The last few days have been difficult for much of the Jets fanbase.
The team’s victory over the Rams took the Jets out of the top slot in the 2021 NFL Draft. It seems unlikely they will regain it, which would mean no Trevor Lawrence.
I think as much as anything the disappointment comes from the loss of certainty. There is nothing more difficult in the NFL than figuring out the quarterback position.
The current standard for team building in the NFL is to try and find your quarterback through the Draft. You then get four years where the quarterback is on a cheap rookie contract. While the cost of a veteran quarterback can now reach over $30 million per year, rookie contracts are far less expensive. A team that finds a quality quarterback through the Draft gets quality quarterback play at a fraction of what it costs most teams. The savings can be used to load up the rest of the roster.
Of course this is easier said than done as the Jets have learned. There are no guarantees the drafted quarterback will work out. When you don’t have a productive player at the most important position on the field, it takes your team to the bottom of the league.
This is where losing Lawrence hurts. No prospect is even a 100% sure thing, but Trevor Lawrence is as close to a sure thing as you can ever get for a prospect at the position. The Jets would have been set up with their cheap, young quarterback for four years.
There is still a chance the Jaguars could win a game, but if they don’t the choice at quarterback will become much more complicated for the Jets. I see five possible paths.
The Draft Somebody Else Path
This is the most likely plan, and I believe any other would be extremely unpopular within the fanbase.
Lawrence isn’t the only quarterback who could help the Jets execute a standard build with the quarterback on a rookie contract. There are other legitimate top quarterback prospects in this year’s Draft. These prospects come with more risk than Lawrence, but if the Jets made the right pick they wouldn’t be far off from having the Clemson quarterback.
Options include: Justin Fields, Zac Wilson, Trey Lance
The Stay the Course Path
Anything other than drafting a new young quarterback will be very unpopular among much of the fanbase. Few options would be less popular than giving Sam Darnold one more chance.
For a while I have agreed with the mindset that the Jets would have an impossible time attracting a head coach if Darnold remained the quarterback. I’m not so sure that’s necessarily the case, however.
In 2019 any coach who took the job was clearly tying his future to Darnold. That wouldn’t be true this time around. Darnold would be entering the final year of his contract trying to salvage his career. If he failed again, the team would move on after the season. There would be no long-term commitment from the coach.
Crazy though it might sound to some, you can’t rule out the idea that some coach might actually believe they can fix Darnold. If you have followed insiders in the media over the last few months, there has been a lot of buzz that the Jets could still potentially receive a high Draft pick in a trade involving Darnold. This suggests there is an appreciable population of people in the league who believe the quarterback can play and has been dragged down by his circumstances.
I am not suggesting any of this is the most likely scenario, but I think it is more likely than many Jets fans would like. I ask that you don’t take your anger out on me for saying this is a possibility. I am only the messenger.
The Stability Path
There is a perception that a new coach always wants to immediately obtain his own quarterback through the Draft. That is frequently true but not always.
In 2013 Andy Reid was hired by the Kansas City Chiefs. They held the number one overall pick in the NFL Draft. Instead of using it to select a quarterback, the Chiefs traded for veteran Alex Smith.
Smith ended up playing a valuable role for the franchise. Reid was able to hit the ground with a quarterback who could run his offense on day one. The team didn’t need to live with growing pains of a young quarterback. Smith already had them years earlier in San Francisco.
The Chiefs made the Playoffs the first year. Smith spent five successful years with the Chiefs. As important as anything, he bought Kansas City the luxury of time. Knowing they didn’t need to reach for a quarterback out of desperation, the Chiefs could wait until they found the perfect prospect. After they landed him, Smith’s presence meant Mahomes could come along at his own pace rather than be rushed into the lineup.
There certainly would be a backlash if the Jets went this route. Fans want a quarterback of their own, not somebody else’s castoff. There also is something exciting about a young quarterback with a theoretically unlimited ceiling. You pretty much know what a veteran quarterback can’t do. A rookie could eventually do anything, even become Patrick Mahomes. Just know that thinking ignores how the Chiefs actually got Mahomes.
Options include: Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, Kirk Cousins
The Big Swing Path
The Jets will be one of the league leaders in salary cap space heading into this offseason, and it is worth noting that there is a top ten quarterback in the league who has an unsettled contract situation.
It seems unlikely Dak Prescott will hit the open market. Without an obvious replacement in place, the Cowboys would most likely give him the franchise tag for a second straight year in the event the two sides still can’t reach a deal.
If Prescott somehow hits free agency, I think the Jets would at least have to consider it.
Let’s get the obvious concerns out of the way. Prescott would be coming off a serious injury, which is always a red flag. His contract demands are also exceptionally high. We could presume he would demand a premium if he was to sign with the Jets. Recent NFL history has shown us how exorbitant quarterback contracts can have major negative financial repercussions. Kirk Cousins with the Vikings and Joe Flacco with the Ravens immediately come to mind.
Still we are talking about a top ten quarterback here. Adding that changes a lot.
The unique circumstances of the Jets also could make them uniquely suited to handle a quarterback megadeal. Few teams are stocked with as many premium Draft picks over the next two years. After a hypothetical Prescott signing, they would be in a position to add even more by trading the second pick to a team that wanted Fields or Wilson.
This situation could turn traditional team building on its head. Instead of having the cheap quarterback on the rookie deal and spending lavishly to load up the rest of the roster, the Jets could pay a lot for the quarterback and have young, cheap drafted talent across the board with all of the picks they will have.
The Slow Build Path
There is no rule that the Jets would need to dive into a fast overhaul. They could take a more deliberate approach to roster building.
The Cleveland Browns have turned things around using this approach.
After a 3-13 2015 season, the quarterback needy Browns traded out of the second pick to stock up on Draft capital. With the pick the Eagles selected Carson Wentz. A year later they traded down again with the first round pick they got in the Wentz deal for even more picks. This time their partner was Houston who took quarterback Deshaun Watson.
This approach garnered heavy criticism of the Cleveland front office for ignoring the most important position on the field. The Browns went a combined 1-31 over the next two seasons. At the quarterback position they used stopgap veterans like Josh McCown, reclamation projects like Robert Griffin III, and young quarterbacks who weren’t first rounders like Deshone Kizer, Kevin Hogan, and Cody Kessler. The hope was they would strike lightning in a bottle with one of these players. If they didn’t they could eventually aim for a high pick who would then walk onto a fully stocked roster and be better set up for success.
The quarterback they got was Baker Mayfield, and the long term investment turned the Browns into a winner.
Joe Douglas has more guts than I do if he takes this approach. This would be a total nonstarter for an angry fanbase in a high pressure market that hasn’t seen the Playoffs in a decade. It also has to be noted that while the Cleveland front office that used this approach has been vindicated by the team’s subsequent success, the people behind the plan got fired because of all of the losing.
Options include: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jameis Winston, Mac Jones, Jamie Newman, Kellen Mond