The one redeemable quality about this miserable season for the Jets was that they were staring at one of the best quarterback prospects to hit the NFL in decades. The pain of 0-16 would lead to a rebirth with Trevor Lawrence.
So now what are the Jets going to do?
The likelihood that they’ll land the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and with it the likely rights to the touted Clemson quarterback, shrunk dramatically with their shocking, 23-20 win in Los Angeles on Sunday. It’s still possible if they lose out and finish 1-15, as long as the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-13) can somehow squeeze out a win in the next two weeks.
But since the Jaguars are as bad as the Jets, the chances aren’t good, which means the Jets are most likely going to be picking second on April 29. And with the no-brainer choice of Lawrence surely off the table in that case, the possibilities of what they can do next are many.
It might even mean extending the Sam Darnold era for a few more years.
So here’s a look at some of the Jets’ options at No. 2, which give GM Joe Douglas a lot to think about over the next four months:
Keep Sam Darnold, draft him a weapon
It’s easy to forget that Darnold is only 23 and this is just his third NFL season. It’s also entirely possible that his struggles are directly related to the poor cast around him, which includes his head coach. There are many around the NFL who believe Darnold will thrive in the right situation. Douglas could create that situation with the Jets.
Keeping him, though, would have some financial ramifications. He is under contract for one more season, but the Jets would also now have to exercise his fifth-year option for 2022 this spring, at a fully guaranteed cost of about $23 million, otherwise he’d be a free agent at the end of next year. That would at least buy them some time before they make the enormous decision about whether to give him the kind of mega-extension that franchise quarterbacks get.
That’s not ideal, since there’s value in restarting the financial clock with a rookie quarterback. But they’d be OK with that if Darnold proves he’s the guy they always thought he’d be.
And in this scenario, they’d also get Darnold what he needs most – a No. 1 receiver. They could use the second pick on Ja’Marr Chase, the next great receiver out of LSU, who had a ridiculous 84 catches for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns a year ago before choosing to opt out of the 2020 season. Put the 6-foot, 208-pounder on the field with Denzel Mims, and maybe keep Jamison Crowder in the slot and they’ve got the makings of a dynamic offense.
They could also then concentrate their free agent money at another position of need.
By the way, they could do this and pass on a weapon and use the No. 2 pick on Oregon tackle Penei Sewell, a 6-6, 330-pounder considered the best lineman in the draft. Put him on the other end of Mekhi Becton, and Darnold will be well protected for the remainder of his Jets career.
Keep Sam Darnold, trade the No. 2 pick
There are other quarterbacks in this draft besides Lawrence, and several other teams who desperately need one – either right now, or for the future. And most of them are picking outside the top 10.
And when teams are desperate to move up for a quarterback, the price of a trade tends to get extremely high.
That’s a good news/bad news scenario for the Jets if they’re looking to trade the pick. The good news is they can get a huge ransom. For example, Cleveland got a first, second, third and a fourth from Philadelphia to swap spots in the 2016 draft when the Eagles moved up from 8th to 2nd to draft Carson Wentz.
That could be huge for a rebuilding team. But the bad news is Douglas might not want to drop too far in the draft, and there aren’t a lot of teams projected to pick in the top 10 that desperately need a quarterback. And because of that, and the fact that there could be four top 10-worthy quarterbacks available, teams might not be willing to pay to jump all the way to No. 2.
Still, if they can find a willing partner, it could be enticing for a team that is already loaded up on high picks in the next two drafts. Douglas has two first-round picks in each of the next two drafts, and nine picks in the first two rounds of those drafts overall. Adding more could really set the Jets up with good, young talent for years.
They could still take a quarterback at No. 2
Even if they like Darnold, there are good, financial reasons to let him go. His cost will jump to $20 million-plus in 2022, and that could double if they extend his contract by 2023. A rookie quarterback, on the other hand, would be on the books for just a fraction of that through 2024.
And while there is no Lawrence, there are others who scouts think will go in the top 15, possibly even in the top 10.
Ohio State’s Justin Fields is generally considered the second-best of the bunch, and a likely choice for someone at No. 2, even though he’s said to be several notches below Lawrence on the prospect scale. Zach Wilson has had a big season at BYU, and might enter the second pick conversation.
There’s also North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, though his situation is complicated by the fact that he plays at a small school that only played one game in a pandemic-shortened season. Scouts think he’ll need time to develop, which makes him too risky for the Jets.
But if Douglas likes Fields or Wilson, they’d make sense, too. He’d still have a second first-round pick this year to add a weapon for his young quarterback, and he’d have even more free agent money available in future years to fill key holes when the Jets are theoretically ready to contend.