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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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Mahomes and the Chiefs couldn't overcome 2 missing offensive lineman in the Super Bowl. Imagine what Mahomes would be if he played on the Jets the last 3 years. Jet fans would be saying, "time to move on from this Mahomes guy. We've seen that he's not an elite QB that makes the team better and can't help win games." This is the average Jets fan take on Darnold.


I completely agree with Mr. Mueller and Mr. Sando. The idea Darnold hasn't shown any improvement comes from people with very short attention spans that have decided Darnold is to blame for 10 years of terrible Jet front office decisions. Darnold clearly struggled badly in year 3, but he outplayed Josh…


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Charles Zarrell
Charles Zarrell
Mar 12, 2021
Replying to

We can agree to disagree. I've seen enough of Sam to say he is a high risk to keep for an average of $18M a year for 3 years (picking up year 5 and franchise tag the third year out). We damaged him for sure but I remember Richard Todd being promising but never able to improve after getting sacked too often. Add to that Sam learning his 3rd offense in 4 years and it's just more obstacles to his success.


Wilson will cost an average of $8M a year for 4 years and is more mobile than Sam. He fits the new offense to a T and will have the fans support even if he struggles half the year…


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Charles Zarrell
Charles Zarrell
Mar 09, 2021

Yes, 75% sure. Watson is done and will make life miserable for Houston if they don't trade him. Will the Texans owner spite his fans and play hardball? It's a losing gamble.

Will the Jets get him? That I'm much less sure. While the second pick is key, Joe Douglss will not want to over pay with too many top . Some other team like Mia could offer more than Douglas is willing to part with.


BTW, I knew the man Roy Hobbs was loosely based on.

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Charles Zarrell
Charles Zarrell
Mar 09, 2021
Replying to

I was responding to the last email from @RoyHobbs413.


All in is too much. Hou was 4-12 with Watson. We can't afford to give away two years of 1s and 2s and still field a winning team. If we could offer three 1s over three years and a few other picks outside the top 75, then go for it. But beyond that, we are better off rolling the dice with Wilson and the other 1s and 2s we use the next two years.

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Sorry, Randy. Not buying what you're selling. Although I'm not quite clear what it is you're selling. What would you do? Re Darnold - perhaps he will be great at some point - let him be someone else's 2 - 3 year reclamation project. At this point, to the Jets, he's not worth any extension, especially given that a rookie QB comes in on a rookie deal and we reset the clock. And, most importantly, as Connor Hughes writes (and I wholeheartedly agree with) "... Darnold was the worst-rated passer in the NFL last year. Better doesn't necessarily mean good. Through three years he hasn't shown the ability to make those around him better. *His mechanics are a mess. Hi…

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Everything Charles said. I never got a chance to watch Namath in action - I started going to games at Shea in the late '70s - but his stats (not sure where Payetti draws a line between stats and "Fantasy Football stats") were anything but HoF worthy. He did have a few great games (and threw for 4,000 yards in '67, the same year he threw 28 picks vs. 26 TDs), the most critical being SB III, but his stats were meh at best.


His QBR, not an FF stat nor necessarily a perfect stat, but one that's universally used to judge QBs, never got above a 74. That's not very good. He also threw 47 more picks than he…


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Charles Zarrell
Charles Zarrell
Mar 08, 2021

While keeping Darnold will result in 2-3 extra picks, the risk is huge. He hadn't shown any improvement in three years and to expect new coaches and new system to fix him is dubious at best. Sam has been an interception machine at USC and with the Jets. His decision making is poor and that's the biggest concern. To give him a three year deal at this point is not warranted and does not build a long term solution.


It's time to move on. Watson would be first choice if the cost is reasonable, like 3 first round picks and some later picks, but beyond that the Jets have too many holes to full. Wilson is the next best choice.

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Replying to

Sorry this is such a long response. I tend to write a lot, but there's a lot to say. Feel free to skip.


I think your argument is fair. There are certainly reasons to move on from Darnold. Often the argument I come across is that Sam has exhibited consistently poor play for three years without any promise. That I wholeheartedly disagree with. It's simply not true.


It's an arbitrary cutoff, but I think Darnold has shown enough, given the utter lack of help he's had. Moreover, there are plenty of QBs that have gone on to have successful careers after getting off to a bad start. John Elway, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Eli Manning, and Alex Smith are just…


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