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Sam Darnold to Carolina, Is Zach Wilson An Upgrade for Jets?

Jets fans are one of the longest-suffering fan bases in all of football. Some of the more storied passers in their team history include Mark ‘Butt Fumble’ Sanchez, Ken O’Brien, and Chad Pennington. So this is a fan base that needs good news.

They need to believe that their newest quarterback (presumably Zach Wilson) will thrive in ways their old one (Sam Darnold) couldn’t. They need to know that replacing Darnold with Wilson will mean great things are guaranteed to come. But will things turn around so easily for the long-suffering Gang Green?

The truth is that it's far too early to tell how the swap of Darnold for Wilson will work for the Jets or how it may impact the Panthers. However, there are several reasons to believe this move will pay quicker dividends for Carolina than it will New York. To understand why this is, let’s begin by comparing Darnold and Wilson as prospects and passers.

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Arm Strength

During his transcendent 2020 college season, Zach Wilson made 50-yard bombs look easy. Whether he’s in shorts or pads, Wilson displays the type of natural arm that lets him generate high velocity from various angles. He can fit balls into tight spaces while throwing off balance, he manages accurate balls from awkward angles, and there isn’t a throw he can’t make on the field.

Darnold's arm is just as strong as Wilson's, however. The former Trojan has always possessed the ability to flick the ball into tight windows, and he has completed several impressive across-the-body throws as a pro. ESPN analyst Louis Riddick was right to point out that for all of the throws that wowed people at Wilson's pro day, Darnold has completed such throws in actual games. Do not underrate Darnold's arm talent just because he has other flaws.



If you were to grade Wilson’s mobility on a scale of one to ten, he’d merit at least an eight. He’s fast, he is nimble, and he has good vision as a runner. The drawback to Wilson’s mobility is that he sometimes relies on it too often, and he frequently refuses to protect himself with a slide. While you love Wilson's tough demeanor and ability to fight for extra yards, his frame and injury history suggests he will need to learn how to protect himself better as a pro.

Meanwhile, Darnold is a capable runner himself. In fact, Darnold has averaged more yards per rush attempt as a professional (3.7 yards per attempt) than Wilson averaged in college (3.0 yards per attempt). While this kind of disparity indicates Darnold is actually the more effective runner, Wilson’s speed and elusiveness on film still suggest he has the higher rushing ceiling between the two.


Accuracy & Decision Making

Both Darnold and Wilson were pretty accurate during their time in college. While at USC, Darnold managed a 64.9% completion rate despite playing in a ‘pro-style offense’ against Pac 12 defenses. Meanwhile, Wilson finished his college career with a superior 67.6% completion percentage, but that number came in a quarterback-friendly offense against weaker somewhat defenses.

In addition to completion percentage, two metrics that can help determine a quarterback’s football intelligence and accuracy are Pro Football Reference’s On Target Percentage and Bad Throw Percentage. These metrics are only measured for professional quarterbacks however, so Wilson is excluded. These metrics can still help us get a better view of Darnold as a passer and whether Wilson will likely be an improvement for the Jets in that area, though.

For those who are not fans of Darnold, it may surprise you to learn that he is in some elite company when it comes to Bad Throw and On Target ratings. In fact, over the past two seasons Darnold has put up equal or better Bad Decision and On Target percentages than Tom Brady, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield, and Carson Wentz. Darnold’s Bad Decision rate is also surprisingly on par with stars like Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes.

While we don’t have a Bad Decision or On Target percentage for Wilson, his college film suggests he has a similar risk profile to Darnold’s. Both Darnold and Wilson are gunslingers who play what we call “hero ball.”  That means that they attempt lots of risky throws, believing their physical ability can overcome a lack of talent around them and even double coverage. That kind of style works out in college far more than in the pros, which is a reality that Darnold is still struggling to learn. Wilson may also struggle with this fact early in his career.


Overall Comparison as College Prospects

There's honestly not a huge difference between Wilson and Darnold as prospects or as players, if you compare them with an honest eye. Darnold was favored for being a strong-willed passer with a big arm and underrated mobility at USC. Wilson is lauded as a gutsy quarterback with a terrific deep ball and scary wheels at BYU. Both had a reputation for taking too many risks, and both were viewed as high-ceiling prospects.

Given how similar these players are in grade and skillsets, and given the struggles Darnold had as a Jet, it’s fair to wonder what it will take for either Wilson or Darnold to succeed from here on out. However, one clear answer to that question is, both will need more weapons than what New York gave Darnold three years ago.


Weapons for Wilson in New York

Despite several offseason additions, the Jets continue to sport considerable holes on every level of their offense. There is a valid argument that they continue to sport the worst offensive depth chart in the NFL, heading into this month’s Draft.

At receiver, the Jets have some reason for optimism. Jamison Crowder is an established slot receiver with reliable hands but an established ceiling. Denzel Mims is a talented second-year receiver who put up an efficient 2020 season and whose physical profile lends itself well to a 2021 sleeper list. Then there’s this year’s big offensive addition in free agency, Corey Davis. Davis has the pedigree of a former top-five draft pick, but he's never crossed the 1,000-yard threshold and he fell to fourth in the Titans’ offensive pecking order last year.

While there’s some reason to hope at receiver, there’s less room for optimism on the Jets’ offensive line. Although the team does sport a promising left tackle in Mekhi Becton, the rest of the unit is relatively poor. In fact, only two of the Jets’ starting offensive linemen merited a positive pass-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus last season. The line was so bad that their quarterback, Sam Darnold, graded as a better pass blocker than two of their starting linemen.

Overall, the Jets still need to add a starting running back, two or three starting offensive lineman, and a pass-catching tight end to this offense. They could also stand to add a true WR1 talent, in the even that Mims and Davis don’t fill that role. The hope for fantasy fans has to be that Joe Douglas will use picks #23 and #34 to fill some of those offensive holes. The reality is that Coach Saleh could easily steer one or both of those picks towards defense, limiting Wilson’s development and upside in 2021.


Weapons for Darnold in Carolina

While Wilson is headed for the worst possible situation for his fantasy value, Darnold is doing the opposite. No other player in the NFL stands to gain more from his change of scenery than the former Trojan.

First on the long list of improvements that Darnold will see in Carolina, is the vast change at running back. Christian McCaffrey is obviously lightyears better than any back Darnold has ever had, including the “Fat Elvis” version of Le’Veon Bell that came to New York. Having the option to dump broken plays off to CMC should help assuage Darnold’s tendency to force balls into double coverage when plays break down, significantly improving his efficiency and turnover rate.

Darnold will also be playing with the best pass-catching group he has ever had when he gets to Carolina. D.J. Moore has a significantly lower career drop rate than the best receiver Darnold has ever played with as a pro (Jamison Crowder), while the second-best receiver Darnold has ever played with (Robby Anderson) is actually on the Panthers. Both Moore and the Carolina version of Anderson are better receivers than anything the Jets have had since 2018, and it is possible things will get even better if the Panthers draft Kyle Pitts or Jaylen Waddle at pick #8.

Finally, the Panthers will likely offer Darnold the best pass blocking line he has ever had. Last year Pro Football Focus awarded a positive pass-blocking grade to 13 Panthers players, including six offensive linemen. That's a strong unit on paper and one that could improve if it were to land Oregon's Penei Sewell in the first round.


Fantasy Stocks of Players Impacted by Darnold/Wilson Additions

Zach Wilson: The biggest thing standing in the way of Zach Wilson’s rise to fantasy prominence is the Jets’ flawed offensive depth chart.  The team currently lacks a clear WR1, a viable starting running back, a weapon at tight end, and reliable pass blocking on its interior. Even if the team uses picks #23 and #34 on offensive starters, the unit will have holes it simply cannot fill in 2021. However, there's no guarantee that the Jets will even use those picks on offense, considering their new head coach is a defensive guy.

The other concern that fantasy managers should have about Wilson’s fantasy value as a Jet is the team’s new coaching staff. Both Offensive Coordinator Mike LaFleur and Head Coach Robert Saleh come from a 49ers team that dialed up just 28 passes per game over the past three years. If Saleh and LaFleur look to build this team in the mold of their former 49ers units, that could mean limited fantasy opportunities for Wilson and his weapons.

Taking all of this information together, the conclusion fantasy managers have to come to is that the Jets are the worst possible landing spot for Wilson’s fantasy value. They simply lack the weapons that the 49ers, Panthers, Broncos, and Falcons all have. Wilson would have been an elite long-term fantasy prospect if he had landed with any of those teams. However, Wilson now projects to land in a worse spot than Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Mac Jones, and Trey Lance do. Wilson has the raw ability to still be better than several of those players, but his landing spot means he should place no higher than the third-best rookie passer in dynasty drafts and QB18 overall.

Sam Darnold: As you can see in my dive into the 49ers offense here, we were pretty high on Darnold’s ability to rebound in a talented offense like San Francisco’s. Expect a similar sort of rebound in Carolina.

The Panthers present Darnold with a familiar deep threat (Anderson), a versatile playmaker (D.J. Moore), the league’s best all-around running back (CMC), and they can still add an elite blocker or receiver at pick #8. Landing on this roster is the second-best scenario Darnold could have asked for, and now there are no excuses left. Consider him the QB17 overall in dynasty, and do what you can to trade for him in all Superflex formats… as long as the cost of acquiring him is a mid-second round rookie pick or something of similar value.

D.J. Moore: Moore has shown that he can produce with multiple different styles of quarterback. He produced a relatively solid rookie campaign with Cam Newton. He then produced a WR2 caliber fantasy season in 2019 with the inconsistent and turnover-prone Kyle Allen under center. After that, Moore produced another WR2 caliber season with the conservative Teddy Bridgewater at the helm. In each of these situations, Moore remained the same mid-tier WR2 that he should be with Darnold.

Jamison Crowder: Crowder has been the Jets’ most reliable target over the past two seasons, with multiple passers relying on him when plays inevitably broke down. So it isn’t the exit of Darnold that should have Crowder fans worried, so much as it is the entrance of multiple mid-tier wide receivers and a rookie passer who loves the long ball.

Given the roles that Corey Davis and Denzel Mims are likely to have in this offense, along with possible roles for Keelan Cole and a rookie receiver, Crowder’s fantasy upside is limited in 2021. Also of concern is that Zach Wilson's average attempt in college was nearly two yards deeper than Crowder’s average route. These issues all spell a drop in Crowder's opportunities, which means his fantasy value is as a low-end WR5.

Corey Davis: With the arrival of former 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur as their new offensive coordinator, the Jets should be transitioning to a passing scheme similar to the one used by Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco. Shanahan uses many short throws in his system, which requires receivers to gain significant yardage after the catch. While Shanahan has designed multiple systems that took advantage of more traditional receivers like Davis in the past, LaFleur and company likely share Shanahan’s recent affinity for YAC skills… and that could be an issue for Davis' fantasy managers.

Over the past three seasons, Davis has averaged just 4.6 YAC per reception. That rate is considerably lower than 49ers stars Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk. Of additional concern is the fact Davis became less elusive in 2020, seeing his career broken tackle rate drop from once per 8.3 receptions to once every 21.7 receptions. If Davis continues his low tackle-breaking rate from 2020 on top of his tepid YAC performance, he could prove a low-volume and low-upside fantasy option in this offense.

It seems unlikely that Davis will match or exceed his career year from last year, considering he could be playing against his strengths with a rookie quarterback bound to make mistakes. Because of those issues, Davis should be considered a high-end WR4 whose stock could drop further if the Jets add another talented WR in the Draft.

Christian McCaffrey: The acquisition of Darnold shouldn’t do much to CMC’s stock. CMC is still the overall top overall running back in all of fantasy right now, regardless of his quarterback. McCaffrey simply impacts the game in too many ways, and he will always be the team’s top weapon if healthy.

Robby Anderson: Last year was a career year for Anderson, thanks largely to a spike in overall usage. However, as the season went on, Anderson’s target share and usage evened out a little bit. While he still saw a target spike in several late-season games, his efficiency and involvement overall regressed to where you would expect it to be in the second half of the season.

With Darnold under center and the Panthers likely to add another pass catcher in the Draft, don’t expect Anderson to sustain his increased target share from 2020. Instead, it seems a safer bet to expect Anderson will see something closer to 80-90 targets per season. Expect him to be a high-end WR4 with big-play potential, but be prepared for Anderson's stock to bottom out if the team were to add a better version of him (Jaylen Waddle) during the Draft.

Denzel Mims: Mims is the best bet for a breakout on the Jets… for now. In limited time last season, he sported a promisingly low 2.3% drop rate, an impressive average depth of target of 15.3 yards, and he broke a tackle once every 4.6 receptions despite being used primarily as a deep threat. You rarely see a guy who runs those kinds of deep routes, has that low drop rate, and still breaks tackles so regularly.

While Mims does need to do more to create separation consistently, and he still needs to stay healthy, he has the most upside of any receiver on this team, including Davis. If the Jets continue to use him as a deep threat while also taking advantage of his tackle-breaking skills, we could see him break out similar to how Aiyuk shone last season with the 49ers. Mims’ floor is too low to consider him anything but a risky WR4, but it’s not crazy to consider drafting him as a low-end WR3 in dynasty drafts either.

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