Jets' Future Should Revolve Around a Sam Darnold Revival

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 1, 2021

New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold (14) pumps his fist after running back Frank Gore (21) scores a touchdown during an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)
Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

At 0-13, New York Jets fans had dreams of watching their team select Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 overall pick. Gang Green crushed those thoughts with consecutive wins in Weeks 15 and 16, but all isn't lost in current signal-caller Sam Darnold

Darnold's revival isn't as captivating in comparison to a fresh start with one of the most highly touted prospects in recent memory, but that's the club's best path to progress in the coming seasons. 

The Jets will have the No. 2 overall pick, which still allows them an opportunity to draft a top quarterback such as Ohio State's Justin Fields or BYU's Zach Wilson. General manager Joe Douglas must assess whether any collegiate prospect possesses a higher ceiling than Darnold. Based on early scouting reports, that's not evident. 

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields
Ohio State quarterback Justin FieldsAJ Mast/Associated Press/Associated Press

In his scouting notebook for Bleacher Report, Matt Miller relayed what certain NFL personnel thought about Fields and Wilson. 

An NFL quarterbacks coach had concerns about Fields' accuracy outside the hash marks and his ability to push the ball deep. 

"I love his athleticism, but his arm is just OK," said the coach. "Scheme is going to matter a lot for him. I hope wherever he goes they build around him with run-after-catch receivers and a good run game."

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The Jets still need significant work on their 23rd-ranked ground attack. At 37 years old, Frank Gore led the team in carries (187) and rushing yards (653). Rookie fourth-rounder La'Mical Perine only played 200 offensive snaps.

Ironically, Wilson is projected as a less proven version of Darnold. An NFL college scouting director questioned the BYU quarterback's play style and the competition he faced at the collegiate level. 

"I have no idea how ready to play he is because the scheme is backyard football and he hasn't played anyone," said the scouting director.

When Darnold moves the pocket, he makes off-script plays that we don't often see from other quarterbacks.

Unlike Wilson, the USC product played against top collegiate programs with NFL talent.

Although Lawrence seems like a can't-miss prospect, Fields and Wilson have some legitimate question marks that raise concerns. Why not just build around the player who's shown potential despite a lackluster supporting cast?

As a rookie, Darnold played under ex-Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who has a defensive background, and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. The latter isn't currently on an NFL coaching staff. 

The Jets hired Adam Gase in January 2019. With Gase as head coach and offensive play-caller, Darnold has thrown for 27 touchdowns and 22 interceptions with a 60.6 percent completion rate. He has also taken 65 sacks in 24 games.

Gase took responsibility for Darnold's uneven play over the last two seasons, per ESPN's Rich Cimini.

"We need to do things well around him, but at the same time, it's on me to get him to play better than what he's played," he said. "I haven't done a good enough job."

In an attempt to develop Darnold after his rookie campaign, the Jets made a poor hire. In both his and Gase's last season with the Miami Dolphins, right tackle Ja'Wuan James criticized Gase for not implementing an offensive identity, per ESPN's Cameron Wolfe.

"All year, we never had an offensive identity," James said. "When things go really wrong, you don't know what to go to if you don't have any identity. You just end up trying random stuff." 

New York Jets head coach Adam Gase
New York Jets head coach Adam GaseAdam Hunger/Associated Press

In three seasons (2016-18) with the Dolphins, Gase's teams ranked 17th or worse in scoring. Miami traded quarterback Ryan Tannehill to the Tennessee Titans during the 2019 offseason, and he made significant strides under offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, winning the 2019 Comeback Player of the Year award. Over the last two terms, the 32-year-old has thrown for 54 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

Darnold could have the same post-Gase success if the Jets find an upgrade in the coaching ranks. Gang Green can attempt to pry Smith away from the Titans or pursue a popular candidate in Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. Perhaps the team should contact former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, who has drawn interest from NFL teams, per ESPN's Adam Schefter

"Meyer, according to a source connected to one of those teams, did not dismiss the overtures and is considering whether to make the jump to the NFL," Schefter reported on Dec. 27. "He intends to decide in the next week, before the NFL regular season is over, and teams expect to hear his decision in the coming days."

Under a new coaching staff led by an innovative offensive mind or someone with a track record of success as a head coach, Darnold could take off and become the franchise player that the Jets expected when they selected him with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft. 

Instead of taking another quarterback, Douglas should consider trade offers from teams interested in moving up to the No. 2 spot for a signal-caller of their own. He can land a sizable draft haul and add that to the team's five picks within the first three rounds in 2021. 

The Jets would have the resources to maneuver around the order and pick up several pieces to strengthen Darnold's supporting cast. If Douglas keeps the No. 2 selection, he can select Oregon's Penei Sewell to pair with Mekhi Becton at offensive tackle.

With the second first-round pick, the Jets can target wideouts Jaylen Waddle or Rashod Bateman. Darnold would have a solid trio at the position with one of the aforementioned rookies, Denzel Mims and Jamison Crowder.

Clemson running back Travis Etienne
Clemson running back Travis EtienneBrian Blanco/Associated Press

Running backs Travis Etienne and Najee Harris could be available at the top of the second round. As collegians, they averaged 7.8 and 6.4 yards per touch, respectively, and both have the ability to play all three downs in lead roles.

Sitting at 0-8 back in November, Douglas endorsed Darnold as the franchise's "quarterback of the future," though he also said Gase is "part of the solution" going forward. If he commits to the former plan and ditches the latter, the Jets could see what they have in their signal-caller. 

This offseason, the Jets can decline Darnold's fifth-year option, and if he flops in 2021, they can make a clean break without financial strings attached. In the event the 23-year-old has a strong campaign, the front office could franchise-tag or extend him.

Looking at Tannehill's ascension after his time with the Dolphins, Darnold still has a chance to reach his fullest potential with a new regime, but his revitalization must start with a new coaching staff followed by a strong 2021 draft class.

Darnold could only do so much with Crowder as his top wide receiver and a 37-year-old as the featured running back. Douglas should upgrade his quarterback's weapons and watch him work.