FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The New York Jets have lost 100 games since their last playoff appearance in January 2011, more than every team except the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars. All they had to do was get to 103 to secure the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, a reward for all the suffering, but the Jets probably cost themselves a shot at prized prospect Trevor Lawrence by pulling off a Christmas Week miracle.
The Jets’ stunning Week 15 win against the Los Angeles Rams changes everything, from the looming head-coaching search to the quarterback decision. If they wind up with the No. 2 pick, their projected current position, the Jets will face hard decisions in what figures to be an LWT offseason — Life Without Trevor.
“The Jets better hope they don’t win,” a former general manager said recently. “I’m telling you, you can’t afford to lose this kid. They’re so painfully bad in every area, on and off the field, they can’t afford to lose this kid. They can’t. This kid comes around [once] in a blue moon.”
Blue also describes the mood of the Jets’ fan base. Now the question on everybody’s mind is, what now? Suddenly, there are so many questions. Let’s tackle the big ones, based on the likelihood of New York drafting second, behind the Jaguars:
Will this impact the Jets in the coaching market?
There will be anywhere from five to eight head-coaching vacancies when this season ends. Barring an upset on the level of Jets-Rams, the Jets will be one of the teams looking for a new coach. Yes, this will impact them. Quite frankly, the anticipated opening isn’t as attractive as it once was.
The prospect of coaching a generational talent such as Lawrence would have been a huge draw for top candidates, especially offensive-minded coaches. The Jets still have significant draft capital to rebuild their talent-starved roster (four first-round picks in 2021 and 2022), which some candidates will find appealing, but it’s not the same as having dibs on the Clemson Tigers‘ star.
Unless they leapfrog the Jaguars in the final two weeks, the Jets’ opening will be middle-of-the-pack in terms of sexy appeal.
Could New York still draft a quarterback at No. 2?
Sure, it’s possible, but the gap between Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is growing. Fields, the presumptive second pick, played poorly in the Big Ten championship game, his second sub-par game in a month. Fields still has a ton of physical ability, but his lack of experience and struggles against top defenses have raised some concern among talent evaluators. Any quarterback drafted this high should be an elite prospect; it’s hard to put Fields in that category unless he plays lights-out in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Lawrence.
Three other quarterbacks have first-round grades, according to ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s Big Board — Zach Wilson (BYU), Mac Jones (Alabama) and Trey Lance (North Dakota State). Because of supply and demand at the position, one or more could get pushed into the top 10. My sense is Jets general manager Joe Douglas would have to fall head over heels to take one of them with the No. 2 pick.
Does this mean QB Sam Darnold will be back with the Jets in 2021?
It certainly increases his chances of returning for his fourth season, but it’s not a slam dunk. Douglas has no allegiance to Darnold because he didn’t draft him, and, let’s be brutally honest, Darnold’s body of work leaves a lot of questions. Since entering the league in 2018, Darnold is 39th in passer rating, 38th in completion percentage and 39th in touchdown/interception ratio out of 40 qualifying quarterbacks.
The numbers are grim, but let’s not forget he’s 23 years old and still hasn’t had the luxury of a sound supporting cast. Many around the league still believe Darnold’s best ball is ahead of him and he can be fixed. If Douglas decides to roll with Darnold, he’d be placing his faith in the next coaching staff and in his own ability to put better talent around the quarterback.
The downside is the economics. Darnold has one year remaining on his rookie contract ($9.8 million cap), with a fifth-year option for 2022 that will be an estimated $25 million (fully guaranteed). If the Jets decline the option, which they probably will, it turns 2021 into a one-year, prove-it situation — i.e., Mitchell Trubisky and the Chicago Bears. Now you’re talking about serious risk-reward. If Darnold plays well in 2021, it means a big-money extension or a franchise tag. If he sputters, it’s back to square one.
From a salary-cap standpoint, it makes more financial sense to start over with a rookie and trade Darnold, but not at the expense of a talent downgrade at the position.
Rex Ryan is disappointed by the Jets’ first win because they might have blown their chance at drafting Trevor Lawrence.
What are the other options with the No. 2 pick?
If Douglas opts to stick with Darnold, he can add a major piece on offense with the draft pick. He could go big with tackle Penei Sewell (Oregon), who would be a formidable bookend with Jets left tackle Mekhi Becton, or he could go for a dynamic wide receiver. DeVonta Smith (Alabama) and Ja’Marr Chase (LSU) are regarded as elite prospects. Imagine one of them with Jets wideout Denzel Mims on the other side.
Douglas also could trade down, swapping places with a quarterback-needy team and acquiring extra picks in the process. If he goes this route, it will mean he’s all-in with Darnold.
Any other scenarios that could come into play?
Absolutely. We’re talking about the Jets, so things are rarely cut and dried. Maybe Douglas will try a hybrid approach, meaning he drafts a quarterback in the first round (not necessarily at No. 2), trades Darnold and acquires a veteran who can hold the fort until the rookie is ready. This would give them short- and long-term answers at the position while accumulating extra draft capital.
This would represent a total reset for the franchise.
At this point, anything is possible.