Sam Darnold lines up under center against the Washington Redskins on Aug. 16, 2018, at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.

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Lichtenstein: Offensive Line Limitations Should Factor Into Jets' QB Decision

Poor Blocking Can Ruin A Young Signal-Caller

Steve Lichtenstein
August 17, 2018 - 10:30 am
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Want a reason I’m not so gung-ho on rushing Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold into the fray this season?

I’m afraid the third overall pick in this year's draft will be shredded to pieces playing behind that offensive line.

LISTEN: Gio & Jerry Recco React To Darnold's Performance

Now, pro football is inherently dangerous, and older Jets fans can remember when Vinny Testaverde crumpled to the ground from a noncontact Achilles injury in the 1999 season opener.

Still, this Jets line presents a vastly elevated risk to any quarterback, especially an inexperienced one. When intact, it’s one of the league’s worst, as graded by ProFootballFocus.com.

When the Jets faced the Redskins' pretty stout defensive front in their second preseason game Thursday night, it was a mismatch.

In Darnold’s first game as the starting QB, the Jets' offense was manhandled at the line of scrimmage in the opening 30 minutes, which ended with Washington up 9-3. Teddy Bridgewater led the Jets on a second-half comeback in the irrelevant battle of backups, but Gang Green’s defense folded in the last two minutes and Washington walked off with a 15-13 victory on kicker Dustin Hopkins‘ fifth field goal of the night at the final gun.

MORE: Lichtenstein: Jets Would Be Foolish To Trade Bridgewater

Darnold was under pressure during much of his three possessions behind center, yet he still finished with respectable numbers -- 8-of-11 for 62 yards and an interception. The Jets’ first drive stalled when backup guard Jonotthan Harrison, filling in for the injured Brian Winters, was tossed aside by Washington rookie Da’Ron Payne on a third-down sack.  Darnold next drove the Jets into the red zone, but on a third-and-10, he held the ball in the pocket a little too long and was dropped by Preston Smith. The Jets settled for a Taylor Bertolet field goal.

The media made a big deal about Darnold’s red-zone interception that ended his evening with 3:18 remaining in the second quarter. Could he have made a better decision by reading Washington safety Deshazor Everett, who moved over to deflect Darnold’s pass intended for Jermaine Kearse? Probably, but let’s not discount that it was fourth down and Darnold had Washington defensive end Anthony Lanier II bearing down on him after a missed assignment by Jets left tackle Brent Qvale, who started because Kelvin Beachum is hurt. The ball had to come out. Interception or incompletion, Washington was going to get the ball. This result didn’t even give them any yards of field position.       

Winters was shut down for the final three games of last season due to a nagging abdomen injury and will also sit out the remaining two preseason games. He said he expects to play on opening day in three weeks, but who knows if that’s true or how effective he’ll be? Beachum is recovering from a “sore foot,” according to coach Todd Bowles, and is “week to week.” Meanwhile, the depth chart took another hit Wednesday when the Jets announced they placed backup tackle Ben Ijalana on injured reserve (shoulder).

Again, this is a substandard unit when healthy. That’s what usually happens after more than a decade of neglect. Since the Jets took D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold with first-round picks in the 2006 draft, here are the offensive linemen they chose within the first four rounds:
• Vladimir Ducasse (2010, 2nd round)
• Winters (2013, 3rd round)
• Dakota Dozier (2014, 4th round)

That’s it. At least Winters and Dozier are still on the Jets’ roster.

MORE: Keidel: Trust In Bowles For Deciding When To Go With Darnold

General manager Mike Maccagnan is allocating quite a bit of salary-cap space to his line, giving big contracts over the last four years to Beachum, Winters, left guard James Carpenter and, most recently, center Spencer Long. Brandon Shell, a 2016 fifth-round pick, is the starting right tackle.       

Unfortunately, the Jets got very little bang for owner Woody Johnson’s bucks last season. With only eight man-games lost to injury, the Jets were in the bottom quartile of the league in sacks allowed and negative-yardage rushing attempts.

Long should be an upgrade over Wesley Johnson, and Shell could develop further. But the rest of the group is on a downward trend. And, as Thursday’s game showed, there’s little help in reserve.

No matter who plays QB, the Jets should be factoring in their line’s limitations in their play-calling. Bowles took the heat for the fourth-down interception in his postgame news conference, but in general, the Jets did not do enough Thursday to get Darnold on the move, where he has the ability to make plays. It’s preseason, so they might be keeping it under wraps.

MORE: Redskins' Norman Has Very High Praise For Jets' Darnold

Still, maybe the line should also be a factor, at least initially, in how Bowles decides the quarterback competition. Young quarterbacks can develop a type of shell shock if they’re forced into action and face constant pressure. To his credit, Darnold has so far seemed to be up to the mental task, but he’s played just two meaningless exhibitions. I again direct you to Browning Nagle, the Jets’ supposed 1992 savior who went 3-10 after a 5-0 preseason. When the games count, opponents will be going after Darnold in so many ways he hasn’t seen yet. It can be overwhelming.      

If this was a fair fight, Bridgewater would get the next start Friday against the Giants. It’s hard to tell from playing against scrubs, but it looks like the awful knee injury he suffered at Minnesota’s 2016 training camp is not an issue. He’s been mobile -- juking defenders out of their socks -- and he’s been pretty accurate, except for one poor decision on a deep ball in Thursday’s fourth quarter.

But this has all the makings of a rigged competition, with Darnold in the lead even if most believe he’s behind Bridgewater on merits to date. No fan wants to see 39-year-old Josh McCown again. The Jets are heavily invested Darnold, 21. They’re willing to take their lumps with him over a more qualified candidate if he’s close enough.

Normally that would be the correct approach for a franchise in the Jets’ condition. So long as the lumps Darnold is going to receive from playing behind this line doesn’t have a negative long-lasting effect. 

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.