The Jets’ separation from the quarterback they took third overall in 2018 didn’t happen overnight. Sam Darnold had to go through the second coaching firing of his short career first, then wait for his team to find a replacement for Adam Gase and complete a quarterback evaluation process that, thanks to circumstances created by COVID-19, took at least a month longer than it otherwise might have.
For a lot of players, especially with the bullhorn social media has given everyone, being stuck in that sort of limbo might lead things coming undone in a pretty public way. But that never happened with Darnold. Nor did anyone expect it to. From the Jan. 3 end to the Jets’ 2–14 season to his trade to Carolina on Monday, the 23-year-old handled himself the way that he’d basically handled everything else over his three years in Jersey. And for that reason, the element of the doing the deal that hit Jets GM Joe Douglas hardest came at the very end, and had nothing to do with its terms, or a natural fear of getting it wrong.
“It was laid out like, Hey, if you guys do this, we’ve got a deal,” Douglas says from his office on Wednesday afternoon. “And the swallow-hard moment for me was just making that call to Sam. You know how much work and dedication he’s put in the last three years here, how many rough situations he’s been through, and never wavered with his confidence. Still, when we had the call, I know in his heart of hearts that he feels he was the right guy to turn this franchise around. I just have so much admiration for how he carries himself.
“So yeah, when that phone’s ringing, you know it’s going to be a difficult conversation. But at the same time, you know it’s not, because he’s such a first-class guy.”
The call didn’t take long. Douglas thanked Darnold. He told him that he wished things could’ve worked out differently. He expressed appreciation for the quarterback handling another the tough situation the way he did. And as Douglas hung up, the course of the Jets franchise had changed.
The deal delivered Darnold a new beginning in Carolina. It brought Douglas a sixth-round pick this year, and second- and fourth-round picks in 2022. But with it done, the reality here is much simpler—Douglas’s long-term fate as GM, and where his new coach, Robert Saleh, is able to take the team will now be tethered to the result of all of this.
And hard as that call to Darnold might’ve been to make, there was nothing haphazard about how Douglas and Jets arrived to where they are today, set to spend the second overall pick on another quarterback.
Another week, another big trade, and we’re inching closer to draft weekend. Here’s what we’ve got for you in the GamePlan …
• Five conclusions to take from the 2021 offseason
• The cost of trading up for a QB for teams outside the Top 10
• The raw QBs who’ve panned out, and what we can learn
But we’re starting with the Jets’ seismic decision to pass the quarterbacking baton that came down this week, after three months of chipping away at it.
The first thing you need to know about how the Jets arrived at the decision they did is that, in a normal year, they might’ve pulled the trigger a lot sooner than April 5. In fact, about a week before free agency, Douglas had a deal on the table that was good enough to move on. At that point, the first flash point for the Darnold market—the late January trade that sent Matthew Stafford from Detroit to L.A.—had generated interest from eight teams (Carolina was among the eight), and one had emerged with an offer that was at least in the ballpark of what the Jets were looking for.
The problem was, at that point, the Jets just weren’t there yet on the crew of quarterbacks who’d be available to them at No. 2. Sure, they’d done a lot of work by then. But in a normal year, at that early March juncture, they’d have already seen the guys throw at the combine and maybe a private workout or all-star game, interviewed them in person in Indy and collected all of their medical information. And those, in 2021, were boxes still unchecked.
“It was a strong offer,” Douglas says. “We told them, Look, there’s still a lot of boxes left to check. And we just don’t feel comfortable, in case something happens with one of the top two guys, we don’t want to get caught in a bad situation, like one of two guys fails a physical and then we don’t have Sam. So we didn’t do anything.”
But right in there, you’ll also see that, to a certain degree, the Jets had already zeroed in on who their target would be at 2—and that was a result of a lot of work done in the aftermath of the Jan. 14 hire of Saleh. And at that point, based on their work through the interview process, with Saleh and others, the Jets had come to the conclusion that Darnold would be a solid scheme fit for the Shanahan system that new OC Mike LaFleur was bringing.
“Everyone thought Sam would do well in this offensive scheme,” Douglas says.
That much was confirmed during the first phase of Saleh and Douglas’s first offseason together, a thorough roster review by the staffs of each guy. From there, the Jets went in on Saleh’s staff presenting profile tapes to teach the personnel staff what they were looking for at every position and, after that, Douglas accelerated the team’s quarterback evaluation process—asking that Saleh, LaFleur, pass-game specialist Greg Knapp and QBs coach Rob Calabrese watch the top five quarterbacks independently.
Douglas learned in having been around three young first-round quarterbacks before (Kyle Boller and Joe Flacco in Baltimore, and Carson Wentz in Philly), and having seen the draft run-up for two (Boller and Flacco), the importance of building consensus. So he thought that it was important that the Jets reach a pure consensus, with everyone forming and then presenting their own opinions, before they’d talk through the quarterbacks as a group.
“Our process leading up to taking Joe was awesome,” Douglas said. “The level of buy-in that was created by Cam [Cameron] and Hue [Jackson], their passion throughout the process of evaluating quarterbacks, and back then it was Matt Ryan and Joe and [Chad] Henne and [Brian] Brohm, they were all-in on that process, and we were able to create a consensus on who were the top three or four guys in that draft class. So once the pick was made, everybody was all-in.”
And the result of the early part of this process, in getting through the tape?
“It was a clear-cut top two quarterbacks for us,” Douglas says. “And there was a consensus. At that point, we felt good about our options, like, O.K., we have two starting quarterbacks. Whether it’s Sam, the rookie or both, we feel really good about this.”
Also, there was this twist—the Jets decided that they weren’t going to shop Darnold or the second pick, instead letting teams come to them. Through that early stage, post-Stafford, eight did come to the Jets on Darnold. Remarkably, none came looking for the second pick.
But at that point, what was most relevant was closing the files on the draft prospects.
And again, if this were 2020, the Jets would’ve met Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Trey Lance and Mac Jones, seen them throw live (they actually had seen Trevor Lawrence throw live at that point, because of his early pro day), and gotten their medicals by then. But lacking that, following the Stafford flashpoint, came the first big decision, which was to walk away from what was on the table for them.
“Any other year, we would’ve had all that information right when that offer was made,” Douglas says. “And in all likelihood, he would’ve been on that other team. But then again, who knows if that offer is made at that point in another year?”
In waiting, of course, there was a level of risk. Free agency would start, plans would be made, suitors would fall off. And so the initial group—San Francisco inquired in February and early March, and Washington and Denver had touched base (though their interest was tepid)—would necessarily be thinned by the time Lance (March 12), Jones (March 23), Wilson (March 26) and Fields (March 30) threw at their respective pro days.
Why was so important for Douglas to see those guys throw live?
“I don’t know how every team approaches a quarterback [evaluation], but I’ve always thought it was a golden rule—you don’t ever take a quarterback until you stand near or next to a guy and watch him throw the football,” Douglas says. “None of the top brass were able to get out to a BYU game this year. There were no all-star games, no combine. You could see Mac Jones at the Senior Bowl. But other than that, your only opportunity to stand there and watch them throw was at a pro day.
“To me, that’s huge for a quarterback.”
So Douglas was on the ground in Fargo, Tuscaloosa, Provo and Columbus. He got to see how Lance, Jones, Wilson and Fields carry themselves, how they interact with their teammates, how they’re physically built, what type of shape they’re in and most of all he got more on who the guys were as passers that he couldn’t see on a digital recording.
“Almost every pro day I went to I got something out of,” Douglas says. “A guy like Trey Lance, I thought Trey Lance had a strong arm, I walked away from North Dakota State saying, Wow, this guy has better arm talent than I thought on the tape. Getting a sense for it, watching the ball come out of his hand, you’re there, field-level, you’re seeing it—Does the ball drop at all at the end of the throw, is it accelerating through the guy’s hands? You really get a sense for that, that you wouldn’t normally see on tape.”
Throughout draft season, Douglas, Saleh and LaFleur held Zoom meetings not just with the Top 5 quarterbacks, but pretty much the entire class at the position, which allowed the Jets to fire football-specific questions at the guys—What was your progression here? What were your checks at the line? What was your call in the huddle?
They could test the guys’ recall, and whether they took ownership of bad decisions. They could get a feel for how the quarterbacks would match the culture Saleh is building.
And, also, through that period, the Jets’ trainers were trading medical information with other teams’ trainers. The league’s medical combine is actually this week in Indy, and ideally the Jets would’ve liked to have waited for that too, but they got to the point where there wasn’t a pressing need to.
“Even though the box isn’t fully checked,” Douglas says. “We’ve been able to gather a lot more information.”
Which, ultimately, allowed for the final stages of the trade to materialize.
The Panthers were first in touch about Darnold in mid-February, after an offer of the eighth overall pick, a fifth-rounder and Teddy Bridgewater for Stafford fell short of what the Lions wound up getting from the Rams for their quarterback. And thereafter, because of strong relationships Douglas had with the Carolina brass, trust and communication between the teams kept the light for a Darnold trade on.
Douglas got to know Matt Rhule during the coach’s last year at Temple, which was Douglas’s first in Philadelphia, with Rhule coming over to watch Eagles practice from time-to-time. He knew Panthers GM Scott Fitterer from their time together as road scouts on the college trail. And he actually helped to hire the Panthers director of player personnel, Pat Stewart, as a national scout in Philly in 2018.
It also helped that Carolina was patient through the Jets’ process. And just as the idea of another strong run at Deshaun Watson became clouded by the Texans quarterback’s legal situation, another flashpoint hit—the 49ers were making an aggressive move up the board, trading with the Dolphins to get from 12 to three and land their rookie quarterback, while giving the Jets the knowledge they’d lost a potential trade partner.
Also, as luck would have it, the Jets and Panthers were actually together at Wilson’s pro day in Provo as that deal was being finalized. So Douglas talked with Rhule and Fitterer in Utah about Darnold. And those talks, with the Jets having just lost a suitor and the Panthers now facing dwindling odds of landing a quarterback they valued at eight, sparked new momentum.
Because of the trust between the sides, Douglas recalls the conversation being easy—“All three of those [Panthers] guys are great guys, straight shooters, no B.S., and so I think it kind of matches my approach.”
Douglas and Fitterer talked again on the night of March 29, after both arrived in Columbus for Fields’s Pro Day, and then Douglas talked with Fitterer, Rhule and Stewart again inside the field house at Ohio State after Fields got done throwing. All of which timed up nicely. Just as the final box was being checked, and Douglas and LaFleur were seeing the last quarterback throw, a Darnold trade was coming to life.
And less than a week later, it was done. As I’ve heard it, the Jets were looking to get a return of a little more than what the Cardinals got for Josh Rosen in 2019 (low second-round pick, plus a fifth-rounder) or what the Patriots got for Jimmy Garoppolo in 2017 (a high second-round pick).
In the end, the compromise they were willing to do with Carolina to get there, at least on paper, is easy to see. The Panthers gave them second-round and fourth-round picks for next year, in addition to a sixth-rounder this year. So Douglas got his price, and Darnold got his fresh start.
Douglas won’t say yet who he’s taking, but it’s not hard to read the tea leaves and assume that it’ll be Wilson. Saleh was present in Provo, and on a media Zoom call when presented with the news that ex-Cougar QB Steve Young said that the Jets had committed to taking Wilson, Douglas responded that “Steve’s plugged in pretty well at BYU.”
But regardless of who the quarterback is, there are some inalienable truths about where the process of choosing that quarterback (remember, Douglas said there was a “top two,” and assuming one of the two is Lawrence, this decision has essentially been made) has taken the franchise and its general manager, and realities that making this decision has forced Douglas confront. In there, you’ll find that …
The Jets had to be comfortable that their choice at two could play right away. In trading Darnold, they dealt the one experienced quarterback on the roster. And sure, they could bring in a system fit like Brian Hoyer to be a potential placeholder, but even that would assure very little. Remember, Douglas has been here with first-round QBs three times—and in all three, plans to sit them as rookies blew up on the fly. The result? Each guy was starting games in September of his rookie year.
“Those were the conversations—how do you want to handle it?” Douglas says. “Do you want to handle it like Kansas City did with [Patrick] Mahomes? Like the Chargers and Miami did with Tua [Tagovailoa] and [Justin]Herbert? Or do you want to handle it like [Joe] Burrow in Cincinnati? Whatever you decide, you have to be all in on the decision.”
Part of how the rookie performs will ride on how much you ask of him. Douglas, to be sure, knows that part is on him, his staff, and the coaches. He has history with that, too, having been the area scout assigned to Delaware in Flacco’s draft year. That fall, Flacco did play well in getting the Ravens to the AFC title game. But a huge part of that was Baltimore being really good around him.
“Joe wasn’t slated to start that year, Troy Smith’s sickness got Joe in,” Douglas says. “But we had the pieces around him so we didn’t throw Joe out and say, Go drop back 30 times and throw for 300 yards and win us games. He was put in position, with a great run game and defense and special teams, to, Hey, don’t try to win the game, just rely on your teammates, play good ball. And we ended up going 12–4 that year and going to the AFC title game.”
New York factored into the decision too. Douglas didn’t raise the Smith-Mahomes comparison by mistake. It was something the Jets talked about and, ultimately, decided wouldn’t be right for Darnold or for the team.
“There were two sides,” Douglas says. “We can have Sam, we can have the rookie quarterback, they could coexist and be like the Alex Smith–Mahomes situation. But the reality is Alex Smith was much further in his career than Sam and Kansas City’s a lot different than New York. The thinking was, In a perfect world, this would be the way to handle it—Sam has a great year in a new offensive system, and we can reevaluate it, and we won’t have to push the rookie out on the field.
“But just knowing what the day-to-day aspect would be next year if we did that, with a first-year head coach, the rookie, Sam, the team, the locker room, we just felt like that really wasn’t the best situation for all parties.”
The flip side—the rookie will now have to deal with the same challenges that Darnold did in the way he’s covered, and Douglas, Saleh & Co. had to make sure whoever they pick would be built to handle that.
Finances matter too, and will continue to. In taking a quarterback at 2, the Jets will reset the clock. Instead of having one more year of affordable, rookie-contract quarterbacking before having to make a call on Darnold, they’ll have four. Which, of course, will allow them another shot at building in a way they couldn’t around Darnold.
“That’s definitely a factor,” Douglas says, “getting to hit the reset button financially.”
And that brings us back to the first reality we presented in this column: Douglas really does like Darnold—“This was not an easy decision at all.” He likes him as a player still, and genuinely sees him succeeding in Carolina. He loves him as a person.
That’s why, when I brought up the dichotomy of Douglas saying, as he did to the New York media, that he’ll root for Darnold in Carolina it came back to his overriding feeling that Darnold is “an awesome, awesome person.”
“Whether I look bad or not [for trading Darnold], I could give two s—s about that,” Douglas says, with a laugh. “I know that he’s gonna have success. The timing didn’t really work out for him here. We couldn’t turn this around fast enough for him. And that’s not his fault. I root for good people, and that dude’s a good man, and he’s gonna do good things. I believe that.”
And, clearly, he feels similarly about someone else, too. Soon enough, we’ll all know who.
So with another big quarterback trade in the books, free agency slowed to a crawl and three weeks to go until the draft, I figured this was a good time to draw some conclusions from the 2021 offseason. My top five …
1) Quarterback value keeps escalating. Matthew Stafford brought home two first-rounders, a third-rounder and Jared Goff for Detroit. Both Carson Wentz and Darnold, coming off train-wreck seasons, netted nice bundles of picks for the Eagles and Jets. And who knows what Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson would’ve gone for earlier in the offseason, if the Texans and Seahawks had opened bidding. Add to that the fact that a record five quarterbacks could go in the first 10 picks in the draft, and the contract Dak Prescott signed, and, yeah, quarterbacks own the NFL.
2) Teams are giving up on quarterbacks faster than they might’ve in the past. Put the Jets and Eagles in that category—and look to the money the position commands as a major factor. In Wentz’s case, his contract gave him the leverage to push his way out and forced the Eagles to assess him differently. In Darnold’s case, the looming $18.86 million option for 2022 forced a decision, at a time where the Jets could reset the clock on having a quarterback on a rookie contract, with the second pick.
3) More aggressive trading isn’t a trend. It’s just where we are now. We’ve seen it with big-box veteran trades over the last few years, including Odell Beckham Jr., Laremy Tunsil, Jalen Ramsey, Frank Clark, Amari Cooper and Minkah Fitzpatrick. And this offseason, we’ve had the quarterback trades and a move up nine spots within the top 15 more than a month before the draft, and it’s barely April. Why is there more of this? GMs, in general, have been emboldened by these sorts of moves being normalized, and draft picks are being viewed differently from team to team.
4) Everyone’s expecting the cap to recover in the not-too-distant future. And it’s hard to think it won’t after the NFL struck an 11-year, $113 billion deal with its broadcast (can’t call them just TV) partners. The proof is in all the void years woven into contracts—which are phony years on the back end of deals, designed to spread bonus money out—and the de facto credit card bills that will come due as a result a couple years from now. Bottom line, teams feel good that they’ll be able to absorb the hit then after what’s likely to be two years of managing tight-cap economics in 2021 and ’22.
5) Offensive linemen remain a bigger priority for teams than the sexier positions. Free agents reset the market at three positions this offseason: tackle (Trent Williams), guard (Joe Thuney) and center (Cory Linsley). And if I had to guess, I’d say more linemen than receivers will go in the first round, despite this being a really strong receiver year. Which tells you what you need to know.
THE BIG QUESTION
What would it take for a team to move up to get a quarterback?
Glad you asked! In this week’s MMQB column, we ID’d Atlanta at No. 4 and Detroit at No. 7 as teams that are mulling their options and could entertain the idea of a move down. And the fact is, if you’re trading up into or within the top 10, it’s probably for a quarterback. History doesn’t lie on that.
From 2011 to ’14, there were a number of trades up for non-quarterbacks, from the really good (Julio Jones) to the really bad (Trent Richardson, Justin Blackmon, Dion Jordan, Justin Gilbert) and the in-between (Morris Claiborne, Tavon Austin, Sammy Watkins). Looking at those names, you can probably figure out why things would slow down a bit, and they have.
Since 2015, there have been 10 trades up into or within the top 10 and a quarterback has been the subject of seven of them (Jared Goff, Wentz, Mitch Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes, Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen). And the remaining three were on the fringes of the top 10, at No. 8 (Jack Conklin), No. 9 (Leonard Floyd) and No. 10 (Devin Bush). Which really just tells you the obvious—the top 10’s a high-rent district, a team will only be willing to pay the freight there if it can get a high-impact player and QBs are, by definition, high-impact.
So that brings us back to the question of cost. To give you an idea, we’re going to use the Jimmy Johnson draft chart to move two teams needing an injection of youth at the position (New England and Chicago) up into the spots that Falcons and Lions could sell off.
• The Falcons’ pick, on the old Jimmy Johnson draft value chart, is worth 1,800 points. The Patriots are sitting at 15th, and that one’s 1,050 points. Generally, you’d value a future first at a little less than the middle-of-the-round pick. A middle-of-the-first-round pick equals 975 points, which would get you well past 1,800. Thing is, if you think the Patriots are going to be good next year—and we have two decades of evidence showing Bill Belichick is plenty capable of making that happen—then you aren’t going to value the pick like that.
So, let’s say you’d value the Patriots’ 2022 first-round pick as the 28th selection. That one’s worth 660 points, and 1,050 plus 660 is 1,710. To that, add the Patriots’ two fourth-round picks, which are worth 54 and 50 points, and you’re there.
Patriots get: fourth pick.
Falcons get: 15th pick, 120th pick, 122nd pick, 2022 first-round pick.
• The Lions’ pick is worth 1,500 points. The Bears’ first-rounder, No. 20, is worth 850 points. On paper, you’d look at that, and the value of Chicago’s 2022 first-rounder, and think that would probably be about right. But because this would be trading within the division, and because there’s a QB tax, I’d think the Bears would have to throw a little extra in. And with the Bears’ situation now—their cap and the age on the roster—to me the compromise would be having the extra pick come in 2022, with a lower-end pick this year.
It’s also possible the Lions would just flat out not want to aid an NFC North rival in landing a quarterback. But for this exercise, let’s assume they would do it for a little extra.
Bears get: seventh pick,
Lions get: 20th pick, 228th pick, 2022 first-round pick, 2022 third-round pick.
Again, on paper, these are moderate overpays. But when you’re moving up for a quarterback, that’s what happens. And if New England and Chicago, in this scenario, wound up with long-term answers at the position as a result of deals like this, the price would wind up looking a lot smaller in the rearview mirror.
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
How raw quarterbacks have really made it of late.
I brought this up in December, and the time seems right to raise it again: The way I view quarterbacks has changed over the last year or so. Before, I’d look at big, sturdy, athletic players at the position, if I’m being completely honest, with a lot of skepticism. That’s what Kyle Boller was. It’s what JaMarcus Russell was. It’s what Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Blake Bortles and Paxton Lynch were.
Forever, because of that history, I saw those types as, to a degree, fool’s gold. Then, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Justin Herbert came along, and forced me to look harder at the idea of the finished product (Christian Ponder, for example, was one of those) vs. the moldable ball of clay.
When we examined this three months ago, I hit up a bunch of personnel people to ask them for their takes, and I’d encourage you to take a look at what those guys had to say about Mahomes, Allen and Herbert individually making it. But more than that, what stuck out to me in those discussions was an overarching theme from each of them, as they reviewed their own assessments. Just as important as what Mahomes, Allen and Herbert were coming out was who they were coming out.
“That’s what the draft is about,” says an NFC scouting director. “At every position. Risk vs. reward. Supply and demand. There’s a lot of ‘good’ college players but too often their skill set doesn’t translate, and they aren’t going to be frontline starters. Guys with raw ability and big-time physical tools are going to go early and sometimes earlier than they should because at least with those guys there is something to develop and they aren’t tapped.
“However, the thing is with those raw guys, you have to make sure they check other boxes in order for you to lower the risk. Can they learn? Do they love the game? Do they work? Do you want them in your locker room? Are they leaders? More times than not, the guys that wash out are the ones with the raw ability that aren’t willing to do the work to be great.”
That’s why, ultimately, the background work and Zoom meetings are a pretty important piece of the puzzle for a guy like Douglas in a year like this. Will Wilson, Fields, Jones and Lance do what it takes to mine the talent they have, and keep getting better, even after they get paid?
Getting the right answer to that, especially on a quarterback, is huge for teams this time of year. And it goes without saying that it was huge for the Chiefs, Bills and Chargers in the recent past as well.
THE FINAL WORD
The next big checkpoint after the draft? It comes two days after the draft, on May 3. That’s the deadline for teams to pick fifth-year options on 2018 first-rounders. And this year, with those options, per the CBA, being fully guaranteed the minute they’re exercised, those decisions will be more impactful than ever.
To this point, none have officially been exercised (though Kolton Miller did sign an extension with the Raiders), and there are some interesting ones lingering.
We’ll dive into that more in Monday’s column.