FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — For two straight offseasons, the New York Jets enjoyed the unusual luxury (for them) of not having to worry about the quarterback position. Sam Darnold was their guy, and there was every reason to believe he would be the guy for a long time.
Then the 2020 NFL season happened. Darnold played poorly. He got hurt. The team stunk. The coach got fired. Now, with multiple avenues with which to improve the position, Jets officials are refusing to commit to Darnold as their starter for 2021. We still love you, Sam, but …
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“To give you that answer right now would not be fair,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said at his introductory news conference. “There’s a lot of discussions that need to be had with Joe [Douglas] and his staff.”
Douglas, the general manager, has three months to resolve the most vexing issue facing the organization. In a vacuum, the Darnold decision would be tough enough, but it’s complicated by what could be the wildest offseason for quarterback movement in recent memory.
Several stars, most notably Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, could be changing addresses. There are varying degrees of uncertainty surrounding the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers and the Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff. The upside for the Jets is it could be a buyer’s market for trades. The downside is they could be sellers, too; they might not get as much for Darnold if they decide to move on.
The Jets would be committing organizational malpractice if they didn’t seriously consider alternatives to Darnold, who threw nine touchdown passes (12 games) in a season that saw the most in league history (871). New York can’t simply blame it on former coach Adam Gase and run it back with Darnold without exploring the landscape.
A breakdown of the most viable quarterback options for the Jets, ranking them based on our preference:
Mike Greenberg sees signs that Deshaun Watson might want to be traded to the Jets, and Dan Graziano breaks down the possibility he’ll be traded there.
1. Deshaun Watson, Texans
Current status: Requested trade
Pros: It’s a rare opportunity to get a legitimate franchise quarterback in his prime; he’s 25 and already has been selected to three Pro Bowls. He would be ideal in the Jets’ new offense, a West Coast system that emphasizes the ability to throw on the run. His mere presence would instill hope in the organization, and it’s hard to put a price on that. Make this trade and the Jets would have their most promising coach-quarterback tandem in a long time.
Cons: The compensation will be massive. Conventional wisdom suggests it would take three first-round picks and then some. In their 2009 trade for Jay Cutler, the Chicago Bears gave up two first-round picks, a third-rounder and quarterback Kyle Orton — and Cutler wasn’t close to Watson. One thing to remember: The Jets’ top pick (No. 2 overall) is worth two-and-a-half times as much as, say, the 16th pick, according to the commonly used trade-value chart. By giving up the fort for Watson, the Jets would be at a disadvantage in trying to build around him.
Cap impact: Watson is signed through 2025, with salary-cap charges that range from $10.5 million (2021) to $37 million (2023). Considering the market, it’s not an outrageous contract. I’m told the Jets aren’t his No. 1 choice, as a recent report out of South Florida said, but it’s still possible he could include them on a list of preferred teams. Watson’s no-trade clause allows him to control where he ends up — if the Texans decide to move him.
Eye-popping stat: Watson finished third in completion percentage (70.2) despite averaging 9.0 air yards per attempt (tied for fourth), per NFL Next Gen Stats.
Current status: Draft-eligible
Pros: Coming off an outstanding junior season, Wilson has risen so much that he is now considered by many talent evaluators to be the best quarterback prospect not named Trevor Lawrence. Wilson is a highly skilled passer with tremendous zip and long-ball accuracy. He moves very well, displaying the ability to make off-schedule plays outside the pocket. He, too, would be an ideal scheme fit for the Jets. From a big-picture standpoint, Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur could start fresh with their own quarterback. Capwise, they could reset with a rookie contract, giving them cost certainty through 2024.
Cons: The concerns are his injury history and level of competition. After his freshman season, Wilson underwent surgery on his throwing shoulder to repair a labrum. As a sophomore (2019), he missed time after surgery on his throwing hand. Some wonder if his less-than-imposing body (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) can withstand the weekly punishment of the NFL. He racked up impressive stats at BYU, but his numbers against ranked teams were pedestrian — a 2-4 record, with 1,569 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions.
Cap impact: The NFL has a slotted system for rookies, so his contract would be similar to that of last year’s No. 2 overall pick, Chase Young of the Washington Football Team — four years, $34.6 million. That is affordable and would provide the flexibility to build other areas of the roster.
Eye-popping stat: Wilson threw three interceptions in 336 attempts in 2020, and one of the picks came on a Hail Mary.
3. Sam Darnold, Jets
Current status: Incumbent
Pros: He’s still young (turns 24 in June) and still hasn’t had the benefit of playing with a strong supporting cast. In three seasons, Darnold has had virtually no running game. Saleh has spoken highly of Darnold, and he’s not blowing smoke. He believes there’s untapped potential that can be extracted with better coaching and a scheme change. Darnold would be a good fit in LaFleur’s quarterback-friendly system, which uses play-action, misdirection and moving pockets.
Cons: Darnold still isn’t adept at reading defenses; he gets into trouble because he sometimes doesn’t see beyond his No. 1 read and the primary defender. No doubt, he has room to grow, but recent history tells us it’s rare for quarterbacks to make a quantum leap after three or four years in the league. Darnold was the lowest-rated passer in 2020 (72.7). Let’s say he improves to the 15-20 range. Can the Jets live with that? Is that worth the long-term contract extension he would seek after the ’21 season? There’s also a durability question; he has missed 10 games in three years because of injury and illness.
Cap impact: He has one year remaining on his rookie contract ($9.8 million cap charge). The Jets have until early May to make a decision on his fifth-year option for 2022 (about $25 million, fully guaranteed). It makes little sense to make that kind of commitment based on his body of work, so we’re probably talking about a one-year audition in 2021. If he sputters, he probably walks as a free agent, and the Jets will have to package their two first-round picks in 2022 to find a replacement. If Darnold excels, it means a lucrative new deal.
Eye-popping stat: Darnold recorded the fifth-highest completion percentage (92.3) when under no pressure and throwing to wide-open receivers (at least 3 yards separation), per NFL Next Gen Stats. That’s what you call optimal conditions.
Mel Kiper Jr. outlines who could be the second quarterback selected in the 2021 NFL draft and how it would affect Falcons QB Matt Ryan.
Current status: Draft-eligible
Pros: There’s no doubt about his arm talent; it was on full display in his six-touchdown performance against Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal. Fields also is a fast and elusive runner, adding another dimension to the offense. Bottom line: He’s a playmaker. In two seasons at Ohio State, he produced 84 touchdowns — 69 passing, 15 rushing. He’d be a dynamic option at the quarterback position, which the Jets haven’t had in … maybe ever.
Cons: Fields doesn’t seem natural when he’s in the pocket going through his progressions. If his No. 1 read is covered, he tends to hold the ball instead of moving quickly to No. 2. He got away with it in college because his primary wide receivers usually were open, but that won’t be the case in the NFL. For this reason, it might take him longer than Wilson to develop. He struggled against Indiana, Northwestern and Alabama, so what will happen against a Bill Belichick-coached defense?
Cap impact: See Wilson’s entry, as it is the same.
Eye-popping stat: Fields ranked third in completion percentage (61.3) among Power 5 quarterbacks on throws of at least 20 air yards, per ESPN Stats & Information. Wilson was second (62.3%), behind Stanford’s Davis Mills (64.7%).
Jeremy Fowler predicts a few teams that could be interested in quarterback Matthew Stafford, including the Colts high up on the list and Washington as a sleeper.
Current status: Expected to not return
Pros: He’s not as good as Watson and he’s seven-plus years older than the Houston star, but Stafford is good enough to take a team to the playoffs. Playing on bad Detroit teams, he has averaged 25 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions in his past three full seasons. He would be a significant upgrade over Darnold.
Cons: He turns 33 on Feb. 7, so the Jets aren’t a great fit. They need to think long term, not win-now — and Stafford is a win-now quarterback. The Lions will seek at least a first-round pick. The Jets have the No. 23 overall selection, but it doesn’t make sense to part with that kind of compensation for a quarterback who is closer to the end of his career than the beginning.
Cap impact: Stafford has two years remaining on his contract for $43 million, none of it guaranteed. (A $10 million roster bonus is due March 21.) He probably will get a new deal from the team that trades for him.
Eye-popping stat: He had the seventh-highest passer rating (100.2) on pass attempts in which the completion probability (pass difficulty) was 25% to 50%, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.