with consistent chain-moving throws in the intermediate range.

I could share dozens of extra tidbits on just these two games alone, but there will be plenty more to come as we continue to take a look back at the rest of Darnold’s rookie season.

Here’s a quick look at Darnold’s route distribution over his first two regular season games as a Jet.