We’re a week into the NFL’s free-agency period, and the musical chairs at the quarterback position are filling up. The Washington Football Team signed Ryan Fitzpatrick to be its 2021 starter. Ditto for the Chicago Bears with Andy Dalton.
Several veterans could still be on the move before the 2021 draft. The Raiders will reportedly trade or release Marcus Mariota if the No. 2 overall pick in 2015 doesn’t take a pay cut. Trade speculation continues to swirl around a pair of superstars in Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks.
But maybe the most interesting quarterback quandary is in the Big Apple. The New York Jets have a massive decision to make regarding the future of the young signal-caller they traded up to draft third overall in 2018.
Do the Jets give Sam Darnold one more shot as the team’s starter, or do they send him packing and either acquire a veteran option or draft the quarterback of the future with the second pick in this year’s draft?
One thing is for sure: Darnold’s first three seasons haven’t gone according to plan. The former USC standout showed some promise in 2019, completing 61.9 percent of his passes for 3,024 yards and 19 touchdowns while winning seven of 13 starts.
But Darnold regressed badly last season. His completion percentage dropped below 60. He managed nine touchdown passes against 11 interceptions, posted a passer rating of 72.7 and was a miserable 2-10 as the starter.
That terrible season played a major part in the Jets’ going 2-14 and landing the second pick. That, in turn, has led most folks to presume Darnold’s days in New York are numbered. That he’ll be traded at some point. That the Jets will use the No. 2 pick either in a trade or on one of this year’s top prospects at the position.
But it’s not necessarily a binary decision. The team could go in numerous directions at quarterback over the next several weeks, some more likely (and sensible) than others.
The long-shot move is including Darnold and the second overall pick in a megadeal that would land New York a star quarterback like Watson or Wilson. As Aaron Wilson reported for the Houston Chronicle, the Jets have interest in Watson, who has requested to be traded by the Texans.
Wilson hasn’t (yet) made the same request, but his agent offered up a list of teams to ESPN’s Adam Schefter that the 32-year-old might waive his no-trade clause for.
At least one former NFL GM thinks having a veteran quarterback in Darnold and a top-three pick in the 2021 draft positions the Jets as a legitimate trade partner for Wilson.
Randy Mueller @RandyMueller_
I’ve been saying all along- the only team that might make sense in Russell Wilson saga is the Jets. They have the right combination to send to Seattle.
But pulling off a whopper of a trade is unlikely and/or unwise for a few reasons. While the talent of those quarterbacks is equal parts impressive and undeniable, the cost involved in acquiring either would be staggering, both in terms of their salary and the draft capital necessary.
We’re talking Darnold. The second overall pick in 2021. New York’s first-rounder in 2022. And then some. Never mind the annual salary well north of $30 million.
Also, the Jets were not listed among the four teams (Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas and New Orleans) Wilson would waive his no-trade clause for. Given New York’s struggles in recent years, changing his mind would likely be a tough sell.
In the last week, 13 women have filed lawsuits alleging Watson sexually assaulted or committed sexual misconduct against them, which supersedes any trade rumors and lowers the possibility that a deal materializes for the fifth-year pro.
Landing one of these stars might make the fanbase happy (at least in the short term), but it probably isn’t happening.
If a trade for Watson or Wilson is the scenario fans would most like to see, the next one would go over like a lead feather. On WFAN Sports Radio in February, former NFL general manager Michael Lombardi said he believed New York’s best course of action might be building around the quarterback it has rather than replacing him (h/t Mike Rosenstein of NJ.com):
“I think what you do is you put Sam in this draft, and ask yourself: is Sam is better than Justin Fields or Zach Wilson? He’s not newer, but is he better? Because newer doesn’t mean it solves the problem. … Would they be better off holding Sam and drafting the tackle out of Oregon (Penei Sewell), and having two dominant tackles to determine how they run and pass protect? That makes a big difference – just ask Kansas City. One thing we learned from the Super Bowl is that it doesn’t matter how great your quarterback is, or how great your wide receivers are; if you can’t block, it doesn’t matter, and if you can’t pass protect, you can’t get the ball off.”
The idea has merit—provided you don’t see a significant gap in talent between Darnold and this year’s crop of signal-callers (outside of Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, who everyone believes will be selected first overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars). The Jets could have their choice of any non-quarterback in the class. Or swing a draft-day move with a QB-needy team like the Carolina Panthers or Denver Broncos that could net the team an extra first-rounder in next year’s draft.
The Jets have also been active in adding passing-game weapons like wide receivers Corey Davis and Keelan Cole in free agency, and new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur brings Kyle Shanahan’s quarterback-friendly scheme. In theory, Darnold would be set up better than in any season of his career.
Then there’s the scenario most folks expect to happen: trading Darnold and drafting a quarterback at No. 2. BYU’s Zach Wilson had a phenomenal 2020 season in which he passed for almost 3,700 yards with 33 touchdowns and three interceptions. Justin Fields of Ohio State threw for over 5,300 yards in two seasons as a Buckeye with 63 scores and nine picks. Both prospects have the potential to be excellent NFL starters.
The Jets could also draft a quarterback and keep Darnold for one more year as an insurance policy of sorts. They have the cap space to do it. But the general consensus is that if the Jets decide a QB is the pick at No. 2, Darnold is a goner.
The list of teams that are looking to add a quarterback isn’t as long as it was, but some potential partners make sense. The Broncos are exploring options to either compete with or replace Drew Lock. The Carolina Panthers could be looking to improve under center after Teddy Bridgewater’s lackluster 2020 campaign. If the Texans agree to deal Watson, the team will need a new starter under center.
Darnold won’t land a bounty of picks after three so-so (at best) seasons, but he is 23 years old and was a top-five draft pick for a reason. If he’s made available, there will be interest.
A Jets team that has holes on both sides of the ball can use all the draft capital it can get.
That last scenario is both the most likely and probably the best case for both player and team. Darnold’s struggles can’t be blamed entirely on him—his surrounding cast has hardly put him in the best position to succeed. But even with a new staff in New York and (presumably) a better team around him in 2021, it’s difficult to envision a scenario where Darnold experiences a drastic reversal in fortune. Not with the Jets.
Perhaps a change of scenery will do him some good.
As Ralph Vacchiano reported for SNY, it’s believed general manager Joe Douglas hasn’t made a decision on which direction the Jets will go at quarterback. The call will define Douglas’ tenure as GM and the Jets as a team for the next several years. There are cases to be made for each course of action.
We may not know what Douglas and the Jets will do, but the dilemma will dominate coverage of the team until Douglas makes the call.
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