With Darnold gone, Jets focused on finding next franchise QB
Joe Douglas and the New York Jets discussed, debated and contemplated every scenario surrounding Sam Darnold.
After all the agonizing over the “rabbit holes,” as the general manger called them, the choice to ultimately trade the promising but inconsistent quarterback was a sensible but far from simple solution.
“We felt like this was the best decision for the entire organization moving forward,” Douglas said Tuesday, “and hitting the reset button.”
So, the Jets are back in a familiar spot: searching for a franchise quarterback after dealing Darnold to Carolina on Monday for a sixth-round pick this year and second- and fourth-round selections next year.
New York thought it had its guy only three years ago when then-general manager Mike Maccagnan traded up in the draft to snag Darnold with the No. 3 overall pick. Instead, the Jets will now give it another try — this time with the No. 2 selection.
“I would say that's a fair assessment,” Douglas said when asked if taking a quarterback at that spot is a safe assumption.
The increasingly swirling speculation has the Jets aiming squarely for BYU's Zach Wilson, especially after Douglas, new coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur watched the young QB launch the football all over the field at the school's pro day on March 26.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Steve Young, currently an ESPN analyst and a former BYU star, recently said during a podcast on KNBR Sports Radio that the Jets "have committed to Zach and recruited the family.” Young added that he'd like the San Francisco 49ers, his old team, to get Wilson but thinks New York is locked in on taking him.
“Steve's plugged into BYU pretty well,” Douglas said, doing little to diminish those comments but adding he had a “brief” discussion with Wilson's father and agent during the pro day in Provo, Utah.
“We’re excited about this class and we’re excited about this quarterback class," Douglas said. "So we still have a lot of our process left in these three-plus weeks leading up to the draft and a lot of productive conversations, conversations in the future coming up.”
With Clemson's Trevor Lawrence considered a shoo-in to be taken No. 1 by Jacksonville, there could be an early run on quarterbacks with Wilson, Ohio State's Justin Fields, North Dakota State's Trey Lance and Alabama's Mac Jones all potential top-10 picks.
Douglas acknowledged that the Jets, who finished 2-14 last season, would likely be approaching things much differently if they weren't sitting where they are in the draft. The GM also said the possibility of drafting a quarterback second overall and keeping Darnold this season was considered.
“If we were picking later — if we were picking 12, 13, 14 — we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Douglas said. "I think the unique nature of where we are in the draft, picking No. 2 overall, and ultimately we just decided that taking a quarterback at No. 2 and keeping Sam would not be the best decision for the entire organization, the two quarterbacks, the coach and the coaching staff and the locker room.
“So after a lot of discussion about that, that was the decision that was made.”
Darnold’s contract situation also played a role in the Jets’ decision to move on. He was entering the fourth year of his rookie deal and New York would have had until May 3 to decide whether to exercise Darnold’s fifth-year option — which would have cost the Jets $18.9 million, fully guaranteed — or possibly let him play out the final year and potentially lose him for nothing in free agency next winter.
“We feel really good about the draft class as a whole, and the quarterback class specifically,” Douglas said, “that this was an opportunity to hit the reset button financially, so to speak.”
Darnold flashed playmaking ability at times during his three seasons with the Jets, but foot and shoulder injuries — not to mention a bout with mononucleosis — didn't help him take the next step in his development. Neither did former coach Adam Gase, whose pairing with Darnold was a failure in two seasons.
Douglas, who called Darnold “one of my most favorite people on the team,” also promised the QB's parents after his first year as GM that he'd provide their son with enough playmakers to help him — and the team — thrive. That also didn't happen.
“It’s incumbent on us to get these decisions right,” Douglas said. “Whether it’s turning the card in, turning the pick in or trading for a proven commodity, we have to surround our next quarterback with as much talent as possible.”
Darnold is the eighth straight Jets first-rounder to not see a second contract with the team. While it hasn't all been on Douglas' watch, that sort of instability with what should be core players has helped prolong a 10-year playoff drought that is the longest active skid in the NFL.
Douglas believes Darnold will thrive in Carolina, and highlighted how the trades of Steve McLendon (Tampa Bay) and Avery Williamson (Pittsburgh) last year put them in better situations for their careers.
He also knows the onus is on him — with the quarterback decision weighing heavily in the ultimate outcome — to turn things around for the entire Jets franchise.
“Ultimately, we want to be the team that becomes a good landing spot, OK?” Douglas said. “We want to be that team. And that's what we're working towards.”