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Sam Darnold vs Zach Wilson?

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

The answer to this question holds the key to unlocking many things. The New York Jets sit in the “power position” at #2 in this year’s NFL Draft. It’s the most intriguing spot with the widest array of consequences, effecting not only the Jets, and the career trajectory of their general manager, but also several other NFL teams and their ability to retool and advance their franchises forward.

This is truly a career defining move for the Jets first time GM, Joe Douglas, who is entering year three on the job, to mixed results. Douglas is on his second head coach, has a roster still devoid of NFL talent, depth and is in a market where everyone outside your building has all the answers. He has to decide whether to keep his third year QB, Sam Darnold, or draft everybody’s flavor of the month, BYU QB Zach Wilson.

The degree of difficulty in making this decision is HIGH and the levels of intel you need to consider are historically complicated. However, let me remind you of the goal of every NFL GM — to build a TEAM worthy of consistently competing for a Super Bowl title year after year. This task does not come with a definitive “how too book”. I would, however, suggest one reads the chapter on “best practices”. This decision on who your quarterback will be in the future cannot be made in a vacuum.

The key, for my money, is the word TEAM. Yes, you need a QB. However, you also need a way to keep said QB upright. You also need weapons to stretch the field. You need a running game designed (and there are many ways to do it) to play complimentary football with your defense and situational football offensively (clock management and the like) that allows you to win games. And we have not even got to the other side of the ball yet. We would all love to have the next Patrick Mahomes or Tom Brady but for my money, the untold story of both the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was how well their defenses played and the completeness of their overall rosters.

Listen, nobody likes Zach Wilson more than me. I was singing his praises midway thru his 2020 season on The Football GM podcast/The Athletic. He has top level NFL arm talent and he can process information, both pre and post snap. Wilson gets the ball out on time. He can anticipate like an NFL veteran and he can either throw with touch or drive the ball. However, best of all, Wilson operates both from the pocket and on the move with a delivery that fixes a lot of problems that schemes and play calling can’t make up for. He also shows consistent accuracy at all levels of the field and his instincts and dynamic playmaking ability make him ready to go from jump street for whichever team picks him.

However, I also believe that current Jets QB, Sam Darnold, has not scratched the surface of how good he can be, if given a chance under the right circumstances, as well. I am going to steal the best description of Darnold's situation that I have heard to-date-from anyone. It came from my podcast co-host and national NFL writer for The Athletic, Mike Sando. Sando said, “If the Jets had hatched a plan to destroy Sam Darnold's career from the start, what would they have changed?” My response is NOTHING. They have executed that plan to perfection. The truth sometimes hurts.

Darnold has flashed the same skill set that many of us identified in college at USC. He is athletic and he has the arm strength to make all the throws. Darnold can move inside the pocket by resetting his feet (to avoid rush and contact) to get the ball out cleanly and timely vs pressure and he can throw on the run while scrambling in either direction. He makes throws with accuracy beyond what his completion percentage would tell you. Let me remind you, some thought Buffalo QB Josh Allen could never change his completion percentage either. They were wrong and there were predictable reasons. Furthermore, Darnold anticipates receivers coming open and shows natural instincts for playing the position at a much higher level than his production numbers to date would indicate. He will make you say “Wow” when you study the tape. As an evaluator, I think it’s way too early to give up on him as an NFL starting QB. Sure, he will make a bone-head decision on occasion when trying to do too much, but those risks and decision-making under pressure are not fatal flaws. I think Darnold is confident in his ability. Unfortunately, the system he has been asked to run (X 2 now) has not given him ample options and answers of where to go with the ball AND the quality of roster around him has been dreadful on both sides of the ball.

If you want to answer the question that the Jets and specifically Joe Douglas has in front of him, you have to look big picture. I actually like both QB’s enough to say, “We can win with either.” The real question should be, which one allows us to build the most talented and deepest team around him going forward?

If you, like me, think you can win with either guy, then proceed this way. How many boxes in the team building manual do either option allow you to check? Get out your score cards and make your lists of the other positions of need on this 2 win team and what either choice allows you to do in filling out the rest of your team building concerns. What can we parlay the #2 pick in the NFL Draft into this year? Can we slide back more than once and acquire chips to build with? Ask all the pertinent questions.

One critical element that must be considered, and doesn’t get enough attention, is Darnold’s contract. I do think you have to factor money and contract (and its length) in to any decision. It’s been said by many who analyze the NFL that a rookie QB on a rookie contract gives you salary cap flexibility to build without the albatross of a $35M a year commitment of a second contract that has been allocated to the position. That is true and an obvious advantage. To that end, Wilson on a rookie deal vs Darnold on a franchise type deal would be a big difference and would tip the scales in Wilson’s direction, at least when it comes to money. But, what if Darnold and his representation really wants him be the QB of the Jets? What if he believes in the new staff and the Matt LaFluer/Kyle Shanahan style offensive scheme that is being installed? A three-year bridge deal, with no franchise tag, no trade, and reasonable money (say $20/25M a year) that makes him a total free agent, without strings attached at age 27, might just make some sense for both sides. Maybe there is a club option and/or other guarantees, but my point is a three-year commitment is an eternity in the NFL. It has to be a win-win for both sides to consider. It allows the club to plan and build out their team around those cap numbers. Stability sometimes outweighs the new flashy toy. Sure, you are betting on yourself in Darnold's case, but it would put him in an unprecedented situation and would also give the Jets more time for him to develop and move further down the road to winning. If the Jets trade Darnold, he’s not getting any new deal and will be on a one year prove it or get cut scenario.

I know. A contract extension for Darnold, are you kidding? All I am saying is the Jets need to explore some middle ground in this situation. They really need to think outside the box. I harken back to the original goal of the GM — to build a TEAM worthy of consistently competing for a Super Bowl. No decision is made without other ramifications being discussed. This type of discussion exists within the walls of a well-run NFL franchise and that’s why I always want to make sure, I’m not the smartest guy in the room. Having a well-versed team of decision makers by my side allows the GM to sleep a little better. Good luck Joe.

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