Now that Josh Rosen is a newly minted Dolphin, one of the real oddities of the looming 2019 NFL season will be that three of the four top 10-drafted quarterbacks in the 2018 class reside in the same division, allowing for a natural side-by-side comparison of the developments of Rosen, the Jets’ Sam Darnold and the Bills’ Josh Allen.
While we hear plenty about the proverbial second-year step — or leap in some cases — young quarterbacks are expected to take, Darnold, Allen and Rosen face the near-impossible challenge of chasing the standard set by New England and Tom Brady in the AFC East. But if we’re considering the glass half full or more in New York, Buffalo and Miami, and each franchise has found its long-sought answer at the game’s most crucial position, which of the three young quarterbacks is in the best possible position to take a seismic step forward in year two, and dare even dream of ending the Patriots’ 10-year streak of division titles?
That’s roughly the question we put to ex-NFL quarterbacks and current network analysts Phil Simms, Boomer Esiason and Dan Orlovsky this week, asking them to assess the specific situations that Darnold, Allen and Rosen face in 2019 and hazard a guess as to which second-year passer will emerge as the most improved this season? Unsurprisingly there was no consensus projection, other than a starting quarterback’s second season is significantly different than his first in a myriad of ways.
“For me, unquestionably the biggest jump I made in my entire career was from my rookie year to my second year,’’ said Esiason, who broke in as second-round pick by Cincinnati in 1984, but was still the first quarterback selected in that draft. “My rookie year I was lost. I mainly relied a lot on my athleticism to get me out of trouble, and you’re just trying to figure out the NFL and who you are in the league, and what your responsibilities are as a rookie quarterback.
“It’s almost impossible, because there’s so much pressure, so much heat, and so much heavy lifting in figuring out who you are on your team. And then you’re trying to be everything that your draft pick says you should be. There’s a lot of pressure.’’
For the record, the bar for this season is set fairly low in the case of all three quarterbacks. Darnold was 4-9 as a starter last year for the 4-12 last-place Jets, with Allen posing a 5-6 mark in Buffalo (6-10) and Rosen going 3-10 for the 3-13 bottom-feeding Cardinals. All three had some strengths to their games while toiling for losing teams, but left plenty of ceiling room for improvement in 2019. With Rosen changing teams and conferences due to Arizona’s drafting of Kyler Murray first overall, and the Jets changing coaches from Todd Bowles to Adam Gase, Allen at least has one key factor in his favor.
“Looking at these three guys, I think Josh Allen has the best chance to be the best out of the three of them, at least this year, simply because he’ll be in the same offense he had last year,’’ said Esiason, a CBS analyst on The NFL Today pre-game show. “Allen had a modicum of success last year due in large part to his physical stature and physical ability, with his ability to run and to make plays on the run.
“So it’ll depend on how Sam Darnold deals with a new coach in Adam Gase, and how Adam Gase deals with him, and how Josh Rosen deals with (rookie Dolphins coach) Brian Flores and an entire new offense down there. Sam and Josh (Rosen) have got to figure out new offenses, which is a little bit tougher, even though they’re a year removed from being rookies.’’
With Gase and his track record of quarterback coaching in place, plus the offseason upgrades on offense in New York, Orlovsky anticipates Darnold taking a quantum step a year after the Jets traded up to No. 3 pick to select him.
“I would expect Darnold to take a very big leap forward,’’ said Orlovsky, the former Lions and Colts backup who now works for ESPN. “One, they’ve shored up in a way some parts of their offensive line, with obviously (ex-Raiders guard) Kelechi Osmele being healthy as a big part of that. Then they got a really good receiver in both man and zone situations in (free agent-signee) Jamison Crowder. Last year Darnold didn’t really have a receiver who could beat man, but now he has a guy he can trust to throw the ball to, and that’s a good option that really helps a quarterback.’’
New York’s centerpiece addition of the offseason, former Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, will exponentially improve the Jets offense and Darnold, Orlovsky said. But perhaps not exactly as expected.
“Everyone thinks Le’Veon Bell is going to help Sam Darnold because of the run game,’’ Orlovsky said. “I see it differently. Darnold is special because of the things he can do in broken plays, in second-reaction plays. He can run around and he has creativity, that’s where he’s really special. But it’s also his greatness weakness, in that he has that Romo-Roethlisberger combo quality where it’s, ‘No, no, no, don’t make that throw, Sam,’ and then ‘Yes!’
“Bell is going to help because he’s got a great feel for quarterbacks. When quarterbacks are in trouble, Le’Veon has like this sixth sense where he’s like, ‘I need to get open,’ and he’ll move around and has great timing and feel for those plays. Sam’s going to have that get out of jail free card with Le’Veon, and doesn’t have to make every play a super play. That’s why I expect him to make a really good jump this year.’’
In their analyst roles with CBS, both Simms and Esiason see every AFC game, and interestingly enough, all five quarterbacks drafted in 2018’s first round will play in the AFC this season for Eastern Time zone-based teams: Darnold, Allen and Rosen, as well as Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson. Simms is most excited to see if Allen can follow up on his thrill-a-minute style of play as a rookie, when he teased and tantalized with 10 passing touchdowns to go with his 631 yards rushing and eight touchdowns on the ground.
“Josh Allen was almost tremendous last year in Buffalo, but nobody knew and nobody cared because they weren’t a good team,’’ said Simms, a first-round pick of the Giants in 1979, taken seventh overall. “When he came out for the draft, it was, ‘Well, he’s not accurate enough,’ all that stuff that created a negative connotation to him. But as I said on The NFL Today one day, ‘Hell, he’s must-watch TV. Between the running and the 50-yard incompletions, every play is exciting.
“Darnold is going to improve this season, because he’s going to have Le’Veon Bell and all the other things they’ve done is going to really help him. But really, really close behind him would be Josh Allen. With him the movement and the arm strength are phenomenal, and if he can learn to fall in love with 2-yard passes and learn to take the short stuff sometimes, there could be an interesting conversation on who’s going to have the big jump next season.’’
While the Bills didn’t make a screaming headline move like the Jets did in landing Bell, Buffalo almost totally renovated its weak offensive line and went out and got receiving help for Allen in signing both ex-Bengal John Brown and ex-Cowboy Cole Beasley. But Orlovsky still needs to see more maturing from Allen’s passing game in order to predict substantial success for him this season.
“The Bills added speed,’’ Orlovsky said. “They added John Brown, they added Cole Beasley, and their three starting receivers outside of Beasley are 4.3 guys So they’re going to look like a track meet on grass. I’m still hopeful for Josh Allen, but I did not see enough last year. Because some of the same questions that showed their face when he was coming out showed their face again. The lack of consistency accuracy-wise was there. There were some big plays, no doubt. He made a ton of plays.
“But if you take a step back, was Josh Allen a good player because of his quarterbacking or because of his running? You’re not going to make a living in the NFL and be a 10-year Pro Bowl franchise quarterback by running the ball. That’s not a recipe for long-term success. So because of their additions, I expect him to take a step forward. But until I see him cure the things that usually hold quarterbacks back, meaning accuracy and can you think under pressure and under panic situations, I’m not ready to say he’s going to take a huge jump.’’
Year two is when the so-called “light switch’’ is supposed to go on for a young starting quarterback and he starts to see the field more clearly and understands how an opposing defense is trying to confuse him. But can that type of clarity be possible this season for Rosen, who hasn’t been coached by the same offensive mind two years in a row since high school? Between UCLA and Arizona, and now Miami, Rosen will have played for seven different offensive coaches in a five-year span, a list that now includes former Patriots receivers coach Chad O’Shea, the new Dolphins offensive coordinator. There is no familiarity in store for Rosen in 2019, only a crash course in the New England-based offense O’Shea brings to town.
“He’s had just an incredible different amount of offenses and schemes,’’ Orlovsky said of Rosen. “And they obviously don’t have a ton of talent down there (in Miami) this year. But I’m very hopeful that with Chad O’Shea bringing the New England system down that they’re going to equip him to control things at the line of scrimmage intellectually, and that should help him play well. And (new Dolphins quarterbacks coach) Jim Caldwell should help him play well. But I don’t see Josh Rosen all of a sudden throwing 28 touchdowns and six interceptions and lighting the world on fire, simply because of what’s around him. And I’m a Josh Rosen fan. He’s a good player.’’
Rosen might win one superlative this season, however. Expectations are so low for the rebuilding Dolphins that he might over-achieve based on that alone.
“There are some decent pieces there that if you can manipulate and navigate around, Rosen can surprise people,’’ Orlovsky said. “If I had to name what quarterback out of that group is going to surprise people the most this year, I would bet it’s Rosen. Because he could surprise people. But what quarterback do I really expect to step out and start to plant his flag as one of the next really good young guys in our league? It’s Sam Darnold.’’
This much we know: Darnold, Allen and Rosen aren’t rookies any more, and there will be less patience with their mistakes by coaches, teammates, fans and the media. The honeymoon is largely over, and the learning curve won’t be a handy excuse indefinitely. Such is the win-now life for an NFL franchise quarterback.
“The biggest thing is when they come back into the building their second year they are the guy,’’ Esiason said. “They are no longer wondering how they’re going to be treated by their teammates, and they’re no longer wondering what is expected of them. I would think there’s a level of comfort that all of these guys would feel, probably more so for Josh Allen simply because he’s the only one in the same offense.
“But I know in talking to Sam Darnold here in New York the last couple months, you can tell he’s already more confident who he is within the body of the team. I think it’s a significant jump in year two, and more so for the quarterback than any other player on the field.’’