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How the Jets landed Sam Darnold

NFL: New York Jets-Rookie Minicamp Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Albert Breer has a must-read article for Jets fans about the multi-year process that led to the team picking Sam Darnold in the first round of this year’s NFL Draft.

It is obvious Mike Maccagnan and company opened their vault to let us all discover how the team ended up with the prized USC prospect.

Here are some of the key points of the article.

  • I will tell you that one of the reasons I was a bit skeptical of Baker Mayfield as a prospect during the Draft process was the extent to which his stock was built on hype and media narrative. That isn’t to say I thought Mayfield was a bad prospect. It isn’t even to say the hype was untrue in many respects. It simply is the traits ascribed to Mayfield are very subjective.

How many times did we hear over the last year about how Mayfield was the ultimate competitor because he walked on and wasn’t afraid to compete for a starting job. That was an edge over Darnold to hear some say it. As the article states, however:

FALL 2015

The first hint of Darnold crosses the Jets’ radar—Shields begins to hear Trojan coaches talk up a freshman quarterback lighting it up for the scout team. It’s the four-star recruit who had no problem joining a class with a five-star in it. That five-star, Ricky Town, had transferred to Arkansas in August 2015.

Mayfield was the ultimate winner and leader. Darnold wasn’t.

JANUARY 2, 2017

Shields isn’t studying Darnold as he would a draft-eligible prospect, but it’s impossible to ignore what’s happening at SC—and how Darnold is handling the rise from unknown to college star. There’s something natural about it, and about how he leads. It shows up again in an epic Rose Bowl against Penn State.

The Trojans blow two early 13-point leads and trail 49-35 after a Saquon Barkley touchdown. SC star Adoree’ Jackson gets hurt on the ensuing kickoff. With his team deflated, Darnold calmly works the sideline, and then the coaches—“Relax, we’re winning the game.” Watching that display confirms to Shields everything he’d heard about Darnold—that he has a knack for going up to the right guy at the right time and saying the right thing.

This story of his cool would be brought up again and again, as Darnold’s version of Joe Montana’s “Hey, that’s John Candy” moment in Super Bowl XXIII.

Darnold and the Trojans come back from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to win, 52–49.

Again, I’m not trying to knock Mayfield here. My only point is that while these traits were ascribed to the Heisman Trophy winner nonstop, there was plenty to suggest Darnold had these same traits. We didn’t hear much about them in the process leading up to the Draft, though.

  • The Jets made a conscious decision to pass on quarterbacks during the 2017 Draft with an eye to 2018, a move they acknowledged even then was a risk because Darnold, Josh Rosen, and Josh Allen were not even guarantees to come out in 2018. It isn’t stated in the article, but there was also the risk of regression.
  • The Jets made another conscious decision to spend an abnormal amount of their time and scouting focus in 2017 on the quarterbacks in the Draft class. That meant high level talent evaluators, including Mike Maccagnan watching the top prospects play in person every weekend.
  • It isn’t explicitly stated but seems to be implied the late cuts of Eric Decker and David Harris last spring came as part of the plan to get a quarterback as their departures would make the team worse and gaining a higher pick more likely.
  • It is striking the extent to which Maccagnan delegated major duties to his lieutenant, Brian Heimerdinger. Heimerdinger was largely responsible for negotiating the trade up the team pulled off with the Colts.
  • Because the Jets put so much extra work into evaluating quarterbacks during the season, they felt like they were able to set their board earlier than other teams. That put them into a position where they felt comfortable trading up with the Colts at a point so early that other teams were still figuring out whether there were enough quarterbacks to justify a trade up to three.
  • In the aftermath of the move up, the Jets caught some grief from people for two reasons. After reading this article, I am now going to give some grief back to those people. Some were upset the Jets did not even call the Giants to inquire about the second overall pick, even if it was a longshot. The article noted that the general managers of the Giants and Bills, the primary rival the Jets would have in a trade up situation, used to work together. Was the long-shot of the Giants working out a deal worth ruining the surprise attack by potentially tipping off to Buffalo that the Jets were trying to trade up? I say no.
  • People also gave the Jets some grief because they gave up more than they received from the Colts on the trade value chart. If you are basing anything off that subjective and unscientific chart, you should stop. Even if you aren’t, the article reveals the Jets put that offer on the table in exchange for the Colts staying quiet.
  • The article overall paints a very positive picture of the way the Jets conducted business. They were thorough. They outflanked competitors like the Bills, and they got the guy they wanted. If I have learned anything about life, it is that good results come when you make sound decisions, have good timing, and a little bit of luck comes your way. We don’t have much to say about the last two elements, but we certainly do about the first. The Jets put themselves into a great position, and they were able to strike when their favorite quarterback prospect slipped a bit.

I cannot recommend reading the full article itself enough. It is a remarkable insight into how the organization functioned leading up to the Draft.