When New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas was introduced to the media last June, he described the “sense of urgency” that exists in the NFL to build a championship-caliber roster when quarterback Sam Darnold is on his rookie contract. He saw it up close in his front-office gig with the Philadelphia Eagles, who won the Super Bowl in 2017 with Carson Wentz as their primary starter — more than a year before he landed his nine-figure deal.
The objective, Douglas said on his introduction day, was to follow the same blueprint with Darnold.
Welcome to Sam Szn 2.0.
For the second straight offseason, but the first for the Douglas regime, the Jets will focus their efforts on maximizing Darnold’s potential. It involves a two-pronged plan: Better blocking. More speed around him.
Sounds simple, right?
In 2019, the Jets allowed 52 sacks (29th), averaged 3.3 yards per rush (32nd) and generated six plays of at least 40 yards — a formula for bad offense. The addition of offensive-minded coach Adam Gase, combined with significant investments on that side of the ball, did nothing to improve the offense. From an individual standpoint, Darnold made marginal gains, but the organization believes he hasn’t come close to his ceiling.
For the record, Darnold has two years remaining on his rookie contract, which means the window is half closed. Starting in 2022, he will get into serious money, either with the fifth-year option or a new contract, assuming he doesn’t implode. When a quarterback’s salary soars, it compromises the team’s ability to maintain a strong supporting cast.
It’s on Douglas to make sure the Jets don’t waste Darnold’s talent. Based on his comments at last week’s scouting combine, Douglas recognizes and accepts the challenge.
“Obviously, we need to have a strong offensive line,” Douglas said. “We have to do a good job of taking care of Sam moving forward.”
Asked about surrounding Darnold with playmakers, the first-time GM said, “I think you saw that in the two teams that competed for the Super Bowl this year, how many explosive players they had on both sides of the ball. Everyone is trying to get bigger, faster, smarter, tougher. We need explosive guys. We need explosive, dynamic playmakers.”
Look for the Jets to invest most of their resources on offense. With a projected $60 million in salary-cap room, along with four draft selections in the first three rounds of April’s draft, the Jets should come out of the offseason with three or four new starters on the offensive line and one or two new receivers, depending on whether they can re-sign WR Robby Anderson before he bolts as a free agent.
The most coveted offensive line free agents will be left guard Joe Thuney, right guard Brandon Scherff and right tackle Jack Conklin, but the smart play would be to look for value among the second-tier players and find the stud lineman in the draft. Picking 11th, New York should have a crack at one of the top four tackles — Mekhi Becton, Andrew Thomas, Jedrick Wills Jr. and Tristan Wirfs.
“I think they need to put more around their quarterback because he’s the guy, and he’s the guy who’s going to deliver the Jets, if anyone is going to do it,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, who has the Jets selecting wide receiver Jerry Jeudy in his latest mock draft.
One thing is clear: Douglas must be smarter with his spending than predecessor Mike Maccagnan, who doled out an onerous contract in 2018 (cornerback Trumaine Johnson) and overpaid last year at two nonpremium positions (running back Le’Veon Bell and middle linebacker C.J. Mosley). Douglas is cognizant that two big deals are looming on the horizon (safety Jamal Adams and Darnold), so he can’t be consumed by winning the month of March. How many times have the Jets won March only to collapse in September?
It’s a delicate balance. Recognizing the urgency, Douglas wants to be as competitive as possible in 2020 and 2021, but he has to be careful to avoid too many quick-fix additions.
A year ago, Maccagnan & Co. tried to build around Darnold by signing Bell and slot receiver Jamison Crowder (a solid move) and trading for former Pro Bowl guard Kelechi Osemele, who got hurt and never panned out. Bell and Crowder helped Darnold in the passing game — his short-area accuracy jumped by 10 percentage points — but it wasn’t nearly enough. They gave him side dishes, but forgot the main course — an offensive line that could protect the passer and control the line of scrimmage.
“It’s a tough puzzle to put together,” Gase said of the offensive line, which was hampered by injuries in 2019.
They’d better figure it now, before Darnold’s second contract. Recent history shows that it’s difficult to win a championship with a quarterback drawing a monster salary. Under the current collective bargaining agreement, which dates to 2011, only three of the 18 quarterbacks who started in the past nine Super Bowls ranked in the top five in cap charge, according to ESPN contract data. They are Matt Ryan (2016 season), Peyton Manning (2013) and Eli Manning (2011).
The Seattle Seahawks went to back-to-back Super Bowls (2013-14) when Russell Wilson was on his rookie contract, but haven’t returned since he cashed in. The Baltimore Ravens gave Joe Flacco a huge contract after winning the Super Bowl following the 2012 season, and they haven’t been back. The reigning champion Kansas City Chiefs soon will join the Big Money QB Club, assuming they reward Patrick Mahomes in the coming months.
This is the most telling trend: Only two of the highest-paid quarterbacks in each of the past nine seasons made the playoffs — Eli Manning (2016) and Peyton Manning (2012). Only three played on a winning team.
So, yes, the clock is ticking for the Jets. At the same time, they need Darnold to focus on self-improvement. For all his exciting potential, he still has plenty of room to grow. Over the team’s 6-2 finish, he ranked 19th in Total QBR (50.8), slightly below the league average. That he will play in the same system for a second straight season is bound to help.
“I’m really encouraged by where he can go from here,” Gase said. “I think he has, obviously, the skill set. You guys see that. When you guys see him throw the ball in practice and in training camp and during the games, some of the throws that he makes, it’s one of those things where you just shake your head like, ‘How did he make that throw?’
“It’s just really going to be about consistency, game in and game out. Can he be the same guy every game? That’s something he’s always going to work on and, hopefully, we can get him there this year.”