Sooner or later, the New York Jets will face the most important decision they have faced since the start of the season:
Is Geno Smith the quarterback of the future?
Based on the returns so far, the answer is no.
Through the first nine games of the season, the Jets had every reason to be excited about the early returns of their second-round pick. After all, four out of their five wins were a result of late-game heroics from Smith.
He was showing all of the key components of a franchise quarterback: He had the arm talent, the poise and the levelheadedness to thrive in a league that changes so rapidly from week to week.
However, since the bye week, his production has taken a nosedive. With over half of a season of tape on Smith in the NFL now available, opponents have figured how to disrupt the Jets' big-play-driven offense, and Smith and the Jets have not been able to adjust.
In Smith's defense, he has been working with a depleted receiving corps that was already an average group to begin with, and his pass protection has not been up to NFL standards. The fact that Matt Simms only scored three points in a half of football last week all but proves that Smith is not the only problem.
Still, the Jets cannot go into next season with Smith as the unquestioned starter. They have invested a high draft pick in him (he was chosen in the second round), but he is not commanding a lot of cap space. Moving on from him would not be a catastrophic move.
In fact, cutting their losses now would minimize their costs. As the Jets just learned with Mark Sanchez, desperately holding onto a quarterback who is never going to develop into a franchise player can set the team back several years and waste the talent that is already in place.
Smith's failure will be a stain on general manager John Idzik's record, but failing to move on from an experiment gone wrong could cost him his job a few years down the line—just as Sanchez did for Mike Tannenbaum.
The Free-Agent Market
The Jets can take this route if they still believe Smith deserves more time but are not convinced that he is capable of being their quarterback of the future.
Most of these players are short-term solutions, but they are also much more capable of getting the Jets back into playoff contention sooner as opposed to waiting for a young player to develop. At worst, they provide some extra camp competition to ensure that they are squeezing every ounce of effort from Smith.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers castoff has fallen completely off the map. Not only was he released from the Bucs after a tumultuous start (to say the least), but he has been unable to earn the starting job over Christian Ponder with his new team, the Minnesota Vikings.
Still, Freeman is only 25 years old and has a lot of talent to work with. Perhaps a change of scenery in a more stable environment could get the most out of him.
At age 33, he is on the tail end of his career, but he is still a running threat who has not seen a drop-off in his arm strength. If the Jets feel as if they have a playoff-caliber roster to surround him with, bringing him in to make a push in 2014 could make some sense.
The Jets already have one believer in Mike Vick—head coach Rex Ryan, who reportedly lobbied for Vick last offseason.
If Ryan is back for next season, at least one man in Florham Park will have interest in Vick.
Chad Henne may be the most unspectacular name on the free-agent market, but adding him would serve a purpose. The Jets could bring him in for the same reason they brought in David Garrard: competition.
Henne is not the future of the franchise, but if the Jets want to give Smith one more season at the helm, Henne would provide quality insurance as a backup without being the injury liability that Garrard is.
The Draft Options
The most logical way to find competition for Smith is by acquiring a young prospect in the draft. While these players are unknown commodities at this point, a developing team like New York is probably not going to find a franchise quarterback on the open market.
After all, if the available quarterbacks were franchise-caliber players, they would not be on the market in the first place.
With five wins already to their name, the Jets won’t be in the Teddy Bridgewater sweepstakes, barring a complete and total collapse in addition to a trade similar to the one the Washington Redskins made with the St. Louis Rams in 2012 to get Robert Griffin III.
The Jets will likely be selecting somewhere in the teens, which gives them a handful of players to pick from who may be within reach.
Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
Manziel is as well-known for his off-field personality as for his ability to play football, which is a shame. He had a spectacular sophomore campaign for the Aggies, just about duplicating his statistical production from a year ago. He showed off improved arm strength to go with his already-stellar accuracy and mobility.
On the field, the concern is whether or not he is capable of operating in a muddy pocket on a play-by-play basis, as he has been surrounded by great protection more often than not. There will be concerns regarding his off-field demeanor, but those issues have slowly eroded away with each touchdown he has thrown this season.
As unfair as it is, the "circus" reputation the Jets carry will make it more difficult for them to draft such a polarizing player without adding unwanted media attention to their team. Still, if the Jets believe that he is capable of being a franchise player, they should not allow media perceptions to distort their evaluations.
Derek Carr, Fresno State
Derek Carr may just be starting to enter the draft conversations now, but don’t be surprised if he winds up as a top-10 pick. He has a lot of great tools to work with, including tremendous arm strength and a quick release.
The lingering issue is whether or not he has the pocket awareness to use his talents at the next level.
If Carr's stock continues to rise, he could wind up being far out of the Jets' reach on draft day.
David Fales, San Jose State
Assuming the Jets are still running Marty Mornhinweg's system next year, David Fales appears to be a perfect marriage with the Jets' West Coast offense.
He has a unique story in that he was not a highly touted prospect coming out of high school. He found his way to San Jose State through the junior college route, which gave him experience of handling adversity and beating daunting odds.
He does not have an overwhelmingly strong arm, but he makes up for it with his accuracy and ability to make quick reads and scan the entire field.
Like Carr, Fales could be taken rather early in the first round, but he does not have the ideal size or strength that NFL teams are looking for. His may see a dip in his stock through the combine and Senior Bowl, which would allow him to be taken in the range of where the Jets pick.
Tajh Boyd, Clemson
Boyd entered this season with a lot of momentum, but inconsistent play spoiled his senior season at Clemson.
He has a lot of physical tools as both a runner and a passer, but he tends to break down when everything falls apart around him. He also comes from a system that does not ask him to make a lot of difficult throws. Most of Clemson's offense comes from screens and one-read, in-cutting routes.
Barring a spectacular performance in his bowl game, he is most likely to be available when the Jets are on the clock in the first round.
AJ McCarron, Alabama
One of the most successful quarterbacks in Alabama history, McCarron will be at the center of a lot of debate this draft season.
None of his skills jump off the page—he has a "good enough" arm with limited mobility—and much of his success in the college ranks can be attributed to him being surrounded with the best supporting cast in the country. He is given tremendous protection relative to other quarterbacks and has a terrific defense and running game to lean on in just about every game.
The question for McCarron will be whether he can translate his success at Alabama into the NFL.
Despite his relatively average skill set, he appears to be gaining a lot of steam in the eyes of scouts and could possibly find himself in the first round.
While it would be a bit of a stretch to say that he is a top-five pick at this point, he could be in play for the Jets somewhere in the middle of the first round.
No longer burdened by a cumbersome contract to an underperforming veteran, the Jets have a lot of choices as they approach the quarterback position this offseason.
However, with this freedom comes a great chance for a misstep. Between making a decision on Smith and signing or drafting the right player over the offseason (should they choose to do so), the Jets need to make a lot of accurate decisions if they want to solve this troublesome position once and for all.