The real Sam Darnold must finally stand up

Who is Sam Darnold and what is he destined to become as an NFL quarterback?

Is he en route to becoming a top-five — even top-10 — player at his position?

Or is he going to become just another pretty good quarterback who’s smart and reliable and capable of being really good at times, but never great?

Is Darnold going to become Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson … or Ryan Tannehill, a former Dolphins first-round draft pick who has a 49-49 career record and an 89.8 passer rating?

Is the Jets’ second-year franchise quarterback going to justify his draft status — No. 3 overall in 2018 — or is he going to fall short of the heightened expectations that come with that draft slot?

These are all questions that will face Darnold as he embarks on the 2020 season, having made positive incremental advances from his rookie season to this year in almost every statistical category, including (and most importantly) wins and losses.

Darnold went 4-9 as the starter in 2018 and was 7-6 in the 13 games he started this season. His touchdown passes were up (from 17 to 19), interceptions were down (from 15 to 13) and passer rating was up (from 77.6 to 84.3).

All improvements, but modest improvements.

Therein lies the problem: The Jets need more than modest improvement.

And Darnold may be in position to give them more in 2020 since, for the first time in his career, he’ll be in the same offensive system for a second consecutive season with coach Adam Gase returning.

The guess here is that Darnold will have a revamped and improved offensive line around him after an offseason of free agency and the draft. He, too, will have his two tight ends, Chris Herndon (who essentially didn’t play this season) and Ryan Griffin (who was injured several weeks ago) back.

This makes 2020 a crossroads season for Darnold, a season when we should get a better idea about exactly whom he’s destined to become.

Darnold, because of the potential he shows, his work ethic, his willingness to be coached and desire to improve and be great, leaves us wanting more from him. Fair or unfair, that’s the way it is.

What he hasn’t shown yet in his career — other than some brief teases — is the ability to hoist his team on his shoulders, carry it and dominate games as the best player on the field.

Jackson, with his otherworldly, freakish athleticism, has been doing that almost all season for the Ravens, which is why he’s going to win the league’s MVP by season’s end.

We’re not asking Darnold to be Lamar Jackson. But, as an example closer to home, Giants rookie Daniel Jones showed a propensity to be the best, most dominant player on the field in a few of his games this season. Twice he threw four TD passes in a game and once he threw five.

Darnold has thrown four TD passes once in his career, in a win over Washington this season.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Darnold to his contemporaries, because team structures are different, and we all know the Jets have not exactly been the most stable of NFL franchises in, well, forever.

But two of Darnold’s fellow 2018 draft-pick quarterbacks, Jackson with the Ravens and Allen with the Bills, are in the playoffs in their respective second seasons. So, too, are Mahomes and Watson, two of the top quarterbacks taken in the 2017 draft.

There is so much to like about Darnold and he flashes it on the field on occasion. Just not on enough occasions.

“It felt like he was very consistent here at the end,’’ Gase said Monday.

Indeed, after throwing seven INTs in back-to-back losses to New England and Jacksonville, Darnold threw 13 TDs and only five INTs in the final eight games, winning six of them.

“I didn’t play my best football [in those games], but I learned from those and got better from them,’’ Darnold said. “From that aspect, I thought I grew a ton. There’s a lot of room to grow.’’

Now he gets to grow in a second year in Gase’s system.

“Stability and continuing to build off what we’ve done this year will be huge,’’ Darnold said.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next year,’’ center Jonotthan Harrison said.

“It’s hard to be a young quarterback and come in as the face [of the franchise] and in two years have two GMs, two head coaches, two new offenses,’’ running back Ty Montgomery said. “It should be really good for him to have some stability. I saw resiliency and growth this season. He’s already good … and he’s going to be really good in the future.’’

That future can’t come soon enough for Darnold and the Jets.

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