When the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills meet on Sunday at New Era Field, it will be the first meeting of starting quarterbacks drafted in the 2018 class: the Jets’ Sam Darnold and the Bills’ Josh Allen. (When the Jets and Browns met in Week 3, No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield replaced an injured Tyrod Taylor and finished the game, beating Darnold and the Jets.) Three weeks ago, when the Bills beat the Jets 41-10, Matt Barkley started for the Bills and Josh McCown for the Jets.
Darnold, the No. 3 pick, had a strong start to the season but hit a midseason rough patch and has been out for the past month with a foot injury. He’s expected to return Sunday. Allen, the No. 7 pick, also missed time — four weeks — with an elbow injury, but since coming back he’s led the Bills to a home win over the Jaguars and was one pass away from upsetting the Dolphins last Sunday in Miami.
NFL Nation writers Rich Cimini and Mike Rodak analyze the matchup and examine the roller-coaster seasons for both rookie quarterbacks:
Cimini: With Joe Namath and the 1968 Super Bowl champions in the house for their 50-year reunion, Darnold played his best game of the year in a 42-34 victory over the Colts in Week 6. He threw for two touchdowns and passed for 280 yards — an average of 9.3 per attempt, a full yard better than Namath’s mark in the magical ’68 season. The best part of Darnold’s game? He won with his mind as much as his arm, carefully dissecting the Colts’ zone-based defense with smart decisions.
Rodak: A 75-yard touchdown pass to undrafted rookie wide receiver Robert Foster in a Week 12 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. One of the main appeals of Allen coming out of the draft was his rare arm strength, which was showcased when Allen made this throw 43 yards in the air to Foster despite being sandwiched by two defenders as the pocket collapsed. There were plenty of questions about how Allen’s raw talent would translate from the Mountain West Conference to the NFL, but this was one sign that he could successfully make the jump.
Cimini: Week 1, Play 1. On his first play from scrimmage, Darnold became only the third quarterback in the past 28 years to throw a pick-six on his first NFL attempt. The others: Brett Favre and Jameis Winston. Darnold did it on the road, in Detroit, which means he had to overcome a hostile environment. This was a Monday night game, and Darnold’s former college team (USC) rearranged its schedule so it could watch as a group. Talk about embarrassing. To his credit, he gathered himself and helped the Jets to a win.
Rodak: Allen being intercepted by Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander on a desperate heave in a Week 4 loss at Lambeau Field. On a third-and-5 from the Packers’ 20-yard line with 54 seconds remaining in the first half, Allen faced blitz pressure and rolled to his right, opting to launch a pass off his back foot instead of throwing the ball away or taking a sack. The pass was easily picked off in the end zone, depriving the Bills of a field-goal opportunity in a game in which they were eventually shut out. Allen trying to do too much frustrated Bills coaches.
Cimini: The Jets are 0-5 when Darnold attempts more than 30 passes in a game. Clearly he needs the support of a running game to be successful. If he’s throwing a lot, it means the Jets are trailing — and he hasn’t been good in late-game, catch-up situations. In fact, he has no touchdown passes and four interceptions when he gets past his 30th attempt. He’s still looking for a fourth-quarter comeback win.
Rodak: Allen has an 83.6 Total QBR in his two games since returning from injury, sixth best in the NFL. In his six games before the injury, Allen ranked 31st with a 32.2 Total QBR. Pro Football Focus also has seen a dramatic turnaround from Allen, who has been their top-graded quarterback the past two weeks after ranking 34th before his injury. Allen has passed the eye test in the past two games, even though his passing stats — 26-of-52 for 391 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and a 78.3 passer rating — have been pedestrian.
Cimini: Darnold is a better athlete than the pre-draft scouting reports suggested. Look, he never will be confused with Michael Vick — or Josh Allen, for that matter — but Darnold moves nicely within the pocket, throws well on the run and can make yards in scramble situations. He has one rushing touchdown and 10 rushing first downs — not bad for nine games.
Rodak: Allen’s rushing ability. Allen rushed for 523 yards as a sophomore at Wyoming in 2016 and his scouting report acknowledged his willingness to make plays with his legs. However, he has exceeded expectations in rushing at the NFL level, particularly in the past two weeks. Allen has scrambled four times for 20 yards or more and has 234 rushing yards in the past two weeks. Those are the most rushing yards for a quarterback in a two-game span since Green Bay’s Tobin Rote had 281 in 1951.
Offseason addition that would be the biggest help
Cimini: Darnold needs playmakers around him. Right now, the Jets don’t have any game-changing players on offense. When Darnold was at his best in college (2016), he had an ultra-quick wide receiver who could separate quickly: JuJu Smith-Schuster. There could be a player of that ilk in the upcoming draft in Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown, who has dynamic speed. In free agency, the Jets are expected to pursue running back Le’Veon Bell, a dual threat who would add versatility and explosiveness to the offense.
Rodak: A legitimate No. 1 wide receiver. Allen inherited Kelvin Benjamin, whom the Bills acquired in a trade last season. However, Benjamin failed to live up to his billing as a top receiver, lacking the ability to separate from defenders and not showing consistent ability to make contested catches. Before the Bills released Benjamin on Tuesday, he was averaging only 1.7 yards of separation on his targets this season, according to NFL NextGen Stats, the lowest mark in the NFL among players with at least 50 targets. Expect the Bills to look at receivers in both free agency and the draft.
Which QB has improved the most
Cimini: There’s no debate here. It’s Allen, who has displayed signs of progress since returning from an elbow injury. Darnold was actually regressing at the time of his foot injury (seven interceptions in three games), which makes these last four games so important. If he can finish on an upswing, it would provide a small spark as the Jets head into what figures to be a turbulent offseason. If Darnold fizzles, it won’t change the way the organization feels about him. It still loves his upside.
Rodak: Allen, although Darnold will have a chance to make a similar comeback post-injury. Allen’s performance has been night-and-day since his elbow injury, which could partly be the result of the Bills replacing backup Nathan Peterman with more experienced voices in Derek Anderson and Matt Barkley. Allen also has avoided making cringe-worthy mistakes, such as his interception against the Packers, which plagued him earlier in the season. He must still become a more accurate passer on high-percentage throws in which he lacks touch.
Who is better set up for success?
Cimini: Tough call here. Let’s be honest: Neither player is surrounded by playoff-caliber talent. The edge probably goes to Allen, if only because of the continuity factor. Barring something unforeseen, he’ll have the same coordinator and same playbook for 2019, providing a nice foundation. Darnold? He’ll be starting over because the Jets are expected to blow up their coaching staff. He might be better in the long run, especially if they hire a quarterback whisperer, but it’s hard to say that until it actually happens. As of now, there are many uncertainties in Darnold’s football future.
Rodak: The coaching and front-office situation around Allen is undoubtedly more stable than what is around Darnold in New York. Bills coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane have job security that certainly is not shared by Jets GM Mike Maccagnan or especially coach Todd Bowles. Where the Jets could have an advantage is in acquiring talent this offseason. The Jets are currently projected to draft third overall, while the Bills are expected to draft No. 11, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. The Jets, with $89 million, are the only team with more projected 2019 cap space than Buffalo ($83 million).