The 2021 NFL Draft, currently scheduled for the late part of April in downtown Cleveland, is right around the corner. One of the teams with the highest stakes entering the three-day event is the New York Jets, whose second overall pick is crucial not just to the draft order of the most high-profile collegiate prospects but also to the direction of the franchise. Although free agency is largely over, the Jets have teased a big pre-draft move all along. This indeed occurred this past Monday by virtue of the Sam Darnold trade that sent the former USC quarterback to the Carolina Panthers.
According to ESPN, the Jets have dealt Darnold to Carolina in exchange for a sixth-rounder now, and second and fourth-round picks in next year’s edition of the NFL Draft. The trade settles a fundamental offseason debate – New York will pick a quarterback with the second overall selection.
While both Zach Wilson and Justin Fields have very high ceilings, as well as the makings of efficient passers on the professional level, the move isn’t very positive as regards the club’s short-term ability to lift itself from the bottom of the AFC East and the league overall.
How We Got Here
The Jets had struggled to find a long-term answer to their passing woes for a long period of time. Then, the 2018 NFL Draft was thought to be the turning point of that issue. After a few seasons that saw the front office pick defensemen above all, to a mixed success at that, the team went for USC playmaker Sam Darnold with the third overall pick.
Darnold was the second quarterback selected in the draft after the Browns added Baker Mayfield with the night’s opening selection. Considering the difference in the two prospects’ weaponry throughout their three-year tenures, Sam Darnold has been just as good, if not better than, Mayfield, or any other QB in that draft not named Josh Allen.
Sam Darnold had noticeable problems in his rookie campaign. His completion percentage that year was 57.7%, with his Int.% ending up at 3.6%, both career-worst figures for the 23-year-old.
The following offseason, New York acquired former Washington pass-catcher Jamison Crowder. Unsurprisingly, Sam Darnold’s best year coincided with the point he had the best targets around him. In 13 games, career-high workload, and Robby Anderson and Crowder around him, his accuracy grew to 61%, with a drastically better TD-Int. ratio, and a passer rating of 84.3.
While his completion percentage was still below what a prolific pocket passer should offer, Darnold provided a glance at his incredible potential at the age of just 22. However, that wouldn’t hold true for much longer.
In 2020, Robby Anderson entered the free-agent market, eventually joining the Panthers on a two-year deal. In the latter of those seasons, he will renew his connection with Darnold that was avid in East Rutherford. Without him as a part of the receiving corps, the Jets were left with one of the worst units in the NFL. Moreover, they didn’t address these shortcomings during the 2020 offseason and it proved costly.
Throughout the 2020 season, the Jets sailed “confidently” to an almost franchise-worst 2-14 record. En route to that embarrassment, Sam Darnold had, by a mile, his worst year. He posted career-worst numbers in every major component, except completion percentage.
Knowing that even elite quarterbacks have struggled with a lack of a sufficient supporting cast through the air, outright blaming Sam Darnold speaks volumes about the club’s state of stagnation. Although his isolated performance had its woes, Darnold has shown enough that he can succeed with better help surrounding him.
Instead, the Jets opted to complete the Sam Darnold trade with Carolina, simultaneously wasting resources on a rookie QB and getting a disappointing return in the deal.
Sam Darnold Trade: The Inexistent Need For a New Quarterback
The biggest cliche in football: When your team isn’t achieving the needed results, a quarterback change is always the right answer. A new playmaker, the light at the end of the tunnel, a guy to spark up prosperity. Just like in the movies: the quarterback comes in to save the day, by himself (with the emphasis on the latter). This cannot be further from the real-life issues and solutions, though.
Many teams have put their money on huge one-asset investments, or, in some cases, just don’t bother building up their other departments. After all that time, it is still shocking to see NFL general managers acting as if they were in a cinematic universe of some kind when record-wise consequences cannot stand such film-like utopias. Because believing that a new quarterback, and that alone, would carry an untalented roster is nothing more than an unrealistic expectation.
The NFL, a very high-grossing but also competitive league, rarely sees an enormous difference, statistically, in different players, or units within the 32 rosters, but that is self-explanatory with the level of play. As the margin between the teams financially is smaller, and upon the presence of a salary cap and roster limits that restrict teams from signing players that they won’t use or from building completely top-caliber rosters, all teams have fewer holes and weaknesses. That would mean, even if a quarterback doesn’t have sufficient weaponry and his stats drop indeed, it won’t be by a margin that is enough eye-opening.
Nonetheless, most cases prove that downward trend by the maximum limits possible in a league like the NFL. Take for example the greatest quarterback, now in his last years of action – Tom Brady. For the past two seasons, he has been in the same late stage of his career and any time progression would, if anything, project a decrease in his efficiency. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In 2019, Brady had a completion percentage of 60.7%, his lowest since 2013, and a passer rating of 88.0, which was also one of the worst figures in his career. The next year, after changing teams and signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he didn’t decline – just the opposite. The NFL great had a 65.7% accuracy, a significant uptick, and his fourth-best figure in the 2020s decade, whereas his passer rating amounted to 102.2, his highest in three campaigns.
Meanwhile, the difference in his air-raid support was obvious. In the former year, he only had the likes of a rookie N’Keal Harry, an inefficient Mohamed Sanu, and a very disappointing Julian Edelman. However, in his latest Super Bowl-winning effort, Brady’s main targets were Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, and even Antonio Brown from one point on.
Furthermore, we can extend that trend to his 2017 campaign with a much better corps than 2019 and, subsequently, greater numbers. The impact of a quarterback’s pool of weapons is clear and so is the need for balance in the offensive department not just for the 2020 Jets or the 2019 New England Patriots but for every other front office in the NFL.
Even with the early upgrades he added, that is very evidently not the direction Joe Douglas took with this game-changing trade. Even though he brought in a very consistent receiver in Corey Davis, he chose what many irrational people call “the exciting move”, which Zach Wilson, or Justin Fields, or Trey Lance, or whoever the Jets select, is without a doubt.
But now let’s examine the Jets moves included in that trade, the potential consequences, and everyone’s favorite “what-ifs”, which are now more relevant than ever, although they often occur when the Jets are the subject.
Firstly, New York will get rid of Sam Darnold, who has shown satisfying results when provided adequate support. Secondly, they won’t add a significant asset via that trade, as a sixth-rounder is unlikely to be a starter, at least not in 2021. Thirdly, unless they bring in Deshaun Watson, which is an entirely different discussion, his replacement will be one of the aforementioned draft prospect names.
In reality, Zach Wilson, the most probable pick, is hardly any better than Darnold, if not much worse, as he will be a rookie. As a first-year playmaker, Wilson is unlikely to get anywhere close to his ceiling while Darnold, entering his fourth year, would be in a different boat. Even with his 2020 numbers, you will find it difficult to hear that Darnold’s been anything worse than an above-average quarterback throughout his three-year NFL stint.
All of that means only a slight movement in terms of quality at the position. It has to be noted that, while Wilson’s unlikely to represent a dramatic improvement over a third-year Darnold, he could be rocky at the beginning of the BYU QB’s career and can actually be marginally worse. However, the far worse consequence of that feel-good, do-nothing “substitution” is that it prevents them from addressing needs in a more severe state.
NFL draft capital is not unlimited, nor does it provide that wide of a variety in opportunities to land a player that actually matches the level of an asset a team needs to fill in a hole heading into that particular year. Most of the picks a team gets throughout these seven rounds they use with hopes of developing, and most of these players never reach a regular job. That holds especially true about anyone selected after the first two days.
Even during those three opening rounds, it is not a guarantee that the gamble on a player would work immediately. The Jets’ examples: Lamical Perine, Ashtyn Davis, and even Denzel Mims (to be honest). Those were all three of the team’s Day Two selections in last year’s online draft. The result is that hardly any pick outside of the first round is comparable, in short-term potential, to a productive free agent.
While the Jets do have two first-round picks, the latter of those two assets is No.22. By that point, anyone who NY would want to fix the receiving core (or other areas, such as the secondary) would be gone or not worth it for that spot in the draft. Wide receivers like Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle are all projected to go within the top 15 of the draft, as are cornerbacks Patrick Surtain and Jaycee Horn.
The former three names are particularly important as regards this issue. They, unlike completing the Sam Darnold trade and replacing him with Wilson, would have actually made for a real improvement in the productivity of the Jets’ passing offense.
Instead, the Jets conceded to the what-makes-a-future-star talk with blatant disregard to what makes a winning team now. Zach Wilson could indeed live up to his name. However, it will take a few more seasons to provide him sufficient weapons and fix problems elsewhere on the roster. With this move, the Jets might seem like a team with a bright future but they have effectively given up on any short-term hopes that could have been reasonable otherwise.
San Darnold Trade: Assessing the Trade Value and Potential Replacements
It had been reported that the demand for Sam Darnold after the 2020 season was as low as always and New York could have had no hopes of getting anything better than a second-round pick. It turned out to be even worse – a sixth-rounder this year and a second-rounder next year.
In addition to everything already mentioned, it was a fairly bad time to trade Sam Darnold considering the Jets got next to nothing even for his numbers over the three years he has already completed.
After the Sam Darnold trade to Carolina and his departure, the list of potential candidates for the post in 2021 has been cut down in a significant manner. As mentioned above, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, as well as Mac Jones, are projected to go in the early moments of the first round after Trevor Lawrence signs with Jacksonville.
However, Wilson is the most highly-regarded of the four and has already had a few interviews with the team. Therefore, it is no secret that Joe Douglas is already gearing up to “promote” Zach Wilson as the future of the franchise.
The only real alternative is Deshaun Watson. After the recent tensions around him, Watson’s trade value might have dropped. However, no insider info has been indicative of that, nor of any potential interest from the Jets side.
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