FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The nervous energy and stress that once enveloped Mike Maccagnan’s office has dissipated.
No longer is the New York Jets general manager spending countless hours scrutinizing film of college quarterbacks. No longer is he debating trade parameters that would land the team its long-awaited franchise signal-caller. Long gone are the days of wondering when the wayward Jets would find their savior.
Sam Darnold’s arrival in New York last year, via the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL draft, assured Maccagnan of one thing: Job security in 2019. But the selections he makes in this week’s draft will go a long way in determining how much longer he’ll retain his title.
The Jets’ losing ways led to the dismissal of former head coach Todd Bowles, who coached the Jets to only 14 wins over the past three seasons. Meanwhile, Maccagnan (now in Year 5 on the job) has been lauded for delivering the one thing Jets fans have long coveted: a talented young quarterback with a strong arm and the potential to win.
“We feel very good about Sam and his potential and obviously our goal is to help him fulfill that potential. But it’s weird when you actually feel like you have one,” Maccagnan said, referring to their quarterback needs being met.
“Somebody asked me at the Senior Bowl how Daniel Jones from Duke looked and I was like, ‘Honestly, I’ve probably watched him throw the ball twice and I really have no opinion on him.’”
The “stress level” of selecting a franchise quarterback is inherently different, he acknowledged, though he quickly added: “But as you get less stressed about the quarterback, you pick up stress some place else about, hey, who are you going to pick up with the third [overall] pick? It’s a nice feeling that we have a good, young quarterback, that the organization and, hopefully, the fan base and everybody else is excited about.”
It would be imprudent to anoint Darnold the next “Joe Willie” after only 13 NFL starts. But the 21-year-old has shown enough playmaking ability and mental fortitude to provide fans with reasons for optimism.
Drafting Darnold bought Maccagnan more time to continue his rebuild. But some time soon, the Jets have to transition from a sub-.500 club to a perennial playoff contender. And Maccagnan’s draft picks will help determine their trajectory this year.
The Jets’ hallways are littered with faded memories of past draft busts: Dee Milliner. Stephen Hill. Devin Smith. Calvin Pryor. Jace Amaro. Quinton Coples. Kyle Wilson. Vernon Gholston. And while most of these failed experiments came before Maccagnan’s reign, Christian Hackenberg’s nonexistent NFL career will forever be etched on his ledger.
Maccagnan also is responsible for the fact that only one of the six players he drafted in 2015 (Leonard Williams) is still on the team.
To the GM’s credit, he traded up three spots to get Darnold last year, accumulated $100-plus million in salary-cap space this offseason and snagged top free-agent prizes, Le’Veon Bell and C.J. Moseley. With new head coach Adam Gase charged with developing Darnold and the always-intense Gregg Williams serving as the team’s defensive coordinator, a culture change is underway, according to players. But should the Jets struggle on the field, Maccagnan will be the one to bear the brunt of the backlash. Not Gase.
Asked what his role is during the lead-up to the draft, the first-year Jets coach made it clear that he’s happy to offer assistance when possible.
“I’m here to help when I’m asked to help,” Gase said. “He’s given me plenty of guys to evaluate, so that’s my part of the process. It’s really no different than what I’ve done in the past.
“This is their expertise,” Gase added. “These guys wait all year to do this. They spend so much time on backgrounds and film — between the scouts and Mike, and [vice president of player personnel] Brian [Heimerdinger]. They’ve watched way more film than any of us cause that’s what they do all year round. And I know it’s an exciting thing for those guys cause they’ll get to see their work pay off. … I always look at it as I’m here to be a guy that can be a part of the process, be able to help where I can, explain what we’re looking for and then their deal is to go get ’em.”
Despite the offseason upgrades, an unbiased look at the Jets reveals plenty of roster holes, namely on the offensive and defensive lines, at cornerback and at wide receiver. And with only six picks in this week’s draft (unless he’s able to trade down), Maccagnan will need to emerge from this weekend with a game-changing, cornerstone player in Round 1 and key talent in subsequent rounds.
He has shown he’s adept at making a splash when it comes to free agency (See: the $127 million he spent four years ago to revamp the secondary by adding Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Buster Skrine and Marcus Gilchrist). But if Maccagnan hopes to build sustainable success alongside Gase in the years to come, he’ll need to showcase his scouting prowess this week.
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