It’s unusual for a quarterback in his third season to be traded, especially if he’s been a starter since Week 1 of his rookie year. By that point, they’ve either shown signs of becoming a franchise quarterback or they’ve been so bad that nobody else wants them. But the New York Jets might have the rare exception on their hands in Sam Darnold.
While it’s unfair to label Darnold a bust at this point, the former USC Trojan hasn't been given a fair chance to be evaluated due to poor coaching and a lack of talent on New York's roster. But, there are no excuses in the NFL, and with a talented quarterback class in the upcoming draft, it's time for the Jets to move on from their former top pick and start from scratch in 2021. Here’s why:
He’s Not a Franchise Quarterback... Yet
Through his first 30 career starts, Darnold has surely shown flashes of being the kind of quarterback the Jets can build around. However, he hasn’t solidified his standing beyond a reasonable doubt that he’s the team’s long-term solution. Darnold’s biggest concern coming out of USC was his ball security and propensity for fumbling and throwing interceptions. That problem hasn’t gone away in the NFL, as he has 32 interceptions in 30 games. Moreover, he’s just 11-19 as a starter and has a career average of 6.7 yards per pass attempt, which is not what you expect from a franchise quarterback.
To be fair, Darnold hasn’t had a strong supporting cast around him, which can excuse some of his shortcomings and his failure to post eye-popping stats. However, it’s also clear that he’s been unable to raise the level of play of those around him. The Jets will have to decide on Darnold's fifth-year option soon. After that, there will be talk of a long-term extension to keep him in New York. The Jets can’t be sure that Darnold is going to be worth it in the long run. But given how difficult it is for the Jets to make a judgment call on his future prospects, they might be better off finding a trade partner for the quarterback and get value for their once prized possession before it's too late. It’s not as if the Jets have made a lot of good decisions lately.
They Will Get Trevor Lawrence (or Justin Fields)
Trading Darnold, especially if the Jets pull off a mid-season trade, would all but ensure New York of the top overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft. After six weeks, the Jets are the last remaining team in the league without a win, giving them the inside track on the top pick. For what it’s worth, there are nine teams with only one win, so the Jets finishing with the league’s worst record is far from a certainty at this point. On the other hand, no team has looked worse than the Jets this season, and they’ve been at their worst without Darnold at quarterback. Whether they deal him or not, the Jets would most likely be selecting first overall next year.
With that pick, the Jets would be able to take the highly coveted Trevor Lawrence or at least settle for Ohio State's Justin Fields if they somehow fall out of the top overall pick. Most would agree that it’s worth tanking the rest of 2020 if it means getting Lawrence. The Clemson quarterback has appeared NFL-ready since his freshman season and has carried the Tigers to the National Championship Game twice in as many years. While the Jets think they might have a franchise quarterback in Darnold, there would be even more optimistic that the team has its quarterback of the future if they trade Darnold and end up drafting Lawrence next spring.
There Will be a Coaching Change
At this point, there’s no question that Adam Gase is a dead man walking. He has a 7-15 record with the Jets and is 30-40 in his career. There is no confidence in him amongst the fanbase with most supporters eagerly awaiting the day when he’s given his walking papers. If the Jets have a new head coach in 2021, why not make it a fresh start all around by trading Darnold and bringing in a new quarterback?
In a way, the Jets almost owe it to Darnold to trade him away from the train wreck that the Jets have become under Gase. If Darnold remains with the Jets in 2021, he’ll have his third head coach and third different offensive coordinator in his fourth season. That’s not the way to develop a young quarterback who could be a franchise cornerstone. What if the Jets end up with a coach who doesn’t click with Darnold? The team could be right back where they are now. The best move the Jets could make would be to enter the 2021 season with a new head coach and a new quarterback, giving them a clean break from Gase’s disastrous tenure.
Darnold Still Has Trade Value
It’s always best to sell high, and while Darnold’s stock isn’t exactly at peak value at the moment, it’s high enough for the Jets to find potential suitors. Whether they trade him now or after the season, the Steelers, Colts and Saints have all been mentioned as potential destinations, with the Jaguars and Vikings potentially interested as well, especially if the Jets end up with the top overall selection in next year’s draft.
Obviously, the Jets are never going to replace the third-overall pick that they used to draft Darnold in 2018. But it’s more than reasonable to expect a second-round pick in return for the young quarterback. If the Jets can secure that in return for Darnold, they shouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger on a deal. The more early-round draft picks they collect, the quicker they’ll be able to rebuild and improve the ancillary parts of their roster that also need to be upgraded heading into 2021 and beyond.
The J-E-T-S Need a Lot of W-O-R-K
Whether it’s Darnold, Lawrence, or someone else starting at quarterback in Week 1 of the 2021 season, the Jets have a long way to go to become a viable playoff contender. The possibility of going 0-16 this season is still very much on the table, especially if the team decides to keep Gase as head coach for the remainder of the year. The possibility of a quick turnaround in 2021 is unlikely regardless of who is coaching or playing quarterback. They simply have too many other roster needs that need to be addressed. This is another reason why starting fresh in 2021 with a new coach and a new quarterback makes sense.
If the Jets were to pick up the fifth-year option on Darnold’s contract and entertain the possibility of a long-term deal, they would suddenly be in a position in which their quarterback is taking up a large percentage of the team’s payroll. With so much rebuilding to do, the Jets can’t afford to pay Darnold — or any quarterback — $25 million or more per season. They need to maintain payroll flexibility to upgrade the positions that they can’t improve via the draft. The best way to do that is with a rookie quarterback whose salary will remain reasonable for a few seasons.
The only solution to that problem is to trade Darnold, create a little more cap space, and start 2021 with another younger quarterback that their next coach can groom.
Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration