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Sam Darnold impresses with Jets, but Patrick Mahomes could transform NFL

Oliver Connolly
The Guardian

There were seven new starting QBs across the NFL in week one. And it was the Chiefs man who really gets the blood pumping

Patrick Mahomes looks willing to sling the ball on every passing play. Photograph: Kelvin Kuo/AP

Don’t you just love that new quarterback smell? There were seven quarterbacks starting with new teams across the NFL in week one. Franchises that have spent months hemming and hawing about the most important spot on their team, finally got to see their guy in real, live action.

Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings

Nobody will be more excited than the Vikings. Their three-year, $84m, fully guaranteed, investment in Kirk Cousins is already paying dividends. Cousins looked in complete command of a slimmed down version of the Vikings offense on Sunday.

We know who Cousins is at this point: an efficient, rhythm-based thrower with just enough natural arm talent and mobility to move around and create plays on third downs. His supporting cast in Minnesota is as good as any in the league; the weapons at his disposal are enviable.

The question was never whether he would fit with the Vikings, but whether the fit was worth it at that cap figure. Minnesota’s offense looked balanced and explosive against a frisky San Francisco 49ers defense. Meanwhile, Mike Zimmer’s defense looked as good as ever, even with resources reallocated to the quarterback spot. Minnesota are primed for another deep playoff run.

Sam Darnold, New York Jets

The Jets may wind up being the big winners from the game of Cousins dominos. The former Washington quarterback turned down a fully guaranteed contract with New York that would have paid him $30m per year.

Cousins saved the Jets from themselves. They weren’t going to contend for a championship this year. The rejection forced the Jets’ brain-trust to opt for the youth route, selecting Sam Darnold in the first-round of the draft.

Darnold looked like a star on Monday night, although things couldn’t have started worse. The former USC quarterback threw a pick-six on the first regular-season pass of his career. Jets fans could be forgiven for coming down with a case of here-we-go-again-itus

Darnold recovered. He shook of the early jitters and showed the selective amnesia that all the greats are blessed with. “That was fun,” Darnold said after the game. “The key was letting the game come to me. I was licking my chops a little too much.”

Darnold showed rare poise and presence in the pocket, using his mobility to escape pressure and extend plays. That swashbuckling, Favre-style can often look reckless. But Darnold played with the savviness and control of a veteran. He took what the defense gave him, as coaches say.

“For me to have my first throw in the NFL an interception and then bounce back the way I did, but with help from my teammates, honestly, it couldn’t have been better,” Darnold said.

It’s impossible to escape all the baggage that comes with the hapless, hopeless position of being the Jets quarterback. As only 10,876,432 people have said before me, the Jets have trouble finding great quarterbacks. Darnold may finally be the one to stop that narrative.

Patrick Mahomes II, Kansas City Chiefs

If you’re already nauseated by the idea of a runaway Sam Darnold hype-train, prepare yourself for the Patrick Mahomes experience. Mahomes isn’t here to please a fan-base; he’s out to save the sport.

That may sound like hyperbole. I promise you it’s not.

Mahomes is certainly the most fun quarterback in the league, non-Aaron Rodgers division. The first-time starter averaged – averaged! – 12.44 yards per attempt against the Chargers. According to Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner, Mahomes’s average depth of target was 14.6 yards per pass on Sunday. The highest mark in the last decade over a season was 13.4

Chiefs coach Andy Reid has embraced new-age, spread-option football more than any other coach in the professional game. Reid is, ostensibly, running the kind of offense you see from college sides on Saturday, featuring all kinds of pre-snap movement and post-snap option designs. It’s all about pace-and-space: pushing the ball to perimeter and letting guys with lethal speed takeover.

Mahomes really makes the thing sing. All those creative wrinkles are added to Mahomes’ innate bombs-away style. Only Rodgers can match Mahomes’ natural arm talent, and his ability to launch the ball downfield from unconventional release points.

What’s more, Mahomes is willing to sling the thing down the field play after play after the play. And he has the creativity and vision to be a playmaker inside and outside the pocket.

The NFL is besotted by ball-control passing designs that shuffle the ball downfield and act as an extension of the run game. Not Mahomes; he cuts against the NFL’s grain. Pairing his arm with the speed of Tyreek Hill, DeAnthony Thomas and Kareem Hunt is devastating to a defense:

Plays like that are flat-out unfair. Mahomes tossed four touchdowns with no interceptions in LA on Sunday. Get used to it, we’re going to be seeing those stat-lines for a long, long time.

Sam Bradford, Arizona Cardinals

Are we sure Sam Bradford was ever good? The Cardinals are paying him $20m this year to serve as a bridge to the Josh Rosen era. Bradford was bad against Washington in week one, throwing an interception, and averaging fewer than five yards per pass attempt. The changing of the guard cannot come soon.

Alex Smith, Washington

On the other side of the ball, Alex Smith had a great game. Smith was at his efficient best. He finished with two touchdowns, completed 70% of his passes, and averaged 9.83 yards per attempt.

Smith isn’t dynamic enough, that’s what the critics say (although I’d define his method as cautious aggression). Jay Gruden and Washington aren’t looking for dynamism, though, they wanted an even more efficient version of Kirk Cousins. Smith is that guy; he neatly fits Gruden’s carefully calibrated ecosystem, which relies on quick decisions and spreading the ball across the field. Smith isn’t going to elevate the Redskins to new heights, but he is good enough to help the team contend for a playoff spot.

Tyrod Taylor, Cleveland Browns

Taylor had the most forgettable debut of any of the newbies. He completed just 37% of his passes, was sacked seven times, and threw a back-breaking interception that should have been a game-winning touchdown.

Calls to start Baker Mayfield don’t hold much water. The Browns have completely turned over their roster. It’s not just Taylor and the other quarterbacks, it’s the receiving corps, running backs, and offensive line. Thirty-one of the 53 players on the Browns roster are new to the team. It’s going to take time for the team to understand each other’s idiosyncrasies. Rebuilds don’t take shape overnight.

Could the team chuck Mayfield out there? Sure. But if Cleveland’s staff was willing to sit Mayfield to start the season, there’s not much the season opener would do to change their minds, no matter how poor the numbers look.

Case Keenum, Denver Broncos

The Broncos were the big losers in the aforementioned Kirk Cousins sweepstake. John Elway opted to pick-up ex-Vikings starter Case Keenum, rather than take a quarterback at the top of the draft. Elway grabbed another high-end pass-rusher, Bradley Chubb, with the team’s top pick. It’s fair to wonder if he was gun-shy after the Paxton Lynch experience.

The jury was out on the Keenum move the moment the Broncos penned the journeyman to a two-year, $36m deal, with $25m in guarantees. Keenum is fine. No other quarterback outperformed expectations to the same degree in 2017 (not even you, Nick Foles). Keenum was in the perfect spot in Minnesota: he was surrounded by a cast of stud receivers and worked with Pat Shurmur, an innovative offensive coordinator, now the head coach of the Giants.

Keenum threw six interceptions in his lone year with the Vikings. He threw three picks in his outing with the Broncos on Sunday. Seattle preyed on a specific flaw in Keenum’s game that had mostly vanished with the Vikings.

The big question for Keenum was whether his 2017 breakout was due to a change in his game, or because of the environment that surrounded him. It’s only one week, but early signs suggest it was the latter.

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