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Joe Douglas can borrow the title for this Jets offseason from NBA superstar LeBron James. This is The Decision for Douglas.

The 44-year-old general manager won’t be making his announcement on a prime-time TV special, but he must figure out who is going to be his quarterback for 2021, and possibly beyond, over the coming weeks. Will Douglas stick with Sam Darnold for a fourth season, hoping a new coaching staff and a better supporting cast helps him improve? Will he draft a quarterback No. 2 overall and trade Darnold? The decision comes with so many layers and can be viewed so many ways that it sets up the most fascinating call for an executive and franchise in recent New York sports history.

“It’s the biggest decision in his career,” former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said. “It’s probably the biggest Jets decision in, I don’t know, 40 years. It’s enormous.”

Get this wrong and the Jets will be looking for a new GM in a few years. Get this right and Douglas will be on his way to bringing the Jets back from the wilderness in which they have been wandering for the past decade.

The decision has multiple layers to examine. For our purposes, let’s put aside the possibility of trading for Texans star Deshaun Watson, which at the moment still appears unlikely. Let’s focus on Darnold versus the college quarterbacks, led by BYU’s Zach Wilson.

The Darnold Debate

The Jets drafted Darnold No. 3 overall in 2018 with the hope they had found their franchise quarterback. Instead, he has been a confounding player. There are moments of brilliance interspersed with more plays that make you scratch your head. Injuries and illnesses have cost him 10 games and prevented him from playing a full season.

sam darnold plays for the jets
Sam Darnold
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg

The debate that is now raging on talk radio and Jets Twitter about Darnold is also occurring inside the organization. There are some who see untapped potential that has been held back by a poor surrounding cast. Others are ready to move on.

It is impossible to make a case for Darnold by using statistics. Since 2018, there have been 42 quarterbacks who have thrown at least 500 passes. Darnold’s QB rating of 78.6 is 41st out of those 42. Only Josh Rosen’s 63.5 is lower. Darnold has been intercepted 39 times, the fifth-most picks over the past three years.

On the other side of the debate, people point to the fact Darnold will not turn 24 until June and has not been given much help in his career. Robert Saleh would be his third head coach in four years. Mike LaFleur would be his third offensive coordinator. The franchise has been unstable since Darnold arrived. The GM who drafted him, Mike Maccagnan, was fired after Darnold’s first season.

Then, there is the talent around him — or lack of it. Darnold has played with an ever-changing cast of players. This is how many different starters he has played with at each offensive position: 15 wide receivers, nine tight ends, seven running backs, seven left guards, five right guards, five right tackles, four centers and four left tackles. Of those 56 players, none has made a Pro Bowl as a Jet.

Darnold’s coaching is also in question. Former head coach Adam Gase’s offense finished dead last in the NFL in total yards in each of the last two years. Gase, who was hired to bring out the best in Darnold, admitted he failed the quarterback. Darnold has had a passer rating of 100 or above in seven games in his career. Four of those came in his rookie season, three in 2019 and none last year, as he seemed to regress.

That leads to the question of how much better Darnold can be in LaFleur’s offense and whether Douglas can improve the offense through free agency and the draft this year, something that would give pro-Darnold people hope.

“I think he was put in situations that are tough to develop in at times,” said Matt Bowen, who played seven seasons in the NFL and is now an ESPN analyst. “When you have multiple head coaches, multiple play-callers, when you have a talent-deficient roster around you, it’s tough to evaluate at times. You have to go back to the traits. I think Sam Darnold does have high-level traits at the position. The question for the Jets is: Will those traits fit in LaFleur’s offense? Which I think is one of the best offenses today in the NFL.”

Saleh and LaFleur bring the Kyle Shanahan offense with them from San Francisco. It is an offense viewed as quarterback friendly because of the heavy emphasis on motion, play-action and rollouts. Darnold has always been good on the move, and the LaFleur offense could maximize that. There are many coaches and executives around the NFL who privately agree with Bowen and still see superstar potential in Darnold and believe that, in the right offense, he can realize his potential.

Another factor in the Darnold decision, though, is finances. Darnold has one year left on his rookie contract at $4.6 million. There is also a fifth-year option for 2022 that is $18.9 million. The Jets are unlikely to pick up that option. If they stick with Darnold, that means they would either have to move on after this year or commit to him with an extension. If they draft a quarterback, however, they would start over with a quarterback on his rookie deal and at least five years of team control.

Many around the league believe the Jets could get a second-round pick for Darnold in addition to a mid-round pick this year or next.

“If you’re going to sit here and tell me we’re going to take a quarterback because we think he’s going to be as good as Sam Darnold, if not better, in the next three years and it resets our financial timetable, I can’t sit here and be like, ‘No, that’s stupid,’ especially with the financial flexibility,” Orlovsky said. “But I also know this: If you take a quarterback and he just becomes OK and Sam Darnold goes somewhere else and plays good, woo, good luck.”

The College Option

This would have been simple if the 2020 Jets had not won two games in December. We’d be talking about Trevor Lawrence, the can’t-miss kid, going No. 1 overall. Instead, the quarterback picture at No. 2 is cloudier.

BYU's Zach Wilson
BYU’s Zach Wilson
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There is no consensus No. 2 quarterback in this draft. BYU’s Zach Wilson has gained the most momentum since the season ended, but he also played a cupcake schedule. Ohio State’s Justin Fields might have the most impressive traits. North Dakota State’s Trey Lance is a bit of a mystery after just one game last season and 17 total in college. Alabama’s Mac Jones won a lot of games with the Crimson Tide, but had an All-Star team around him.

The Jets’ draft board will stack up with those four quarterbacks … and one other.

“I would put Sam Darnold on the draft board,” Bowen said. “I would say where do we grade him based on his college and pro tape? If you grade him higher than Wilson and Fields, you stay with him. It’s as simple as that. If you don’t, then you move him.”

The Jets also need to evaluate what else they can do with the No. 2 pick if they keep Darnold. They could trade it for a package of draft picks to a team that has fallen in love with one of the quarterbacks. They could take the best non-quarterback in the draft to help Darnold. That could be a wide receiver like Ja’Marr Chase of LSU or DeVonta Smith from Alabama, or it could be Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell to pair up with last year’s first-round pick, Mekhi Becton.

“I’ve never been a big Darnold fan. He’s a turnover machine. That’s what he is,” said Dan Shonka, a longtime NFL scout who now is the general manager of OurLads scouting services. “But that being said, I think if I was Joe Douglas, I would draft Penei Sewell at that tackle spot. Now, you’ve got a couple of bookend tackles as long as Becton can hold up.”

Shonka is not as high on Wilson as others. Wilson has skyrocketed up the media’s draft boards over the past two months. Former NFL quarterback Chris Simms even rated him over Lawrence last week. Shonka has reservations about the BYU quarterback, who beat up on a weak schedule in 2020. He has him rated as the No. 5 quarterback behind Lawrence, Jones, Fields and Lance. Shonka also questions Wilson’s durability because of his slight 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame and the fact he already has had a shoulder surgery.

“You’re hearing the herd mentality out there with Zach Wilson,” Shonka said. “I want to tell you Zach Wilson may not hold up in the National Football League. He’s a narrow shoulder guy. He is very accurate, smart guy, good anticipation and all that. But he’s not a real big guy.”

Orlovsky is a bigger fan of Wilson, who he said has traits that he thinks will transfer to the NFL.

“Wilson plays a FOMO style of football — fear of missing out,” Orlovsky said. “He’s made me say, ‘Holy fudge’ more than any quarterback on tape this year. There’s a lot to like in his game. He has quick hands. He reminds me of [former MLB star] Omar Vizquel. He’s crazy fast with his hands.”

Fields’ trajectory has been the opposite of Wilson’s. His popularity peaked in the College Football Playoff semifinals with his performance against Clemson. If the draft had been the next day, he would have been the No. 2 pick. But his game has been picked apart since then.

“I think Fields is incredibly talented. He’s deliberate,” Orlovsky said. “You’ve got to figure out if he is going to develop from that because being deliberate in the NFL is not good right now. For a guy who is incredibly athletic, he doesn’t play super-fast. Are you confident that he will?”

Bowen believes some of the deliberate nature of Fields game is due to the Ohio State offense that featured deep, longer-developing routes. He argues Fields was often waiting on the receiver, rather than processing slowly.

Ohio State QB Justin Fields
Ohio State QB Justin Fields
Getty Images

Bowen said Fields has skills that can’t be taught.

“The traits matter,” Bowen said. “They have to matter because you cannot create those.”

Lance and Jones both have supporters, too, but seem less likely to be candidates for the Jets at No. 2.

The Final Decision

Douglas must make his call now in one of the trickiest offseasons ever for evaluating prospects. He won’t be able to have private workouts or even eat dinner with the college players. He will attend Pro Days, beginning with Lance’s on Friday, and debate with the scouts and coaches on his way to making the call that will define the Jets’ near — and possibly long-term — future.

Douglas has been on the job for 21 months. The next month-plus leading up to and into the first round on April 29 could be what defines his legacy with the Jets.

“I always think general managers put a stamp on their football team,” Bowen said. “Joe Douglas hasn’t done that yet. So, what is it going to be? I think this is it. This is what the decision is going to mean.” 

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