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The Jets Have More Than One Path to Success at Quarterback

Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Three years ago Jets offseason discussion was dominated by one question. Would it be better to sign veteran free agent quarterback Kirk Cousins or use the team’s high first round pick to select a quarterback in the NFL Draft?

The Jets made a big effort to sign Cousins, but he wasn’t interested. He signed with the Minnesota Vikings, which left the Jets to look to the NFL Draft. There they selected Sam Darnold. That clearly has not worked out very well.

A situation like this naturally leads to regret. Since the move the Jets made failed, it must have been the wrong move. Clearly an alternative must have been the right move.

I would submit that what happened at quarterback three years ago ultimately did not matter. Whichever choice the Jets made, I think they would have been doomed.

They could have picked another quarterback in the first round, sure.

Perhaps the most likely alternative to Darnold was Josh Rosen, whose career is off to an even worse start.

The Jets also could have picked Josh Allen, who developed into an MVP candidate this year. Would he have had the same trajectory with the Jets, though? I have serious doubts. At the time he was drafted, he was an even bigger project than Darnold. Allen has flourished with a franchise that has surrounded him with a stable infrastructure and top notch instruction. In a world where he had to save the Jets from bad blocking and a subpar receiver group each week, I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest his career trajectory would be different. It seems much more likely to me a bottom tier group of coaches would have failed to foster the same vast improvement, and the constant losing would be a lot to overcome mentally.

Lamar Jackson actually does have an MVP to his name. He is one of the most exciting young players in recent memory. Still, if you stick him in an Adam Gase offense asking him to throw to the slot 9 times per game from the pocket, I don’t think he has the same development curve either.

I firmly believe that no drafted quarterback would have had success with the Jets over the last few years. If drafting the quarterback was wrong, does that mean signing the veteran free agent would have been right? I’m not sure the evidence would bear that out.

Cousins went to a team with a quality supporting cast that had just come within a game of the Super Bowl. He was put into a system that suits his skills. For much of his tenure in Minnesota, he hasn’t been asked to carry the load. He has been a supporting player in the Vikings offense. His statistical production has been decent.

Still Cousins has largely been viewed as a disappointing free agent signing. Put him into the Jets infrastructure of the last three seasons, and he probably would have gone down as one of the biggest free agent busts in history if he had signed here. I don’t think he would have been able to function at all with such a lack of talent around him. Expectations would have been through the roof, and the Jets were set to offer him an even bigger contract that the one he signed with Minnesota. I think things would have gotten ugly.

It is human nature to assume there is only one right choice in a given situation. Every other choice must be wrong then. That isn’t always the case in the NFL, however. I don’t think there was a right choice for the Jets in 2018. They were a broken franchise, and I don’t think any quarterback was going to be able to overcome the vast structural issues.

I contrast that situation with the one the team faces today. It seems like everybody has a strong opinion about what the Jets should do at quarterback. We all have our own theories on team building. There is a right way to do things. That makes every other path wrong.

Of course it isn’t that easy. While the Jets had nothing but bad paths in front of them three years ago, there are numerous viable paths to building a winner in front of them today when it comes to dealing with the quarterback position.

The most obvious and likely is simply to take a quarterback with the second overall pick in the NFL Draft. Justin Fields and Zach Wilson are top prospects. Depending on your perspective, you also might throw Trey Lance into that mix.

The standard current theory behind team building in the NFL is to draft a quarterback and take advantage of his rookie contract. Good quarterbacks in the NFL cost in excess of $30 million per year in today’s NFL. However, players selected in the Draft receive contracts far lower than that the first four years of their careers. A player selected second overall might receive a contract at one-quarter to one-third the price of a veteran quarterback. You get quality quarterback play at a discount. The extra cap space can be used to load up the rest of the roster.

In addition to cap space, the Jets also have an excess number of Draft picks that could be used to surround the rookie quarterback with talent. You could see a vast improvement quickly.

Is this the only path to success? I have seen people say that you have to draft the quarterback when you have the opportunity. I have also seen people say that you can’t trade down when you need a quarterback.

The Jets have a lot of work to do to improve their roster. Having a quarterback is essential to win in the NFL, but a quarterback alone isn’t enough. You need other difference makers across the roster. Even with all of their salary cap space and picks, it will probably take some time for the Jets to build. If they improve their record by five wins next year they might be the most improved team in the NFL. They also would only be 7-9.

I think this is perhaps a case where perception and reality would two different things. If the Jets went 7-9 with a rookie quarterback, it would be portrayed as major progress. They would be a team on the rise with an exciting young leader.

What if the Jets traded down from the second pick and punted on making a decision at quarterback for a year? It might be a less exciting path, but the team could find extra impact players to build with and still find the quarterback at a future date. Would 7-9 be as exciting? No, but it still would lay a foundation for future success.

I like to test these assumptions out. Are there comparable cases where a team needed a quarterback, still traded down from a high pick, and still successfully built a winner? The answer is a pretty firm yes.

The Cleveland Browns traded down in the first round in back to back Drafts in 2016 and 2017. They were at the bottom of the league both years. In 2016, the pick they traded was used by the Eagles to take Carson Wentz. The Browns ended up finding their quarterback in 2018 with Baker Mayfield. They now look like a team on the rise. In addition to landing their quarterback, these trades resulted in them getting a number one corner in Denzel Ward. We can come up with theories on team building, but the proof is in results. Any theory that says you can never trade down when in need of a quarterback would have had the Browns just drafted Wentz in 2016. There isn’t much doubt that franchise would have been worse as a result.

In 2017 the quarterback needy Bills traded down with the Chiefs. Kansas City drafted Patrick Mahomes. Were the Bills doomed because they passed on Mahomes? As you know, they got their franchise quarterback in Allen a year later. They also used the pick they got from Kansas City to trade up for Tremaine Edmunds. So while trading down they ended up with both their quarterback and an additional Pro Bowler.

That same year the San Francisco 49ers entered the NFL Draft with a need at quarterback. They were coming off years of dysfunction and had just hired a coaching staff that included a guy named Robert Saleh. They happened to hold the second overall pick. They traded down one slot, allowing the Bears to select Mitchell Trubisky. San Francisco picked up three additional picks for moving from 2 to 3.

Whether the Niners made the right move is a matter of perception. It is pretty clear trading down instead of taking Trubisky was a good move. Score another one against the idea a quarterback needy team can’t trade down. From that point, things become debatable. One of the picks they received turned into Alvin Kamara. Unfortunately for San Francisco, they traded it to New Orleans. The Niners also didn’t make much of the third overall pick when they took Soloman Thomas. They passed on Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.

You could make a case they missed a potential grand slam. They could have traded down and still landed the franchise quarterback. Still they made the Super Bowl within three years. What if they had taken Kamara for themselves and used the third overall pick of somebody like Jamal Adams or Marshon Lattimore?

Ultimately trading down and passing on the quarterback didn’t prevent them from building a winner. Would Cleveland have been wrong to draft Watson in 2017 instead of trading down for the pick that turned into Ward? Would Buffalo have been wrong to take Mahomes?

I’d say the answer is no. I also wouldn’t say the teams were wrong for the actual paths they chose. There can be more than one right answer. Of course it must be noted that you are adding uncertainty to the equation by passing on the quarterback today. You have no guarantees the right guy will be available in the future or that you will be in a position to land him. These examples show, however, that the risk is probably not as great as the naysayers would suggest.

That leads us to one final consideration for the Jets.

Tennessee Titans v Houston Texans Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

We obviously can’t conclude a discussion of the Jets’ options at quarterback without mentioning Deshaun Watson. The superstar 25 year old quarterback has reportedly asked the Texans for a trade.

Whenever a big name player is rumored to be available, every talk radio host and columnist in New York says the Jets should go “big game hunting.” There seems to be a never ending quest to have the Jets collect big names regardless of whether they actually would come at a reasonable price or be a good fit.

Watson is distinct. Unlike the typical big name, he actually is a genuine superstar and a franchise changing talent. This is the rare instance where the talk radio/back page demands for a superstar actually align with a move that could rapidly move the franchise in the right direction.

If he continues on his current path, Watson will be wearing a gold jacket in Canton, Ohio, one day.

Over the last few weeks, there have been plenty of useless articles written about how the Jets “need to do whatever it takes” to get Deshaun Watson. Writing one of those is a great way to pretend to be a serious analyst if you have no actual insight to provide. It doesn’t take much effort to understand the Jets would be a much better team with Deshaun Watson than they are without him. However, the “need to do whatever it takes” crew ignores that the Jets only have a partial say over the situation. They don’t get to decide whether and where Watson gets traded. Houston does. The Jets also can’t control what other teams might offer. It would be easy to say the Jets can’t let another team outbid them no matter what, but it doesn’t work that way. It also neglects how every single player has a price where a trade would be ill-advised, even Watson.

That said, that price would be exceptionally high. In the long run I don’t think anybody would look back on regret for giving up one or two picks too many for a talent like Watson. He would be a franchise changing force.

His impact would go beyond his on field performance. A player like Deshaun Watson immediately becomes the face of your franchise. He would instantly electrify the Jets fanbase. And it would be naïve to think these things aren’t a factor in NFL decision making. As much as we would like to believe football considerations are all that should matter, in reality ownership groups frequently become involved in decisions like this for these external reasons.

The Jets have had a particularly downtrodden fanbase in recent years. They have faced losing and embarrassment. Adding Watson would change fan perceptions overnight in a way no other player could. I think sometimes even fans themselves don’t appreciate how much star power matters to them. Just look at how people arguing for Watson because they want a proven quarterback instead of a risky rookie change their mind when less glamorous but proven alternatives like Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan are suggested.

Watson would also likely change perceptions about the franchise within the league. The Jets have been a laughingstock in NFL circles for years. They have been the team free agents use for leverage. If you want to get more money out of a team, show them a bigger offer from the Jets. The only big name free agents the Jets have landed in recent years have been peripheral stars who were vastly overpaid such as Trumaine Johnson and CJ Mosley. You shouldn’t expect the Jets to start signing stars at deep discounts anytime soon, but a team with Deshaun Watson and Robert Saleh in leadership roles would at least make this a viable destination on market rate deals for quality players.

Of course Watson will likely come at a steep price. The Jets are undertaking a deep rebuild. They have two resources to help them, Draft picks and salary cap space. Watson would cost a lot of both. A trade would take the Jets out of a position where they have surplus Draft picks. They would either be reduced to an average around or perhaps become Draft pick poor. Watson also would come with one of those expensive quarterback contracts.

The irony of a Watson trade is that it likely would be portrayed in the media as the Jets taking a bold step and taking a big swing at greatness. In reality, it would be a pretty low risk move and in the short term you could argue it has the lowest upside.

Adding a Deshaun Watson obviously would make a big difference. Still Watson alone wouldn’t turn the Jets into a contender. Much of those cap dollars and Draft picks that could have been used to fill in the pieces around the quarterback would be gone. The Jets could still hit on picks and find the right free agents to build a championship team around Watson. Still, that would be a tougher task than it would be to fill in the supporting cast around a rookie quarterback with the cheap contract and the excess picks and cap space in hand. There the risk is on the quarterback panning out. The odds of failure are much higher.

In this context Watson is high floor, high ceiling. The rookie quarterback is the bold move searching for greatness.

That’s the case in the short run at least. The Jets wouldn’t be trading for Watson for just the next four years. Based on the mechanics of the NFL, it is likely they would be acquiring him for the rest of his productive career. That could easily be for 12-15 years. In this context, Watson probably does give you the highest upside. If your horizon is longer than a decade, nothing gives you a better chance than starting with a quarterback like Deshaun Watson.

I am sure this sounded complex and seemed contradictory in some ways. That is the point. We need to acknowledge the options in front of the Jets have some pros and some cons. It is easy to get tunnel vision and assume there is a perfect choice. NFL team building doesn’t work like that.

If you don’t get your way, I just ask you to remember there could be more than one right answer. There is no perfect path, but there is more than one good path the Jets could take.