Lions prepare to face unknown in Jets rookie QB Sam Darnold
Allen Park — When the Lions meet the Jets for the season opener Monday they will face the rare challenge of going up against a quarterback who never has taken a regular-season NFL snap.
The Jets' first-round draft pick (No. 3 overall) from 2018, Sam Darnold, named the team's starter on Monday, is light on experience, but also light on meaningful tape with which the the Lions can prepare.
Lions coach Matt Patricia said the process of devising a defensive game plan for a fresh quarterback is similar to draft scouting of those signal-callers.
"You’re going to look at those guys coming out of school and really try to do your due diligence on them as far as the draft is concerned," Patricia said. "And then you try to carry that over into what you see on tape through the preseason. So, it’s a big challenge when you get (go up against) those guys (quarterbacks in their first games)."
New defensive backs coach Brian Stewart said his unit wouldn't be preparing any differently because it's Darnold's first go-around, but veteran Lions defensive back Quandre Diggs seemed to be looking forward to a shot at a quarterback in his first NFL game while still being high on Darnold's long-term potential.
"I (wouldn’t) say it’s tough, not tough," Diggs said. "At the end of the day, you can’t say he’s a proven NFL player, but he’s a proven college player. He’s been a top-rated player his whole career. At the end of the day, he has a pedigree, he has everything. You just have to study him the best you can and just watch him. You know he’s a good, young player. I think he’s going to be tremendous in this league."
If the Lions do watch Darnold's tape from last season when he was at Southern California, they'll see a prolific passer. Darnold completed 63 percent of his passes for more than 4,100 yards, 8.6 yards per attempt with 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
The Jets got an accurate arm with a knack for avoiding sacks. In the Lions' favor is that he makes questionable decisions and sometimes holds on to the ball too long, as he lost nine fumbles in 2017.
This isn't the first time the Lions have opposed a highly sought-after rookie quarterback in recent memory, but those games didn't go well for Detroit.
In 2008, the Lions went up against the Falcons in Matt Ryan's first career game. Ryan, also a No. 3 overall pick, hit wide receiver Michael Jenkins for a 62-yard touchdown on his first career NFL throw in a 34-21 loss for the Lions. Ryan finished the game with a 69 percent completion percentage, the one score, no interceptions and a 137 passer rating.
Just last week in the preseason, No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield sliced through the Lions secondary, going 9-for-16 throwing with 138 yards in limited time with the Cleveland Browns.
"Obviously, we had a similar situation last week with a guy that came out and played pretty well for Cleveland," Patricia said.
According to new defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni, the Lions will focus more on Darnold's preseason film because the scheme at Southern California was too different compared to what the Jets are expected to run.
"Making sure that we know exactly what Sam’s strengths are is going to be important," Pasqualoni said. "Knowing exactly what they feel he can do best and trying to decipher that through what they have done in preseason. So, it’s going to be a challenge and my sense is we’re going to have to able to adjust as we get into the game to exactly what they decide they’re going to do."
Darnold went 29-for-45 passing for 244 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in the preseason.
No coach wants give away their team's secrets in the preseason, and complicating things is the fact the Jets have a new offensive coordinator this year, Jeremy Bates. The Lions will have to try and get a handle on the Jets' offense on the fly.
"Certainly, with a new offensive coordinator, (they're going to do) a couple different things scheme-wise with the hiring of a couple new coaches," Patricia said. "So, we’ll see it firsthand before we really get a taste of what it looks like."
How quarterbacks drafted in the top three over the last three seasons have fared in their first games:
Mitch Trubisky, Bears, No. 2 overall in 2017: 12-for-25 passing for 128 yards, one touchdown and one interception in a 20-17 loss to the Vikings on Oct. 9, 2017.
Jared Goff, Rams, No. 1 overall in 2016: 17-for-31 passing for 134 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions in a 14-10 loss to the Dolphins on Nov. 20, 2016.
Carson Wentz, Eagles, No. 2 overall in 2016: 22-for-37 passing for 278 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 29-10 win over the Browns on Sept. 11, 2016.
Jameis Winston, Buccaneers, No. 1 overall in 2015: 16-for-33 passing for 210 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 42-14 loss to the Titans on Sept. 13, 2015.
Marcus Mariota, Titans, No. 2 overall in 2015: 13-for-15 passing for 209 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 42-14 win over the Buccaneers on Sept. 13, 2015.
Eric Coughlin is a freelance writer