Sam Darnold‘s short tenure as a starting quarterback in New York seems to be coming to an end, as all signs are pointing toward the Jets selecting Zach Wilson with the second overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft.
The Jets sent general manager Joe Douglas, head coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur to BYU’s pro day last week. And Wilson put on a show, displaying the arm talent that makes him such a special prospect with ridiculous throws like the one below.
— NFL (@NFL) March 26, 2021
That pro day came just several weeks after Douglas stated that the team wasn’t actively avoiding trade calls on Darnold, who was all but crowned as the franchise's savior just three short years ago.
“I will answer the call if it’s made. As it pertains to Sam, like I said, Sam, we think, is a dynamic player in this league with unbelievable talent who really has a chance to really hit his outstanding potential moving forward. But, like I said earlier, if calls are made, I will answer them,” Douglas said in early March.
One more pertinent piece of information to come out of the frenzy of trades last week was that the Philadelphia Eagles would have had an interest in trading up to third overall had Wilson been there to take, per NFL Network’s Ian Rappaport. The fact that they instead moved back points to the idea that they believe the Jets are locked into Wilson with the second pick.
If the Jets select Wilson, Darnold is left on the outside looking in as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. At the very least, 2021 will be the last year unless New York decides to pick up his fifth-year option in the coming weeks, an option that would pay out $18.8 million in 2022.
Darnold has managed to remain a mystery box through three NFL seasons. There is no getting around the fact that he has performed like one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL, as his 60.4 PFF passing grade since 2018 ranks dead last among qualifying quarterbacks. It’s also undeniable that Darnold has been thrown into a disastrous offensive environment that featured limited receiving and offensive line talent that certainly wasn’t elevated by coaching.
There are reasons to like Darnold as a reclamation project. He has flashed brilliance at times in less-than-ideal circumstances. However, any team banking on him coming in and taking a massive leap to become an above-average starter next season is going about things the wrong way. There are examples of quarterbacks breaking out later in their career, but rarely do you see someone go from arguably the worst starter in the NFL to quality starter after their third season. Giving up anything much more than a mid-round pick on a flier with some upside is ill-advised.
The market for Darnold also looks to be less robust now than it was before the start of free agency, with teams like the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, Washington Football Team and Chicago Bears adding starters from the middle tier of free-agent options. The San Francisco 49ers‘ move up to third overall in the 2021 NFL Draft and the Indianapolis Colts’ trade for Carson Wentz likely takes them off the board as landing spots, as well.
As the list of teams below might suggest, Darnold’s ideal landing spots aren’t places where he’ll have the starting job handed to him. Those situations simply aren’t out there anymore, with the more glaring quarterback holes appearing on teams that will now expect to find their next quarterback in the draft. That takes away some of the leverage that the Jets may have had in trade discussions earlier in the offseason.
There was arguably no bigger loser from the sequence of trades last week than the Panthers. The 49ers jumped them to secure the third overall pick that will now almost certainly become a quarterback. And with the assumption being that Trevor Lawrence and Wilson will come off the board with the top two picks, that leaves two players from the combination of Justin Fields, Trey Lance and Mac Jones as “first-round talents” who will be available outside of the top three selections.
The problem for the Panthers is that the fourth overall pick belongs to the Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta could opt to select their quarterback of the future — even after the recent restructure to Matt Ryan’s contract — or they could move down in the draft via a trade with a team that is particularly motivated to move up to grab one of the top quarterbacks in this year’s class (Denver, New England, etc.). Carolina falls into that group of teams, but the intra-division dynamics between the Panthers and the Falcons will make a deal harder to strike.
That means they could be faced with a decision on the fifth quarterback available — likely Jones — or a trade for someone like Darnold to come in and compete with Teddy Bridgewater next season. Bridgewater ended the 2020 season ranked 26th among 32 qualifying quarterbacks in overall grade, with more turnover-worthy plays (20) than big-time throws (17). Carolina has made it clear this offseason that they are at least looking for some competition.
As far as the fit for Darnold, Carolina has talent on offense with D.J. Moore, former teammate Robby Anderson and Christian McCaffrey all set to return in 2021. Joe Brady also returns as offensive coordinator after impressing in his first year with the team. Those two areas represent a clear step up from what Darnold had at his disposal in New York.
The offensive line remains a concern, though. The franchise tag placed on Taylor Moton (career-high 81.2 PFF grade in 2020) was a needed move, but there are still concerns at left tackle and both guard spots. The re-signing of John Miller and the additions of Cam Erving and Pat Elflein stand out as one of the more underwhelming ways possible to address the offensive line. Out of 151 offensive linemen to play at least 1,500 offensive snaps over the past three years, Elflein ranks 147th in PFF grade (50.6) and Erving ranks dead last (44.4).
It’s a roster that still has holes beyond the offensive line, so it may make sense this offseason to part with a mid-round pick or two to take a flier on Darnold rather than parting with a high first-round pick on someone like Jones or trading up to take Fields or Lance.
In many ways, the Broncos are in a similar spot to Carolina. They’ve also been linked to Deshaun Watson in recent months, but with his ongoing off-the-field problems, it is looking less and less likely that any trade gets done before the 2021 season. Additionally, Denver was hurt by San Francisco leapfrogging them in the 2021 NFL Draft last week, leaving one less potential quarterback solution for next season.
There are two big differences between Denver and Carolina that make Darnold make less sense for the Broncos. Denver already has their “let’s see what we have in him” young quarterback in Drew Lock. Last season, Lock beat out only Nick Mullens, Mitchell Trubisky and Darnold in overall grade at quarterback, and his 25.8% uncatchable-pass rate was the second-highest in the league. Lock has shown very little early in his NFL career to warrant starting consideration, but he is a 2019 second-round pick who has just over one full season of NFL starts under his belt.
That performance is even more concerning for Lock than Darnold’s showing because Denver does have a relatively strong roster in place, albeit one that was hit hard by injuries in 2020. The strength of the Broncos’ roster also means it makes sense for them to take a bigger swing at the quarterback position than trading for Darnold. They have a real chance to compete with quality starting play at quarterback.
The rationale for bringing in Darnold to compete with Lock comes down to Denver not liking their quarterback options at the top of the draft — whether that be parting with additional picks to trade up for the fourth quarterback off the board or standing firm at ninth overall — after the first three picks play out. Darnold would stand as a smaller, potentially short-term investment that gives Denver two (low percentage) chances at getting competent quarterback play instead of one. Perhaps the competition could bring out the best in either Darnold or Lock.
Once you get past Carolina and Denver, things quickly head toward destinations that you have to talk yourself into making sense of.
Washington was one of the easier teams to do that with. Darnold could have come in behind Ryan Fitzpatrick and potentially been groomed for a starting role on a good team in 2022. However, ESPN’s Dianna Russini was told by a Washington source regarding a potential Darnold trade, “Don’t waste your time.”
The Patriots come with the same-conference disclaimer and could have their sights set on a rookie quarterback instead of Darnold.
That leads us to our third team, which can’t say the same…
The biggest hurdle for Chicago will be the fact that they’re already paying out a significant sum of money between Andy Dalton and Nick Foles. Adding Darnold’s nearly $10 million cap hit in 2021 (and potentially picking up his $18.8 million fifth-year option for 2022) is easier said than done for a team that recently cut Kyle Fuller and still has one of the league’s worst cap situations, according to Over the Cap. It would likely necessitate moving Foles, who comes with a $5 million-plus dead cap hit even if he’s traded rather than released.
Darnold would at least give them a younger option in the quarterback room who could sell hope to a fanbase that is quickly losing it in bunches. While his disappointing on-field performance hasn’t been all that dissimilar from Trubisky, Darnold is over two years younger with more excuses to point to for his poor play. The Bears are the kind of team that should be taking a mid-round flier on Darnold if that is all it takes to get the deal done. They don’t have a clear path to a top quarterback prospect in this year’s draft, and they will likely be in a similar situation next year with a roster that isn’t going to bottom out in 2021.
Darnold to Chicago doesn’t represent a perfect match for either party, but that perfect match isn’t out there this offseason. Darnold is merely a shot in the dark for teams who are running out of other options.