NFL draft makeover: If Jets move on from Sam Darnold, there are fascinating QB possibilities

Eric Edholm
·9-min read

Every week during the 2020 NFL season, we’re going to — just being honest here — overreact to what we’ve seen on the field the previous Sunday and start projecting NFL draft prospects to teams that might need help at certain spots.

Think of it as a mini one-team mock draft, with early (Rounds 1-2), middle (Rounds 3-5) and late (Round 6 and later) prospects at each team’s respective position of concern.

This week’s NFL draft makeover is the New York Jets. Would they really make another change at quarterback?

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

By next April, the Jets might be drafting their eighth quarterback since 2011 and their 10th since 2008. Four of those selections came in the top 51 overall, too.

And yet, the 0-3 Jets appear to have a broken man at quarterback in Sam Darnold. Sunday, he threw three interceptions. Two were run back for touchdowns, and one came in the red zone.

Although the idea of giving up on a quarterback who doesn’t turn 24 years old until next June feels like some Jets-level folly, it’s hard to see a path to success right now for him in New York. That’s even while evaluating him fairly in an offense with one very good offensive lineman, a shorthanded backfield and receivers who don’t separate. Oh yeah, and a head coach who might be gone in due time.

None of this is fertile terroir for growth.

But sometimes that just doesn’t matter. It’s highly possible that the Jets just decide to pivot in a new QB direction, especially if there’s a different head coach who might want to handpick Darnold’s successor. Neither that person nor general manager Joe Douglas have any real binding to Darnold heading into Year 4, perhaps after the Jets decline to pick up his fifth-year option.

So let’s say they trade him to Chicago or Pittsburgh or somewhere else. What direction might the Jets go in for their next quarterback? There are options, including the most obvious one.

Early-round prospect

Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

Look, it’s the obvious choice — and the prospect who clearly allows the Jets to save some face while admitting defeat on Darnold.

In order to punt on the former No. 3 overall pick, one whom the Jets traded three second-round picks to move up for, they must have a two-in-the-bushel kind of prospect. That’s Lawrence right now. And even by the time the 2021 NFL draft rolls around, there still might not be another on his level.

If the Jets end up with the first overall pick, it would be nearly impossible not to pick him. Lawrence might not be a perfect prospect, as there is no such thing, but he is as close to a universally appreciated QB prospect that has entered the league since Andrew Luck in 2012.

Trevor Lawrence runs with the ball in his hands.
Clemson's Trevor Lawrence would be an obvious new direction at QB for the New York Jets if they earn the top pick in the 2021 NFL draft. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro, File)

Don’t forget that the Jets also own the Seattle Seahawks’ first- and third-round picks next year from the Jamal Adams trade that can be used as ammo to move up if needed.

The decision to punt Darnold and go with, say, Ohio State’s Justin Fields or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance — both of whom have tremendous upside — wouldn’t be as clear cut. Taking either in the top 10 (and it perhaps requires being in the top five) would come with far more scrutiny and question. Neither has the floor as prospects that Lawrence has, even if all three have very high ceilings.

Earning the top pick and the shot at Lawrence might also be a good bargaining chip for Douglas to handpick his next head coach. It would be hard to imagine a candidate on the Eric Bieniemy/Brian Daboll/Greg Roman spectrum not wanting to build an offense around Lawrence and OT Mekhi Becton, willing to look past some of the obvious pitfalls of taking the Jets’ job.

An overwhelming offer to trade the first overall pick might be tempting. But if the Jets want to change quarterbacks and own that selection, there’s only one route they should consider taking.

When was the last time the Jets had a QB prospect this alluring? It has been a long time. And given how Lawrence — the poster boy of college football since winning the national title as a freshman — has handled the spotlight, we suspect he wouldn’t melt under the white-hot glare of the Big Apple.

Mid-round prospect

D’Eriq King, Miami

Will you allow us some latitude here? Our mid-round and late-round picks are truly big guesses at this moment; for all we know, King might be the late-rounder and our late-rounder the earlier-drafted player. There’s a lot of college football left, along with the pre-draft process, to sort this all out.

Time changes a lot.

At this stage of the 2018 college season, Kyler Murray was a future baseball player. And at a similar stage last year, Joe Burrow was by no means locked in as a first-round pick. (For proof of the latter, go see the reaction to us putting Burrow at No. 30 overall nearly one year ago today. In short: We got laughed at … for having him too high.)

D'Eriq King  gestures on the sideline during a game.
Miami Hurricanes QB D'Eriq King will be a fascinating study for the 2021 NFL draft. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

So the idea of slotting King — a 5-foot-8, 190-pound QB with a few very good games this season — feels a bit foolhardy now. He’s still unusually short and small-framed for the position, has missed on some deep throws (especially to his right) and is clearly benefitting from offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee’s system.

However, we just have a feeling that there’s some magic in King’s game. The Kyler Murray comparisons from draft media will be inevitable if King keeps this up, perhaps with some Russell Wilson comps mixed in for good measure. And yet we wrote a whole story recently about how some teams have yet to put a stamp on his future position yet.

Still, some see a quarterback who stresses defenses with his arm, legs and improvisation skills. He won’t be a QB for everyone, mind you. But if we can dip back into that Bieniemy/Daboll/Roman group for a moment, all three have made their recent names in the NFL by deconstructing the modern NFL offense and building it around the unique skills of their quarterbacks.

So where does he fit in the draft? This works for now. In two months, he could be skyrocketing up people’s lists, or he could be back on the Day 3 radar.

If the Jets want to draft a QB with some pizzazz, name value and intriguing upside, perhaps one whom a clever offensive-minded coach could build an offense around, then King is a fine prospect. He’s changing the face of the Hurricanes program the way the Jets could use some face changing.

They still have 2020 fourth-rounder James Morgan on the roster, and he’s someone worth developing until proven otherwise. But since 2007, only two of the 20 fourth-round QBs drafted — Dak Prescott and Kirk Cousins — have started more than 10 games in the NFL.

Late-round prospect

Kenny Pickett, Pitt

Pickett opened our eyes a bit more than we expected in the Panthers’ opener against Austin Peay, was just fine against a good Syracuse secondary and then was back on the upswing last week against Louisville.

But on the whole, he’s on the rise. If this continues, perhaps Pickett graduates beyond the “late-round” category. Right now, we are slotting him in this range because that’s where his summer grades mostly fell.

However, through three games, Pickett has improved the catchability of his passes, played under more control out of structure and better used his eyes and arm to manipulate defenses.

He’s got some toughness to him as a scrambler, plays with a swashbuckling style and has started to attack more vertically, with a yards-per-attempt average that’s a full yard ahead of his 2019 totals. On throws 10 yards and longer down the field, Pickett is 16-of-32 passing for 425 yards, three TDs and one pick.

Kenny Pickett motions with the ball in his hands.
Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett is off to a good start so far this season. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Don’t be too dismayed by that completion percentage; that also includes at least four drops. Pickett has been killed by dropped passes — 10 so far this year — since he earned a starting job. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s tied for first in that category this year and ranked No. 2 in the country in 2019 with 36 passes dropped, three fewer than Tulsa’s Zach Smith.

Like King, though, his draft stock remains quite fluid right now. Projecting where he’ll land is pretty pointless. What we do know is that he’s helped his cause so far.

But is he an upgrade over Morgan, Mike White or any other younger QB on the Jets’ roster? It’s a fair question. That’s why the idea of the Jets drafting a quarterback on Day 3 just doesn’t feel all that likely. They’ve had plenty of bodies at the spot; what they need is a true difference maker.

If you’re a believer that Pickett is going to ascend beyond this level — or if you’re in the give-Darnold-another-year camp — perhaps we can interest you in Kansas State QB Skylar Thompson, sort of a Trace McSorley-meets-Brad Smith type of prospect.

Thompson is off to a great start and could be a late pick because of his toughness, athleticism and moxie.

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