Of the thirty-two franchises in the NFL, none has the illustrious reputation that the Jets have for disappointing their fanbase with their sheer ineptitude. Sure, one may point to the Detroit Lions, but even when they are good, people still expect them to be bad. Another might point to the Cleveland Browns, who are only three seasons removed from their 0-16 campaign, but they are now a playoff team and have cemented themselves as a future contender in the AFC. No, the Jets are another class all on their own. The perennial shadow to the Giants, the young upstart team that peaked early in its existence and has been on a downhill slope ever since. No really, since winning Super Bowl III in 1968, what have the Jets accomplished? Yet they manage to inspire a hope within their fanbase that makes it all the more heartbreaking, even if it is expected.
Which is why I find it particularly fascinating when a fanbase actively wants their team to lose, as only the Jets could. Going into their Week 14 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams, the Jets were 0-13 and sitting comfortably at the top of the leaderboard for the Trevor Lawrence Sweepstakes. All they had to do was lose to a supposedly better Rams team and continue to ride their lost season into infamy. But in typical Jets fashion, they won. They lost the top pick in the draft to Jacksonville and never regained it, losing out on arguably the most coveted quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck. Adam Gase was predictably fired after being unable to lead his team to the winless season that they desperately needed.
The team has been making moves since the season ended. They hired San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to be the next head coach on January 14, making history in appointing the first Muslim head coach in NFL history. He brings a defensive pedigree to a team that ranked 26th in total defense this past year, according to Pro Football Reference. But in bringing in a new head coach after such a disastrous season, one must beg the question: what becomes of Sam Darnold?
After finishing 2-14 in 2020, the Jets will hold the second overall selection in the upcoming draft. Trevor Lawrence is the universally believed to be going first overall to Jacksonville (poor devil) but what will the Jets behind them? The way I see it, the Jets have one of two options: draft Justin Fields (trade Darnold) or bolster the offense.
After being drafted third overall by the Jets in 2018, Darnold was hailed as the next great Jets quarterback, drawing on the same Post-Namath hype that others such as Ken O’Brien and Chad Pennington had applied to them when their careers began in New York. Since being drafted, Darnold will be playing under his third head coach in his fourth year, and that is if the Jets decide to keep him. While he has shown flashes of potential in games, he has often struggled as well, but to be fair, the team around him has done little to help him progress as a quarterback. He has already gone through two head coaches, two different offensive coordinators, the offensive line ranked 29th in the league (Pro Football Focus), and as previously mentioned, the defense is atrocious. The flipside to this, however, is that while Darnold has shown flashes of promise in game-time situations, he is also only 23 years old, meaning that there is still development room for him to learn and grow in a new system.
Option 1: Draft Justin Fields
When the Jets were in contention for the first overall pick, the universal consensus was that they were going to draft Trevor Lawrence and send Sam Darnold up the Hudson River. Now that they’ve lost out on drafting Lawrence, the Jets still have the option to draft Justin Fields. Since transferring from Georgia, Fields has amassed over 5,400 yards in the air and 63 touchdowns, compared to only nine interceptions in his two years at the helm for the Buckeyes.
Of course, the downside to this is that the Jets would essentially be starting over in trading away Darnold to draft Fields. I can imagine a few teams who may want the services of Darnold. New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay—all teams with aging quarterbacks who will need to develop the next generation of talent. But the Jets would be using a pick on a replacement when they could use that pick to help him develop into a better quarterback to lead the team in the future. By no means am I disrespecting Fields as a player, but I feel that given the present circumstance surrounding the team, the Jets should closely evaluate their options, which conveniently transitions into my next point.
Option 2: Shore up the offense
If there is one positive that can be taken away from the Jets’ 2020 season, aside from Adam Gase being purged, is that the team managed to shore up some significant draft capital from Seattle after trading away star safety Jamal Adams in July. The Jets will have four first round picks between the 2021 and 2022 drafts, one of those picks being second overall. While they missed their chance to scoop up Trevor Lawrence, they are still in a position to draft players that could bolster Darnold. Two specifically come to mind: OT Penei Sewell (Oregon) and WR DeVonta Smith (Alabama).
Rookie tackle Mekhi Becton had a solid rookie campaign amongst an otherwise disastrous season, solidifying a starting position for himself along the right side of the line. But in the NFL, the blindside blocker can make or break an offense, and the Jets have an opportunity to draft one of the most highly touted left tackle prospects in recent memory. Two promising offensive tackles on rookie contracts would be a career save for Darnold, who has had to contend with bad offensive line play for most of his young career. The destiny of any offense is defined by the trenches, providing quarterbacks with time to throw and running backs with lanes to run. It cannot be understated how an offensive line can make or break an offense.
The second option (of the second option) is addressing the distinct lack of a true #1 wide receiver for Darnold to trust. Since being drafted, the closest that Darnold has had to a go-to receiver option was Robby Anderson for two years, but for the most part, Darnold has had a lackluster group of receivers to throw passes to. Enter DeVonta Smith, national champion and the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since Desmond Howard in 1991. During his time at Alabama, he has set the majority of the Crimson Tide’s receiving records and broke the SEC record for most career receiving touchdowns. Given his dominant performance in the National Championship Game, I think Smith has solidified himself as the top receiver in this draft class, and Darnold could finally have the #1 WR he has so desperately lacked throughout his time in the Big Apple.
For GM Joe Douglas, hopefully he now has a coach under him with whom he can agree on. The clock is ticking for the Jets. In the last two years alone, they’ve made some questionable free agent signings, traded away a star player, and hired a mediocre head coach to mold their apparent franchise quarterback. The clock is ticking in the Big Apple, and for the Jets, the time is now to decide on their future.
(Cover Photo: Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)