The Bridgewater Trade Showed That the Jets’ QB Strategy Worked

Albert Breer
Sports Illustrated
The Bridgewater Trade Showed That the Jets’ QB Strategy Worked
The Bridgewater Trade Showed That the Jets’ QB Strategy Worked

Todd Bowles doesn’t hold back in calling his defense against the Jets’ first-team offense during training camp. So it was that, at one point a few weeks ago, the coach sent the house after Sam Darnold, who quickly threw the ball to a receiver running a crossing route in heavy traffic.

Darnold was picked off. But the cool part for the Jets was what happened after that.

The next time offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates called the play, Bowles sent a similar tough-love blitz Darnold’s way. The rookie QB checked it at the line, took the snap, went to his next read and got the ball elsewhere. It’s a subtle thing, of course, unnoticeable to anyone without a play sheet and a whistle. But it was important, and another pretty solid clue during a summer full of them into who Darnold is.

“He learns from his mistakes, that’s the biggest thing,” Bowles said from his office earlier this week. “He learns from his mistakes and he rarely makes the same mistake twice. Any rookie can only get better by playing, so we’re pleased with the progress he’s making week-by-week. That’s been exciting.”

That’s good, because by the looks of it, Darnold’s going to be playing plenty.

The Jets dealt Teddy Bridgewater and a 2019 sixth-round pick to the Saints on Wednesday afternoon for a 2019 third-round pick. It meant, of course, getting a really good return for their March dice roll on the former Vikings’ first-round pick. More important than that, it meant Darnold’s path to starting at Ford Field on Sept. 10 had officially been cleared.

When I asked Bowles on Monday night whether he’d made a decision at quarterback yet, he answered, “No, we have not. … We just haven’t talked about it, and we won’t until after the last preseason game. We’ll sit down as a staff and we’ll go over every position, including that one, and we’ll come out with our guys.”

But at this point it’d be an epic upset if Darnold isn’t starting in two Mondays, and his ability learn on the fly as he did in the case above is just one reason why.

We’re going to get to your mail, and a little more on Aaron Rodgers’ new deal, as well as Odell Beckham’s in a minute. We’re starting with Bowles and the Jets, and why the quarterback dance that the team’s brass engaged in over the last six months couldn’t have gone much better than it has.

The background, of course, is pretty simple. The Jets take a chance on Bridgewater, returning from a gruesome September 2016 knee injury, with no assurance he’d ever get all the way back to his form of 2015, when started all 16 games for the Vikings and led them to an 11-5 record and the playoffs. The Jets bring back Josh McCown as a depth piece/mentor. They trade up three spots in the draft, from 6 to 3, then get lucky enough to see the top quarterback on their board fall into their laps.

The idea was, first and foremost, and obviously, to get the long-term answer at the position that the team has been missing since Brett Favre displaced Chad Pennington on the campus of Hofstra a decade ago. And the rest hasn’t exactly been by accident, which Bowles detailed as we talked the other night.

First, they wanted to create the right environment for whoever they’d draft, which is why McCown, basically a coach at this point, and Bridgewater, who’s got a high football IQ and is a prince of a guy, were the right fits. When they pieced it together, that infrastructure could just as well have been set up for Baker Mayfield or Josh Rosen. It just so happened that the chips fell in a way to bring Darnold to Jersey.

With this set-up, the Jets were in essence giving Darnold a couple older brothers. The benefit? Think of your coach as your dad. There are certain things you’d go and ask your older brother, that you wouldn’t ask you dad. Same idea here, with the quarterbacks becoming blunt sounding boards for one another.

“It’s automatic,” Bowles said. “Whether it’s Sam seeing it with Josh, or Teddy seeing it with Sam, or Josh seeing it with Sam, or Josh seeing it with Teddy, soon as they see something, they’re quick to help each other. It’s almost every couple plays that it happens. It feels like every other play, ‘You should’ve done this’ or ‘I saw that’ or ‘This read’ or ‘that read’ is there.

“That’s just good to see, because Jeremy and Mick [Lombardi] coach them, and that’s great, but they’re also getting on-field, in-game analysis from other quarterbacks.”

Second, they needed Bridgewater to play well to reap the benefits of what they put together. He has.

But the risk, in Bowles’ view, wasn’t about that. It was simply about Bridgewater’s health. If he was right, the coach didn’t have much doubt—so the Jets felt they knew, to a reasonable degree, what they’d get if he could beat the odds injury-wise.

“The fact that he’s been healthy, I knew he could play,” Bowles told me, before the trade. “He’s gone out and shown that. He’s done everything. Teddy brings such exuberance to practice. He does everything with a smile on his face. He’s just a joy to be around.”

Third, in having three guys fighting for snaps, the rookie would be held to a higher standard. Again, at the time that the quarterback room was being assembled, they didn’t know it’d be Darnold joining the other two, but they did know that there’d be upside to having an old pro and a young veteran competing with a draft pick.

That’s how it played out. When I asked Bowles what has stuck out about Darnold’s progress, he didn’t point to one thing. It’s a little bit of everything. Maybe that would have happened anyway, based on Darnold’s personality. But having to work for playing time usually doesn’t hurt.

“It’s not a big leap, it’s just a progression every day with a rookie,” Bowles said. “You learn and you try to progress every day, every week. You don’t make it in one place, you have to make it all over, whether it’s mechanics, whether it’s reads, whether it’s feel in the pocket, running, it’s a constant progress. So I don’t see huge progress to say, ‘He got better at this exponentially.’ He just gets better every week.”

Add it up and you can see the dominoes falling. Darnold plays well, creates flexibility for the Jets to deal a quarterback. Bridgewater plays well, creates a market for his services. McCown stays healthy, and the team has a viable sounding board and backup option at the position.

It couldn’t have worked out much better at the position. That leaves Bowles with one thing left to do, and he hasn’t done it yet. But listening to him the other day, he certainly didn’t seem far off from making the call that everyone is expecting.

“Rookies can only get better if they play,” he said. “The more they play, the more they see. And the more they see, the better they get. We’re pleased with his progress.”

Tuesday’s trade implicitly affirmed that, of course. What’s left now is to say it explicitly. So we’ll stay tuned for that.

Before we get to the mail, I figured it made sense to give you a quick analysis of the two big deals done this week, one in the NFL’s biggest market (for Odell Beckham) and the other in the NFL’s smallest market (for Aaron Rodgers). These two, put next to one another, give you a pretty good idea as to how quarterbacks play a different game financially. Here’s the breakdown:

Total new money APY: Rodgers $33.5 million; Beckham $18.0 million.
Signing bonus: Rodgers $57.5 million; Beckham $20 million.
Year 1 cash: Rodgers $66.9 million; Beckham $21.46 million.
Year 2 cash: Rodgers $81.9 million; Beckham $38.46 million
Year 3 cash: Rodgers $103.0 million; Beckham $52.71 million.
Total new money: Rodgers four years, $134 million; Beckham five years, $90 million.
Practical guarantee: Rodgers $103 million, Beckham $42.1 million.





Bottom line, the gap between quarterbacks and everyone else is now Lake Michigan, and this is just one example. When Ndamukong Suh got his six-year, $114 million deal in 2015, his APY was 86 percent of what the top quarterback was making. When Von Miller got basically the same deal (six years, $114.5 million) the next year, he was at 76 percent of the top of the quarterback market.

Two years later, Miller is still the top-paid non-QB, and his APY is 57 percent of what Rodgers is getting. And while there might be a bit of a correction coming soon—it’s part of what Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack have been seeking—it’s hard to see this trend changing too much. Quarterbacks are developed differently, recruited to college differently, handled differently as collegians, and drafted differently into the pros than everyone else. And they’re certainly paid differently when they get there.

OK, time for your questions …

From chucky is back (@raider_chucky): Will the Raiders have a solution to the Khalil situation one way or another before the Rams game?

From clayton (@elfinbrownie): Is Khalil going to the Browns? Where will he go?

From Art Hernandeezy (@ArtHernandezJr4): Will the Seahawks trade for Mack?

And so on. Raiders fans want to know what’s happening with Mack. Fans of the other 31 want to know if their teams are getting him. And best I can tell, there’s still nothing doing here, and every day that nothing happens, the situation worsens a little bit. We’ve been through the cash issue, and how it relates to the Raiders’ ability to guarantee Mack money. We’ve also discussed the market correction he’d sought.

Next week’s a big checkpoint in this saga. Under the stringent rules of the new CBA, and we’re in Year 8 now, there’s only been one player to carry a holdout into the season. That player was Seattle’s Kam Chancellor three years ago, and all he got for that was a portion of his fines waived. So the next 10 days are big in this standoff. I’m not 100 percent convinced Mack is prepared to miss game checks.

If he is, could the Raiders’ approach change? Maybe. But teams approaching them about Mack have been told he’s unavailable to this point. If Mark Davis and Jon Gruden were to change their tune, there’d certainly be a market for the 2017 Defensive Player of the Year, though it’s complicated a bit by the fact that suitors would have be willing to pony up huge draft capital and a record-breaking contract.

From #TeamBravo (@Fantasy0utsider): #1. Wentz. Playing week 1 or nah?! #2. SHOULD Wentz play week 1 or nah (in your opinion)?!

I don’t know if he’ll play next Thursday—he still needs medical clearance, and that he doesn’t have it this close to the opener is reason enough for some doubt. I’d also add that Doug Pederson told me last week that even if Wentz is cleared to play, he still will need to see his young quarterback reach a certain level with his rhythm and timing in 11-on-11s.

And yes, it seems nuts to think that Wentz could be cleared and sit anyway. But Pederson was resolute with me in saying he’s not planning to take an unnecessary risks with Wentz for the sake of winning a game or two. It’s a point of view I agree with.

“He and I are attached,” Pederson said. “My first job, I draft Carson Wentz. And so his longevity ties to mine, I want to make sure he’s 100 percent. But after that, he’s played a ton of football in two years. He’s still growing, he’s still learning, and so at the same time, I have to make sure he gets enough reps, enough time with the starters going into whenever that day comes. … He’ll play for 15 more years. That’s the part I look at. I can’t just focus on one game or two games.”

From Goigi (@freeagentgoigi): Saints are lacking a first- and third-rounder, so what is the must position they need for next year?

This, of course, is the flip side of getting Bridgewater. Thanks to that deal, and the move up for pass rusher Marcus Davenport in April, New Orleans only has one pick in the first three rounds of the 2019 draft, as it stands now. I think there are two pieces to this, from the perspective of Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis.

First, the team feels like it’s built a rock-solid base over the last three drafts, with Davenport, Sheldon Rankins, Michael Thomas, Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Alvin Kamara, Marcus Williams et al. And that’s given them the flexibility to be a little more liberal with future picks. It was part of going up to get Davenport. It was part of going out and grabbing Bridgewater.

Second, the range of conclusions with Bridgewater here aren’t bad. Say Drew Brees plays great. Then you get a comp pick for Bridgewater. If Brees slips a little, you have a contingency for the future. If there’s an injury, you have depth. And if there’s an injury elsewhere, you might have a valuable trade chip.

If the Jets move to sign Bridgewater five months ago teaches us anything, it’s that it’s never a bad thing to have an extra competent QB. And that applies to the Saints, too, of course.

From Alex Sutherland (@Asuds7): Why would a QB sign any longer than three years once established? Easier to adjust contract to rising salary cap, and let’s face it, they don’t need insurance!

This is a question worth asking in the wake of Kirk Cousins signing a groundbreaking, fully-guaranteed, three-year, $84 million deal in March. The new Viking gets a raft of cash now, and free agency again at 32 years old under different market conditions—a certainty considering the market has already moved by more than $6 million in APY this offseason alone at the quarterback position.

So why wouldn’t everyone do deals like that? Well, there’s an important distinction to make here. Cousins’ deal was up, and he was on the free market having made $44 million over the last two years. Jimmy Garoppolo would’ve been tagged, and hasn’t made nearly that much. Matt Ryan had a year left on his deal. Rodgers had two.

In each case, to get a deal earlier than the team had to give one, the player needed to give up some control on the back end. And in each case, only one team was bidding. Now, if one of these quarterbacks was willing to stage a holdout, or go through multiple tags like Cousins did? Then maybe the outcome would be different. And in the end, that’s just it. Cousins bet on himself to a degree few football players would.

The drawback for all players here is that if fully guaranteed deals are ever going to be a reality in the NFL, it almost certainly will have to start with more quarterbacks hard-lining it like Cousins did. Because we haven’t seen that, Cousins’ deal looks more like an outlier than a trendsetter, at least for now.

From CJ Bagby (@cjbcool): Which 2015 second- or third-round pick could have a coming out party this year?

Not quite sure why I thought this was such a fun question, but I’ll go with it—there are a bunch of those guys going into contract years that are worth watching. Let’s start with the Bucs’ second-round linemen Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet. Tampa thinks Smith, who has huge potential at left tackle, will benefit from Marpet moving to left guard with Ryan Jensen’s arrival at center. If it works, both could get paid.

Elsewhere, Eagles middle linebacker Jordan Hicks is back from injury, and he looked like a rising star in 2016, and teammate Ronald Darby fronts a corner group bursting with potential. Frank Clark in Seattle and Randy Gregory in Dallas will certainly have their opportunities to make an impact. And the Jaguars coaches love the offseason a slimmed down and sleek TJ Yeldon has had.

It struck me when I looked at the group, and those guys, and some more Day 2 guys who’ve evolved into core pieces (Minnesota’s Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter, Houston’s Benardrick McKinney, Seattle’s Tyler Lockett, Atlanta’s Tevin Coleman, Arizona’s David Johnson) that the 2015 class may have as much depth in the second and third rounds as it did in a so-so first round.

From Doug Osborn (@DBroncoDiehards): Albert, can you see Chad Kelly taking over the starting QB spot in Denver at some point in this season?

No. The Broncos like what they have around Case Keenum, and the key is that the they feel they’ll have plenty of help for him, with the emergence of rookie Cortland Sutton to complement Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, a couple improving young guys at tight end in Jeff Heuerman and Jake Butt, and nice stable of backs and improving offensive line.

Kelly’s got potential, and he’s fought past Paxton Lynch on the depth chart for a reason, beyond Lynch just being a massive disappointment. But I still think at this point, while he’s talented, they’d classify him as a developmental guy.

The circumstance under which Kelly would start? You wouldn’t want to see that one. It’d likely involve the season circling the drain, which could lead to coaching staff changes. Long way of saying that I believe if Denver bounces back this year, Keenum will be the guy.

From Josh Skinner (@joshskinner91): Are there any big surprise names likely to find themselves without a team after final cuts this weekend?

I’ll have more on this later in the week, but for now, I can give you some guys teams are keeping an eye on as potential trade targets. And we’ll start by telling you that everyone is looking for offensive linemen. Three to watch, in that regard: Colts OT Austin Howard, Eagles G Chance Warmack and Bears C Hroniss Grasu.

Elsewhere, among the interesting names I’ve heard discussed: Steelers QB Josh Dobbs, Vikings CBs Marcus Sherels and Mackensie Alexander, Lions RB Ameer Abdullah, Packers WR Trevor Davis and CB Quinten Rollins, Raiders DL Mario Edwards, and Texans WR Braxton Miller. Those are among dozens, of course. And as I said, keep your eye out for something more in-depth before the final cuts.

I’ll expect to see you guys back here at the site then!

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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