FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Now that the New York Jets have reached an agreement in principle to have Robert Saleh as their new coach, the focus shifts to quarterback Sam Darnold, whose poor play during the 2020 NFL season has fueled speculation about his future with the team.
Saleh will have a big say in that decision, as he should, but the early indications are Darnold will return. Two candidates who interviewed for the head-coaching vacancy, reached by ESPN, came away with the impression Darnold remains the preference of the team's hierarchy.
"They like him a lot," one candidate told ESPN.
Jets general manager Joe Douglas spoke positively of Darnold at the end of the season, but stayed clear of any definitive statements, indicating he wanted the coach to be part of that process.
Saleh hasn't spoken publicly since agreeing to a five-year contract; the former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator will be introduced next week. All we have to go on is what he said before the Week 2 matchup against the Jets, and it isn't much. He said Darnold "is getting a lot better. ... He's a very talented quarterback."
Ultimately, Saleh and Douglas have to decide if they can find an upgrade in the 2021 NFL draft. It would have been a no-brainer if they had landed the top pick; the choice would've been QB Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), meaning a trade for Darnold. They missed that opportunity by winning two of their last three games, resulting in the No. 2 pick. Assuming the Jacksonville Jaguars take Lawrence, the Jets will be left with Justin Fields (Ohio State) or Zach Wilson (BYU) or the best non-quarterbacks in the draft.
The Jets, probably like a lot of teams, see a gap between Lawrence and the other quarterbacks, a source said. If Douglas has reservations about Fields or Wilson (or any other quarterback not named Lawrence), it makes sense to build around Darnold by drafting tackle Penei Sewell or Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith.
The ideal scenario would be to swap places with a quarterback-needy team such as the Atlanta Falcons (No. 4), accumulating extra draft capital. Right now, the Jets have five picks in the first three rounds, including No. 2 and No. 23. They could easily turn that into seven picks by trading down. That could be a franchise-changing haul.
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Saleh wants to hire 49ers passing-game coordinator Mike LaFleur as his offensive coordinator, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported -- and that's important in this sense: He would run the Kyle Shanahan version of the West Coast offense, essentially the same system Darnold had as a rookie in 2018. The Jets' coordinator that season was Jeremy Bates, a Mike Shanahan disciple. Darnold played the best ball of his career over the final few games of that season.
It would be Darnold's third system in four years (head-spinning), but it's ideal for his skill set because it features rollouts and bootlegs, which would maximize his ability to throw on the run. It's a run-heavy offense that relies on play-action and pre-snap motion, two ways to make life easier for the quarterback. If LaFleur gets the job -- the Jets must interview a minority candidate to comply with the Rooney Rule, which now covers coordinator jobs -- it could be a career turning point for Darnold.
If Darnold doesn't improve, the Jets will be in quarterback limbo after the 2021 season -- an all-too-familiar position for the franchise. There would be a way out, though. Don't forget, they have two first-round picks in 2022, thanks to the Jamal Adams trade -- plenty of ammo for a quarterback. The problem with that is they would be starting over one year into the Saleh regime, hardly ideal.
Darnold has one year left on his contract, which means there's financial uncertainty beyond 2021 -- unless the Jets pull an upset and exercise his fifth-year option for 2022 (estimated $25 million). The financial component to this decision can't be minimized. That, coupled with Darnold's regression, makes the argument to trade him and draft his replacement. The Jets probably would get no worse than a third-round pick for him.
No doubt, Darnold went backward under former coach Adam Gase, as he was the lowest-rated passer in the NFL (72.7). He beat the Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns, two playoff teams, playing the role of game manager. His season high was 266 passing yards and, in a season of unprecedented scoring in the NFL, he had nine touchdown passes in 12 games.
Was it coaching or was it Darnold? Was he undermined by a suspect supporting cast? Douglas and Saleh are getting big bucks to make that call. They don't have to make it until the draft. For now, it's trending toward a fourth season for Darnold.