The year is 2021, the month is February, and the New York Jets are Super Bowl Champions for the first time since January 12, 1969. Over the last four seasons, the Jets benefited from a mountain of cap space, multiple high draft picks, and most importantly the selection of USC’s quarterback Sam Darnold in the 2018 NFL Draft.
There’s one major problem with this radically hypothetical situation. Darnold can’t lead the Jets to a Super Bowl if he wasn’t drafted by the team in 2018. According to a report, Darnold is considering staying at USC for two more years.
Sam Darnold May Stay at USC, Posing Major Problem for New York Jets Rebuild
Jets fans have been dreaming of a franchise quarterback for decades. The Jets dismantled their team after a 5-11 season in 2016 and the thought of finishing with the worst record in 2017 became a possibility. In that situation, the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft became attainable. The perceived first overall pick in the draft was none other than the sweet-throwing Darnold.
The Man, the Myth, the Legend?
Darnold has gotten to the point where some are talking about him like he’s already been unanimously voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Let’s pump the brakes a little to start off. Darnold redshirted in 2015 and will be entering only his second year at USC as a starting quarterback.
Also, it is well known that not every first-round pick is guaranteed to be a star. There are many quarterbacks who have gotten hype, but never came anywhere close to what was expected of them. Players like Brandon Weeden, Blaine Gabbert, Brady Quinn, and Jake Locker are just a few examples of this. Even first overall picks can become busts with JaMarcus Russell being perhaps the best example of that.
Not All First-Rounders Are Busts
Having said that, there are people who use the above argument to justify not taking a quarterback in the first round at all. Yes, there are a lot of first-round busts, but that shouldn’t prevent a team from going after the right quarterback in a draft.
After all, the Indianapolis Colts selected Peyton Manning first overall in 1998 and that worked out better than anyone could have expected. They followed that up with a first overall selection of Andrew Luck in 2012 and they can’t really complain much about him either.
Luck seems to be the best comparison to Darnold in terms of expectations. Much of the talk about the 2012 NFL Draft focused on Luck. Darnold has already received much of that talk even after only one active season at USC.
The Tools Are There For Darnold
During the 2017 NFL Combine, there was more focus on Darnold than any of the quarterbacks selected in the 2017 NFL Draft according to a NFL.com article by Dan Parr. In the article it was stated that NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah was told by an NFL executive that although Darnold isn’t eligible for the draft until 2018, “he’s by far the most talked about player in Indy.”
“He has ideal arm strength and athleticism, but the best part about his game is his uncanny poise,” Jeremiah writes in his own NFL.com article. “He never gets too high or too low during a game and he almost looks bored inside the pocket. When evaluating quarterbacks, poise is the second-most important trait, right behind accuracy. Darnold is one of the most poised signal-callers I’ve seen in the last few years.”
Statistically speaking, he also found success in 2016 as he completed 246 of his 366 passes (67.2 completion percentage) for 3,086 yards in 13 games. He also threw 31 touchdowns while limiting himself to nine interceptions.
The highlight of his season was arguably his performance in the Rose Bowl against Penn State. In that game, USC came back from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win 52-49. Darnold helped the cause by throwing for 453 yards and five touchdowns in that contest. He also showed his ability to stay calm under pressure as he went a perfect ten-for-ten in passing during that fourth quarter.
If Darnold Stays in School, The Jets’ Plans Could Suffer
In the hypothetical situation at the introduction to this article, the Jets’ future success relies on the proper use of their massive amount of future cap space, the accumulation of high draft picks, and finally a franchise quarterback. If the Jets fail to obtain that franchise quarterback, it doesn’t mean they will finish 5-11 for the next decade. However, without that quarterback, expect successful seasons to be like the 2015 season for the Jets; one in which they finished 10-6, but missed the playoffs.
Ryan Fitzpatrick proved that the Jets can only go so far without a franchise quarterback. Even after a superb season in 2015, he fell short when it mattered in Week 17.
Without Darnold in the mix, both Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg instantly become relevant again. As things stand now, Petty and Hackenberg don’t look like future Super Bowl Champions. However, Petty has only played in six games and Hackenberg has never played a NFL snap, meaning their true talent is still unknown.
With the anticipated selection of Darnold in 2018 (if he actually does enter the draft and the Jets hold the first overall pick), Petty or Hackenberg would have had to throw 30+ touchdowns in 2017 to realistically make the Jets consider passing on Darnold.
If Darnold does stay in school, both Petty and Hackenberg have slightly better chances of making a name for themselves on the Jets. However, that doesn’t mean they have a free pass. If the Jets do have the first overall pick come 2018 and Darnold is not on the board, expect Gang Green to go after quarterbacks like Wyoming’s Josh Allen or UCLA’s Josh Rosen.