When Todd Bowles looks at the tape of the Jets' preseason opener there will probably be several hundred things he'll be watching. He'll be evaluating all 90 players on his roster. He'll be judging the competitions for a dozen or so roster spots and a few position battles too.
But nothing -- nothing -- will be more important and compelling for the Jets in their preseason opener on Friday night than how rookie quarterback Sam Darnold plays.
Maybe it's not fair to judge him on how he does in his NFL debut against the Atlanta Falcons. But he is the No. 3 overall pick and the Jets' long-awaited quarterback of the future. Every move, every throw, every decision will be scrutinized. His play, no matter how long he's in the game or how he does, will lead to pages and hours of debate.
But the evaluation of his performance will -- or at least should -- be based on much more than his final stat line or whether he helps the Jets win or lose. So with the help of two NFL scouts, here's what they'd be watching on Friday night if they were the ones judging how far Darnold has come, and how close he is to being ready to take over as the Jets' starter by Opening Day.
Is he poised?
Poise is not always easy to see from afar, "But you'll know immediately if he doesn't have it," one scout said. A rattled or overwhelmed quarterback will look the part, making rushed decisions that often become mistakes, darting from the pocket before it really closes, or throwing a ball away seconds before his receiver breaks open. He may also show physical signs like the proverbial "head on a swivel." There are times, on scout said, "where you can literally see a young quarterback's head moving from side to side as if he's trying to find his way out of trouble. By then, of course, it's already too late."
Darnold has certainly looked poised in camp, but it can be different against a live pass rush and a defense he hasn't seen yet. "You'll know pretty quickly," the scout said. "It may be hard to describe, but it's pretty obvious."
Is he making the right decisions?
This has some relation to stats, but will be more evident on the game film or to anyone watching the whole field from above. Does he force a throw into coverage when there's a wide open receiver on the other side? Did he read the defense right or misread the safety who was about to jump in front of his receiver? Does he hold the ball too long or throw it away too quickly?
A lot of this, though, even scouts won't see. "Only Todd (Bowles) will know if he checked out of the right play or not," one of the scouts said. "Did he audible to a pass when the run would've worked? Did he check down to the right receiver or should he have even checked down at all?" That's what the coaches want to see. They know Darnold has tremendous athletic ability. This game is a test for his brain and how quickly he's learning the NFL game.
How does he bounce back from a mistake?
He will make a mistake. Probably several. There will be a drive that stalls because of him. He'll get picked off. He'll fumble. Something will go wrong. "That's when we'll see what's inside him," the scout said. "Heart. Guts. Toughness. Whatever you want to call it."
It's about what comes next. Does the interception rattle him, or does he come right back on the next drive firing away? After a sack where he held the ball too long does he start jumping out of the pocket early? Does he follow one bad drive with another and another, or does he figure out a way to get the job done?
Is he consistent (and can he sustain drives)?
This isn't all him because lots of things can go wrong on drives. But the quarterback bears the ultimate responsibility and his job is to move the football. A nice, 25-yard, pinpoint pass is nice, but it's meaningless if three plays later the Jets have to punt. Darnold has to consistently find ways to make plays, whether it's with his arm, his athletic ability, or his brain making the right calls.
So the long drives -- especially, but not exclusively the scoring drives -- are key to his evaluation. Consider the circumstances, of course. It won't be his fault if a drive is short-circuited by holding penalties. But part of his job is to overcome those circumstances and make the offense go.
Can he create a play when he's forced out of the pocket?
Not every quarterback is judged this way -- certainly Eli Manning never was -- but "more and more, this is what teams want," one scout said. As defenses become more sophisticated, teams aren't looking for quarterbacks who are completely anchored to the pocket. They don't need "running quarterbacks" necessarily, but they prefer ones that can move and create.
That's one of the things that was so impressive about Darnold in the Jets' Green & White scrimmage on Saturday night. He rolled out several times and found open receivers downfield. He seemed to get out of trouble when the pocket collapsed, too, and gave himself a chance. It won't be as easy when facing against another team, but he's got the ability to do it. The scouts want to see if, in a live game, he actually can.