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2021 NFL Draft: Help on the Way for the New York Jets?

2021 NFL Draft: Help on the Way for the New York Jets?

2021 NFL Draft: Help on the Way for the New York Jets?

This feature originally appeared in the Athlon Sports 2021 NFL Draft Guide, which can be found in our online store is available on newsstands. At 176 pages and with 230 in-depth scouting reports, no source will have you more prepared for draft day. (Editor's note: This story was published before the Jets traded Sam Darnold to the Panthers.)

When Jets players flooded onto the SoFi Stadium field in late December to celebrate an improbable 23–20 win over the Rams, their fans watching at home 3,000 miles away did not share their enthusiasm. In fact, they were pretty upset.

Team members were elated by the triumph, New York’s first after 13 straight losses to open the season. They had avoided the potential disgrace of becoming the third NFL team to post an 0–16 record and didn’t have to suffer through a long plane ride home with the continued stench of failure wafting throughout the cabin.

The win over the Rams, however, likely meant New York wouldn’t have the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and wouldn’t be able to choose Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, considered by many analysts to be a surefire future star.

“It doesn’t affect us,” New York quarterback Sam Darnold said after the win about the Lawrence situation. “We’re focused on one job every single week, and that’s winning a game. Anything other than that, we’re not focused on.”

The Jets beat Cleveland the following week, guaranteeing that Jacksonville would have the opportunity to nab Lawrence. But the modest winning streak did little to create a sense of optimism around the team. After a 28–14 loss at New England concluded the lost campaign, the Jets fired head coach Adam Gase, eventually replacing him with former San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, and skulked into the offseason hoping to begin another rebuild that will eventually produce playoff results.

It sure won’t be easy. The Jets’ roster is loaded with disappointments, question marks and people who simply don’t belong on a winning team’s roster. While there are some keepers — most notably tackle Mekhi Becton, defensive end Quinnen Williams and safety Marcus Maye (if the Jets can re-sign the free agent) — New York has gaping holes all over the place. It will be up to GM Joe Douglas to fix things, and that will begin with the draft.

Even though the Jets won’t be able to get Lawrence, hardly a small concern, they do have a pair of first-round picks — Nos. 2 and 23 — three of the top 34 choices and five in the first 86. While it’s unreasonable to expect the team to land longtime starters with the entire quintet, Douglas and his staff should be able to identify some people who can develop into stalwarts and use the entire draft to help start construction of a foundation that leads to future success.

“Joe Douglas is a really good evaluator of talent,” ESPN NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. says. “Everybody who knows him knows he has a great eye for talent.”

While with the Eagles, Douglas had some success — and some blunders — as VP of player personnel. He was the football guy who supported GM Howie Roseman, whose strengths run more toward cap management and contract negotiations. Douglas was instrumental in drafting Penn State running back Miles Sanders, South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert and Washington State left tackle Andre Dillard, but he must also take some responsibility for picking Washington cornerback Sidney Jones in the second round and for plenty of disappointing choices from the third round down. He joined the Jets with a good reputation. Now, it’s time to turn that into results.

“He has some early picks, but that’s only good if he hits on them,” Kiper says.

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In 1968, the Eagles started the season 0–11 and looked to be locked in to the first overall selection in the combined AFL-NFL Draft. That meant USC Heisman Trophy-winning running back O.J. Simpson was coming to Philadelphia. Then, for no good reason, the Birds won back-to-back games, over the Lions and Saints, and dropped to the second spot. Buffalo got The Juice. The Eagles selected Purdue’s Leroy Keyes, a College Football Hall of Fame inductee and runner-up to Simpson in the ’68 Heisman derby. But Keyes never developed into a standout and lasted five mostly forgettable years in the NFL.

The moral? Having the No. 2 pick is no guarantee of success. Just look at the last 10 years. For every Saquon Barkley (2018), Nick Bosa (’19), and Chase Young (’20), there’s a Luke Joeckel (2013) or a Greg Robinson (’14). Not that No. 1 overall is any surefire lock, either (Hello, JaMarcus Russell, 2007), but the inconsistency at No. 2 over the last decade (Marcus Mariota and Robert Griffin III didn’t turn into franchise QBs) should make Jets fans cautious about what can happen.

There’s no great certainty at 23, either, if the last decade is any indication. Danny Watkins (2011) and Laquon Treadwell (2016) have been outright busts, while others have had their careers derailed (Sharrif Floyd, 2013; Shane Ray, 2015) or interrupted (Dee Ford, 2014) by injury. Over the past 10 years, only Isaiah Wynn and Riley Reiff can be considered completely successful choices at that spot.

So, what should the Jets do? It all starts at quarterback. Had they finished with the worst record in the league, that question would have been easier to answer than whether Tampa Bay made a good decision signing Tom Brady. But Lawrence will be a Jaguar, so New York has to decide whether it wants to keep Darnold, use the second pick on another QB or trade down to accumulate more selections and use them on some of their myriad needs — including under center.

Darnold has been inconsistent and not the standout the Jets hoped he would be when they traded up to draft him third overall in 2018. His career completion percentage — 59.8 — is hardly sufficient, especially when Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers connected on 70.7 percent of his throws in 2020. Darnold has thrown 45 TDs against 39 interceptions and has a 13–25 record as a starter. That’s hardly the kind of résumé capable of convincing people that he deserves another chance.

But it’s instructive to understand that he has played on some especially poor teams, including 2020’s, which lacked a good offensive line, sufficient targets and a solid running game. Darnold must be judged within those confines. And he must be judged against the QBs in the draft not named Trevor Lawrence.

Dane Brugler, NFL Draft analyst for The Athletic, thinks that, poor supporting cast aside, Darnold hasn’t looked at all like the quarterback who showed so much promise at USC and doesn’t look like he’s going to figure it out. According to Brugler, if the Jets keep Darnold because they think he can still fulfill his promise, that’s fine. If they have Ohio State’s Justin Fields or BYU’s Zach Wilson rated ahead of him, they “should hit the reset button.”

If the Jets keep Darnold, they could use the second overall pick on Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, who would be a nice bookend with Becton. They could choose Alabama’s Heisman Trophy-winning wideout DeVonta Smith or explosive LSU wideout Ja’Marr Chase to give Darnold help. There is depth in later rounds at tackle and edge rusher. The idea of trading down to accumulate more choices is attractive, too, since the Jets need help at all three levels on defense, a top-flight running back, wideouts, offensive linemen, new uniforms...

You get the picture.

One more important point: By trading up to get Darnold, the Jets learned just how much they might get in return for trading down this year. When they moved up from No. 6 to No. 3 in 2018, it cost them three second-round picks. That kind of return makes rebuilding a lot easier.

This is a huge draft for the Jets. They need to find immediate contributors and select players who can develop into starters, or at least key reserves. The process was supposed to start with Lawrence, but the win over the Rams changed that. The plane ride home was no doubt enjoyable. Douglas and Co. now have to make sure the good time was worth it.

(Top graphic courtesy of @nyjets)