Sam Darnold and the No. 2 Pick Are the Biggest Question Marks of the 2021 Draft

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistFebruary 23, 2021

New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold rolls out to pass against the New England Patriots in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa/Associated Press

It's entirely possible that at some point in the next two months, BYU quarterback Zach Wilson or somebody else with a rising stock will supplant Clemson's Trevor Lawrence to become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. 

The hype surrounding Wilson is building, and it should be noted that Laremy Tunsil was the most widely projected No. 1 overall pick in February 2016, Sam Darnold had that distinction in February 2018 and Nick Bosa was the king of most mock drafts in February 2019. None wound up going first overall. 

But with the No. 1 overall pick, the Jacksonville Jaguars are extremely unlikely to take a major risk and turn away from one of the most enticing quarterbacks of this era, and there's been no real indication they're considering going against the grain. The franchise can't afford another bust at the position after what it went through with Blake Bortles and Blaine Gabbert. 

Because drama is often pretty fun when you're a bystander, that lack of mystery at the top of the draft is a bit of a shame. But the good news is the New York Jets are here to provide more than enough theater with the No. 2 overall selecton. 

Until then, they may test our patience.

On Monday, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported the Jets will take their time to assess the quarterbacks in this year's draft class before deciding whether to trade 23-year-old signal-caller Sam Darnold—a process that could extend through March or even up to draft day. 

Stew Milne/Associated Press

So while this offseason has moved at an unprecedented speed thus far, we could be waiting a while for the next domino to fall. 

There are three ways the Jets could go here: 

1. Trade Darnold and then draft Wilson, Justin Fields or Trey Lance second overall (assuming Lawrence does go in the top spot).

2. Keep Darnold and draft another potential star like Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell or LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase in the No. 2 spot. 

3. Keep Darnold and still draft a quarterback. 

The first scenario is favored by most mock drafters and analysts at this point, and it makes a lot of sense considering that Darnold was the NFL's lowest-rated passer in what many viewed as a make-or-break 2020 campaign. Three seasons into his career, the 2018 No. 3 overall pick has completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes and averaged just 6.6 yards per attempt, losing 25 of his 38 starts. 

Can the Jets really afford to forego a shot at Wilson, Fields or Lance in order to gamble that Darnold will suddenly put it together in 2021, especially if they still might be able to get a decent return in a trade? 

On the other hand, Scenario 2 has merit because Darnold is still only 23 years old and clearly lacked support during Adam Gase's two-year tenure as New York's head coach.

Everyone awaits the next move (or non-move) from Jets GM Joe Douglas.
Everyone awaits the next move (or non-move) from Jets GM Joe Douglas.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

General manager Joe Douglas wasn't around when Darnold was drafted, but that doesn't mean Douglas, new head coach Robert Saleh and incoming offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur might not want to see what the new staff can do with Darnold now that Gase is out of the way. After all, he was widely considered a gamer with the mental and physical abilities to flourish coming out of USC. 

The third scenario is obviously extremely unlikely, but the draft is a crapshoot, and it's not outside the realm of possibility for the Jets to decide to roll another set of dice before finding out if the first set will result in snake eyes.

Knowing they've got two more picks in the top 34 this year and two first-rounders in 2022 could embolden a new regime to pit Darnold against a first-round rookie in 2021 and then roll with whomever wins out. The loser would ideally still have some trade value then, but it's an incredibly risky strategy that would almost certainly be unpopular with fans and the media. 

Based on his play the last three years, keeping Darnold and building around him isn't much less risky, however, which is why a trade seems a distinct possibility. It wasn't surprising when SNY's Ralph Vacchiano reported last week that a second-round pick and a middle-to-late-rounder could do the trick.

Who might offer that up to Gang Green? Watch for the following teams: 

Washington Football Team: They've already given up on 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins, Alex Smith turns 37 this offseason and struggled in his return to the field in 2020, and the WFT doesn't likely have a shot at any of this class' top four quarterbacks with the No. 19 overall pick. Maybe they'd offer up their second-round selection and one of their two third-rounders. 

Chicago Bears: Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer reported on The Herd with Colin Cowherd that the Bears pursued Carson Wentz before the Philadelphia Eagles traded him to the Indianapolis Colts. Mitchell Trubisky's rookie deal is done, and Nick Foles was a disappointment in his first season in Chicago. The Bears need to get better quarterback play while this window is open for an expensive defense, and they also pick in the bottom half of Round 1, so the big four are likely out of the question. Would they offer their two Day 2 selections? They don't have a fourth-rounder.

Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

Carolina Panthers: It's become apparent this offseason that the Panthers aren't convinced Teddy Bridgewater is the long-term solution under center. There's plenty of buzz they're interested in acquiring Deshaun Watson from the Houston Texans, but if they strike out there, they could opt to pursue the less expensive Darnold and let Bridgewater and Darnold duke it out. 

Houston Texans: If the Texans wind up trading Watson to the Jets, Darnold would likely go the other way as an afterthought. There's no reason Houston wouldn't at least take him for his low salary and upside, but the Texans continue to insist they aren't trading their 25-year-old franchise quarterback, according to Peter King of NBC Sports.

Denver Broncos: Drew Lock was the league's fourth-lowest-rated qualified passer as a sophomore in 2020, and ABC's Troy Renck reported the Broncos are interested in Watson and other top-echelon quarterbacks. But NFL Network's James Palmer reported last week that Denver is "lukewarm" on lower-level guys (a group that would presumably include Darnold). They'd probably prefer to simply give Lock another shot in 2021.

San Francisco 49ers: They can move on from Jimmy Garoppolo for next to nothing, but you'd think the 49ers would only do that if they were to clearly upgrade with somebody like Watson or Dak Prescott. Darnold instead of Garoppolo saves them money, but Jimmy G quarterbacked this team to the Super Bowl two years ago. Trading him in for the league's lowest-rated passer would be quite a risk.

New England Patriots: Bill Belichick might figure he can turn Darnold into his next franchise quarterback. The talent is there and it's an ideal environment, especially now that Cam Newton has provided a small buffer between the Brady era and whatever's next, but the Jets would probably be terrified to trade him to the longtime Goliath of their division. 

If the Jets pull the trigger at all, my money is on Washington, Chicago or Carolina. And while we might not get an answer for a while, the exciting part (or the scary part for Jets fans) is that development would only lead to more buzz about which quarterback New York would end up taking in the first round of the draft. 

In other words, all eyes could be on Jets for a massive portion of the 2021 NFL offseason. 


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.