As if he doesn’t already have enough on his plate — beginning with the fate of his head coach and the direction of the franchise — Sam Darnold may be throwing passes to his mailman by Week 2 of this season.
Just two practices into training camp, the Jets’ receiving situation is troublesome, to say the least. And the person that affects most directly is Darnold, the Jets’ third-year quarterback charged with leading them to the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
On Friday, in the Jets’ first full-team, 11-on-11 drill of training camp, one of the first-team receivers was Vyncint Smith, who’s played in 20 NFL games and caught all of 22 passes for 316 yards and scored one touchdown.
Denzel Mims, the team’s second-round draft pick and a player fans have high hopes for as a major rookie contributor in 2020, has yet to put his helmet on for a practice, sidelined with a hamstring injury before camp began.
On Sunday in the opening 11-on-11 of the second training camp practice, Jeff Smith was paired with free-agent signee Breshad Perriman on the outside with the first group. Jeff Smith was on the Jets practice squad last season, got into one game and caught one pass for 12 yards.
Vyncint Smith, considered one of the incumbents on the Jets’ receiving corps since he played all 16 games for them last season and caught 17 passes, sat out Sunday’s practice with what head coach Adam Gase described as a core injury.
So, to review: On a Jets receiving corps that was alarmingly thin to begin with, thanks in part to offseason free-agent signee Josh Doctson opting out with COVID-19 concerns, the team already is down two receivers two days into training camp.
For those scoring at home, that leaves incumbent slot receiver Jamison Crowder, Perriman, who came from Tampa Bay, Braxton Berrios, who’s played in 16 NFL games and has six career catches, Jehu Chesson, who’s played in 12 NFL games and has three career catches, and Josh Malone, who has seven career catches in 22 games.
This early crisis forced the Jets on Sunday to sign free-agent receiver Chris Hogan, who had productive seasons for the Bills (2013-15) and Patriots (2016-18) before catching only eight passes last season for the Panthers while hampered by a knee injury.
This all leads to an unnecessary and unfair piling-on for Darnold, who has immense pressure to produce in his second season playing in Gase’s system.
But when, after all, does fair come into play when you quarterback for the star-crossed Jets?
The alarming lack of receiving depth, experience and career production not only threatens to compromise the Jets’ chances of having success this season, it also may significantly hinder the team’s ability to properly evaluate Darnold when his third season is all said and done.
Darnold has had a poor offensive line and questionable skill-position talent around him for his first two seasons, not to mention he’s played for two different head coaches.
This was supposed to be the season, his second year in Gase’s system, that the Jets surrounded him with what he needs to be successful. General manager Joe Douglas appears to have done that with a completely new offensive line. He, however, appears to have short-changed his quarterback on receiving talent, an issue that’s become exacerbated by these early injuries.
The flip side to this, of course, is the potential for Darnold to help make these unproven receivers better — the way Tom Brady made such an impressive practice of doing in New England for all those years, turning mediocre receivers into household names.
Sunday’s practice was highlighted by a 50-yard TD connection between Darnold and Perriman, who broke out in the last five games of 2019 with 25 catches for 506 yards and five TDs for the Buccaneers.
The Jets hope that was a glimpse of what’s to come once the season begins.
“It seems like him and Perriman have figured out a way to hook up pretty quick,’’ Gase said. “It was great to see those guys connect on a few things.’’
Gase then added, “A lot of the guys we’re working in with this [receiving] group have been here, so [Darnold] knows a lot of the guys we’re working with that aren’t brand new. People might not know who they are right now, but we had some good young players last year that developed and are giving themselves a shot to contribute with us this year.’’
It all feels like too much reliance on unproven talent, though.
Under normal, non-COVID-19 circumstances, we could pass these problems off as early. But the season starts in a month. So, to borrow from Yogi Berra, it’s getting late early for the Jets receiving corps and, most importantly, for Darnold.
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