CLEVELAND (CBSNewYork/AP) — Sam Darnold once thought he’d be wearing an orange helmet just a few shades brighter than his hair color.
But the former USC star wasn’t precisely what the Browns were looking for in a franchise quarterback in the NFL draft. Darnold checked most of the boxes, but not all of them and Cleveland passed on him with the No. 1 overall pick, selecting Baker Mayfield instead.
On Thursday night, Darnold can show the Browns they made a mistake.
The youngest quarterback to start a season opener since 1970, Darnold will perform on a national TV stage for the second time already as a pro when he leads the New York Jets into FirstEnergy Stadium to face the Browns, who have played well enough to win their first two games but are still searching for their first victory since Dec. 24, 2016.
Heading into April’s draft, Darnold was considered the top of the deep 2018 QB class and it appeared he would wind up in Cleveland, where quarterbacks have come and gone like restaurant busboys over the past two decades.
“Yeah, I thought I could’ve ended up there or several other teams,” Darnold said this week. “I was excited to go anywhere. Whoever wanted me, whoever wanted to pick me as a top pick, to me it was a dream come true right when it happened.”
After the Browns nabbed Mayfield and the Giants grabbed running back Saquon Barkley, the Jets took Darnold and have been more than satisfied by his early development.
He rebounded from throwing an interception that was returned for a TD on his first pass attempt in the opener and led the Jets to a 31-point win, and last week the 21-year-old became the youngest QB to pass for 300 yards.
Darnold insists he’s not seeking any revenge or trying to prove anything to the Browns.
“No,” he said. “I’m just going to go out there and play ball.”
The Jets and Browns are on divergent paths with their rookie quarterbacks. New York has chosen to start Darnold, while Cleveland is holding Mayfield out to watch and learn behind Tyrod Taylor.
It’s not a race and the Browns feel no need to rush their plan.
“We feel very comfortable with the guy that we selected in Baker, and I’m sure they do with him,” coach Hue Jackson said. “He’s a fine prospect and is going to be a fine player. I think they got a good one, but we feel we have a really good one, too.”
After facing Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees — two future Hall of Famers — in Weeks 1 and 2, the Browns aren’t looking at Darnold as any break.
“I don’t think that any game in the NFL is a breather,” said linebacker Joe Schobert.
“He’s got a big arm. He’s doing good things as their quarterback. The hardest thing to do is come into the NFL and play quarterback and be successful. And he’s so far shown himself to be pretty poised and good at it.”
The Browns are down and desperate. They need a win, and after stubbing their toes twice already, need to beat the Jets. A 1-1-1 record seems light years from 0-2-1.
“Our team is excited, hungry, disappointed, anxious — all of those words you want to use,” said Jackson, who is 1-32-1 in two seasons. “We just need to get it done.”
The Dawg Pound will be a homecoming of sorts for several current Jets, who are former Browns.
Running back Isaiah Crowell played the past four years in Cleveland. Wide receiver Terrelle Pryor spent two seasons with the Browns, including a breakout campaign in 2016 when the former quarterback had 1,007 yards. His QB for parts of those seasons was Josh McCown, now Darnold’s backup and mentor.
Cornerback Buster Skrine played in Cleveland from 2011-14. Jets coach Todd Bowles, too, has Cleveland connections as an assistant under Butch Davis from 2001-04.
ALIVE & KICKING
Greg Joseph was on the beach hanging out with friends last weekend, “you know, just living the South Florida life.” Things changed quickly.
The rookie is now in the spotlight — or crosshairs — as Cleveland’s new kicker. Joseph signed this week after the Browns cut Zane Gonzalez for missing two field goals and two extra points last week.
Joseph, who spent the preseason with Miami, is excited about the opportunity.
“My film’s out there. My stats are out there,” he said. “I learned a lot about me, the athlete I am and the competitor I am. I’m ready to bring it here.”
Q IS THE ANSWER
Darnold’s favorite target through two games has been wide receiver Quincy Enunwa, who has a team-leading 13 catches for 155 yards and a touchdown. Enunwa has been targeted 21 times, more than Pryor (11), Robby Anderson (six) and Jermaine Kearse (two) combined.
The Jets got their first four sacks of the season last Sunday against Miami, the most since getting to Taylor seven times when he played with Buffalo in Week 9 last season.
“The whole unit, we definitely picked it up last week,” defensive end Leonard Williams said. “We didn’t have any sacks in the first week, even though they got the ball out pretty quickly. At the same time, I don’t want to make excuses. We definitely picked it up last week and I hope we continue to make strides on that.”
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)