Why 'Tanking for Trevor' Lawrence rest of 2020 NFL season might not be the best thing for Jets' future

Ralph Vacchiano
·6 min read
Trevor Lawrence/Sam Darnold
Trevor Lawrence/Sam Darnold

The shiny, new toy is always the most popular one on the shelf. It’s full of possibilities and wonder, and it sure looks a whole lot better than the used one that’s already worn out.

So yes, it’s understandable if Jets fans are obsessed with Trevor Lawrence, the latest “It” guy among NFL scouts. He’s being billed as the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck, a sure-fire franchise savior, and a talent with a higher ceiling than most of the quarterbacks in the NFL.

But is the mere chance that scouts are right, that he’ll even leave Clemson, and that the Jets could land the No. 1 pick, worth rooting against Sam Darnold and the Jets the rest of the way?

Maybe. But it’s not the slam dunk that everyone seems to think.

For one thing, newer isn’t always better and scouts can be wrong --though few around the NFL think the 6-foot-6, 220-pound Lawrence will be anything but star in the NFL. More importantly, the Jets already have a pretty talented franchise quarterback who is still only 23 and three years further along in his development than Lawrence is right now.

It’s easy to forget just how good a prospect Darnold was in 2018, and how lucky everyone felt the Jets were when the Browns took Baker Mayfield with the No. 1 overall pick and let Darnold slide by. Darnold spent most of that pre-draft season as the apple of scouts’ eyes, and for good reason -- his intelligence, his strong arm, his ability to make plays on the run.

We’ve seen all that in his first three years, though clearly not enough of it to calm everyone down. But it’s not like Darnold has really had a fair shot. He’s played on three awful Jets teams, under two different head coaches and in two different offenses. He’s dealt with mononucleosis, a foot injury and now a shoulder injury. He’s had practice squad-level receivers to throw to, and he’s been battered behind terrible offensive lines.

Maybe he should have risen above those circumstances by now, and that’s a fair take on his short career. But honestly, if the Jets had drafted Patrick Mahomes instead, would he have fared much better with this miserable Jets team? That’s a fair question to ask, too.

So imagine a scenario that began to play out Monday night, in the Jets’ soul-crushing, 30-27 loss to the New England Patriots. The offensive line, even with star rookie left tackle Mekhi Becton out most of the game, started to play a little better. And not only were the “Three Dudes” – receivers Breshad Perriman, Jamison Crowder and Denzel Mims – all together on the field for the first time this season, but they made a difference. Darnold’s replacement, Joe Flacco, had a deep threat and two other reliable targets to stretch the field, keep the pass rush off him and give him real options to target.

And because of that, the 35-year-old Flacco looked like his younger self, throwing for 262 yards and three touchdowns despite barely touching the ball in the fourth quarter (thanks in part to his own interception). Imagine what a younger, better, more mobile Darnold could have done.

If Darnold returns from his injury and actually does better over the final seven games of the season with protection and a real group of receivers, why isn’t that the best thing for the Jets’ franchise? If he proves they were right when they traded up in the 2018 NFL Draft and took him third overall, their rebuilding project is suddenly way ahead of where it would be if they started over with a rookie quarterback. It would allow GM Joe Douglas to use what will surely be a very high first-round pick on, say, another weapon -- a true, No. 1 receiver the Jets so desperately need.

He could build around the franchise quarterback he already has, instead of rebuilding around another one. He could be absolutely certain of what he has at that position, instead of enduring the rookie struggles that afflict almost all young quarterbacks.

In theory, he’d have a quarterback at the stage of his development where he’s ready to win.

Of course, the lure of “Tanking for Trevor” is great, too, and there are big upsides to Lawrence. For one, he may indeed turn out to be a better quarterback than Darnold, and you just can’t pass on greatness at that position if you truly believe it’s there. 

For another, the Jets will have to pay Darnold soon -- though at this point it seems more likely they’ll address his contract in 2022. Drafting a quarterback gives them a reset on a relatively low-priced rookie deal at that position. A rookie quarterback contract is like gold for NFL general managers, allowing them to spend a ton of extra resources on other spots.

And not only that, but if they pick Lawrence, Darnold becomes trade bait, and he still has enough potential that he could bring a decent haul back. In 2019, the Arizona Cardinals gave up on Josh Rosen after one year and were able to trade him to Miami for second- and fifth-round picks. For Darnold, the Jets should be able to get more than that.

So yes, drafting Lawrence could boost the rebuilding effort, too. It might set the Jets back a year or two while Lawrence develops, but it could make them a stronger franchise long-term.

Still, it’s a tough call, at least inside the Jets building. It’s easy to see why fans would root for the tank in a lost season since wins don’t matter anymore. Last year, they started 1-7 and took so much pride in their 6-2 finish, but obviously that didn’t do any good. No one needs to see that happen again.

But if it does, there is a silver lining, because Darnold is going to make this decision easy, one way or the other. If the Jets finish 0-16, 1-15 or 2-14 it probably means he wasn’t very good the rest of the way. In that case, picking Lawrence -- or maybe even Ohio State’s Justin Fields -- will become a no-brainer.

And if Darnold lights it up the rest of the way, the way Flacco did for most of Monday night? Well, the Jets probably won’t end up in position to draft Lawrence anyway. Maybe that will upset most of their fan base. But in reality, if Darnold finally puts it all together and turns out to be a good one, that’s a good thing, too.