Sam Darnold wasn’t just the latest candidate to be the Jets’ franchise quarterback when they drafted him third overall in 2018. He was the right one. The pick was universally hailed. It was clear their savior had arrived.
And once Daniel Jones started playing as a rookie last season, he looked like the perfect replacement for Eli Manning. The somewhat controversial No. 6 pick was impressive from the start on a terrible team in a tough situation. It looked like the Giants had found their franchise quarterback, too.
It turns out, though, those were the good, old days, before the two New York quarterbacks began descending into a pool of doubt. And now both of their teams are in the fight for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft, which means Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence – a “generational prospect,” in the words of scouts – looms over it all.
So one of the New York teams could be facing this enormous question at the end of this season: Is it time to start over at quarterback with someone else?
“It’s not fair to even ask that so early, but you just don’t have time to develop quarterbacks anymore,” said one long-time NFL executive. “They don’t have to be Patrick Mahomes out of the gate, but they can’t struggle for long stretches and they really can’t lose. If they do, you’re going to be in a position where you have to at least consider moving on.”
“The salary cap demands it,” said another member of an NFL front office. “You have four years, max, before you have to make an enormous financial commitment. You have to decide quickly if they’re worth $40 million per year or not.”
Neither the Giants nor Jets are there yet, even though they have two of the lowest-rated starting quarterbacks in the NFL this season, but they’re undoubtedly getting closer. Darnold, 23, can begin to negotiate his next contract after this season, though given how this season has gone that’s more likely to happen in 2022. The Giants likely won’t have to deal with that with Jones, who is also 23, until 2023 at the earliest.
But the bigger issue is that the Jets (0-6) are the favorites to land the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and the Giants (1-5) aren’t that far behind them. And scouts generally believe Lawrence is one of the top quarterback prospects of the last several decades – joining the likes of John Elway, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck.
“If you have a chance to draft him, unless you are 100 percent set at quarterback for the next decade, you’d be crazy to pass on this kid,” said one NFL scout. “You better be sure about what you’ve got – really sure – because this kid is going to be great.”
How sure can either team really be, though? Both quarterbacks have shown an ability to do great things. Both have shown a penchant for awful turnovers. Both have been inconsistent – they’ve combined for six touchdown passes in 10 starts – but both are still relatively young.
Perhaps most importantly, both are on really bad teams. And that, as much as anything else, hinders the evaluation. Both Darnold and Jones are playing behind struggling offensive lines making it impossible for them to run their offense and often leading to bad habits. Darnold is saddled with a C-List cast of receivers. And Jones has lost two of his top weapons – receiver Sterling Shepard and Saquon Barkley, who just happens to be one of the best running backs in the league.
That matters, almost as much as a quarterback’s ability. Even the best quarterbacks need to be in a good position to succeed.
“Going back really throughout at least the recent history in the NFL, typically, quarterbacks play best when they’re in a really good environment,” said Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. “What everyone’s trying to do in an organization is create a good environment for their quarterback and give them a good supporting cast. Typically, it’s a strong offensive line, it’s playmakers outside, it’s a good run game.
“I think those things help that quarterback transition more smoothly. If he’s in a situation where he’s carrying too much of a burden early on because the team is young and in their rebuilding stage, sometimes it’s a little bit harder for that guy to transition. I think that’s probably a common denominator for a lot of guys.”
So, are Darnold and Jones future stars being dragged down by a bad group around them? Or are they simply flawed, inconsistent quarterbacks who aren’t likely to get much better, even on a better team?
And how is either team supposed to figure that out in the next 11 games so they can make an intelligent decision if they’re high enough in the draft to consider Lawrence -- or maybe even Ohio State’s Justin Fields?
Those questions probably are most immediate to the Jets, since Darnold is a year ahead of Jones and since the Jets are currently the favorite for the top pick in the draft. NFL scouts had been alarmed at what they saw from Darnold in the games he played this season before he injured his shoulder. They spoke of his poor footwork, indefensible decisions on some passes, and how jittery he looked in the pocket.
“But so much of that could be fixed if he was on a better team,” said one AFC scout. “He’s getting crushed behind that offensive line, so it makes sense that he looks like he doesn’t want to stand in the pocket. Of course he’s throwing off his back foot, because he doesn’t have time to get set. Of course he’s forcing passes because he has nobody capable of getting open.”
“I look at it as: How many games has he had with the group we put together to start the season?” said Jets coach Adam Gase. “We haven’t seen what it looks like with the group we drafted and signed – (receivers Denzel) Mims, (Jamison) Crowder, (Breshad) Perriman. It’s almost unfair to judge him. Some of these games have been hard to evaluate him because it’s survival mode with what’s going on injury-wise.
“At some point, you’d like to have the three dudes you planned on having out there. That’s fair to ask for the guy so he can see what it looks like with all his starters out there.”
There’s a chance that Darnold and those “three dudes” will all be available when the Jets play the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. Even if they aren’t, it seems likely they’ll all be available soon. That’ll give GM Joe Douglas -- who didn’t draft Darnold, by the way – at least half a season to make a fair evaluation of his franchise quarterback. And then he’ll see if CEO Christopher Johnson was right last month when he called Darnold an “absolutely sterling” quarterback and insisted that “we’re going to see (Darnold) turn into that quarterback that we all expected, shortly.”
“He’s got all the tools, but for a variety of reasons he just hasn’t put it all together yet,” the NFL executive said. “Maybe it is just the cast around him. That’s why, ideally, they’d give him another year. Just push off that contract extension and load up on some help for him in the offseason.
“But if they have a shot at Lawrence, he’ll be tough to pass up.”
Meanwhile, the Giants are facing a similar problem, though it’s probably not as time sensitive since they appear to be less likely to land the top pick. Jones has clearly taken a step back in his second season and his turnover problem has gotten worse. The touchdown pass he threw to Darius Slayton against Washington on Sunday was his first in five games.
But the Giants don’t seem to have lost any faith in him. Giants coach Joe Judge even insisted “I’ve seen a lot of progress from Daniel” – which is important considering he’s a second-year quarterback learning a new offensive system in a year with no offseason program or preseason games. The Giants have particularly praised his resiliency and how “he stands there and plays very aggressive,” Judge said, despite often being overwhelmed by the opposing pass rush.
“He gets no protection and without Saquon there’s no threat of them running, so defenses can just tee off on him,” said one NFC scout. “He’s got no chance, but he makes plays. Not enough, and sometimes it’s just with his feet. But he hangs in there. A lot of other quarterbacks in that situation would be playing scared.
“He is so resilient,” said Giants quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski. “We’re trying to do the best we can for him. Unfortunately, sometimes younger guys when they’re playing and they’re playing early they take some lumps. But by no means do I think he’s shell-shocked. He’s trying to do the best he can on every play.”
Would that be enough if the Giants somehow were in position to draft Lawrence?
“There’s no way (GM Dave) Gettleman gives up on him – that’s his guy,” said an NFC scouting director. “But if they’re in a position to draft Lawrence, someone else is going to make that call.”
Still, even if either team is in a position to draft Lawrence, would they be giving up on their young quarterback too soon? There’s recent precedent. The Arizona Cardinals took Kyler Murray No. 1 overall in 2019, one year after they traded up to take Josh Rosen at No. 10. Of course, they had just hired a new coach who knew Murray and wanted to build his offense around him.
Of course, the Jets could be drafting for a new coach and the Giants could be drafting with a new GM next year, too.
“Neither (Jones nor Darnold) are Josh Rosen. There’s just no comparison in talent,” said the scouting director. “But Lawrence is a better prospect than Murray. If (Darnold and Jones) keep playing like they’re playing, Lawrence will be hard to pass on. But there is still a long way to go.”
“It’s a tougher call for the Jets than the Giants, since Darnold is closer to his pay day,” said the NFL executive. “But teams just do not have four years or so to make a decision on a quarterback anymore. You either know or you don’t.
“And you almost have to know right away.”