The verdict on the most significant decision facing Joe Douglas during his 22 months as Jets general manager arrived on Monday, and with it a point of demarcation on the franchise’s timeline of despair.
Rather than retain Sam Darnold as the team’s starting quarterback, giving him an opportunity to bloom in a new offensive system with a new coaching staff, the Jets traded him to the Carolina Panthers, indicating that they will select his successor with the No. 2 overall pick in the N.F.L. draft this month.
In return, the Jets will receive a sixth-round pick this year and second- and fourth-rounders in 2022, adding to the stockpile of draft capital amassed by Douglas as he attempts to rebuild a franchise that went 2-14 last season and that hasn’t made the playoffs since the 2010 season, the longest postseason drought in the league.
“I want to publicly acknowledge the commitment, dedication, and professionalism Sam displayed while with the Jets,” Douglas said in a statement. “He is a tough-minded, talented football player whose N.F.L. story has not been written yet. While all these things are true, this move is in the short- and long-term best interests for both this team and him. We thank Sam for all of his work on behalf of this organization and wish him well as he continues his career.”
It has been just under three years since the Jets, ever searching for a quarterback, chose Darnold third over all out of Southern California in the same draft that yielded Baker Mayfield for Cleveland, Josh Allen for Buffalo and Lamar Jackson for Baltimore.
Darnold joined a Jets organization that had long tried and failed to identify and develop a dependable starter. He arrived at a time when, with the New England Patriots closer to the end of the Tom Brady era than the beginning, the prospect of contending in the A.F.C. East seemed a little less daunting.
Instead of maximizing that opportunity, the Jets bungled it. They failed to surround Darnold with a sturdy offensive line, adequate playmakers and a consistent run game. They hired an offensive-minded coach, Adam Gase, whose failure to oversee a competent offense resulted in a 9-23 record and his dismissal after two seasons. Under Gase, Darnold regressed and inspired an infamous meme during a 2019 loss to the Patriots. Darnold threw four interceptions in the game, and the microphone he was wearing for the Monday Night Football broadcast caught him saying “I’m seeing ghosts” after one of the picks.
In three seasons, Darnold completed 59.8 percent of his passes with 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions, fifth most in the league over that span, according to Pro Football Reference.
With Darnold gone, the Jets are primed once again to give this drafting-a-quarterback thing a try: According to the ESPN researcher Evan Kaplan, if the Jets take a quarterback at No. 2, they will become the first team since at least 1967 to select two quarterbacks among the first three overall picks in a four-year span.
With Trevor Lawrence of Clemson expected to be taken with the first pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars, the leading contenders for the second selection are Zach Wilson of Brigham Young and Justin Fields of Ohio State.
The Panthers, ready to move on from Teddy Bridgewater, have been searching this off-season for an upgrade, and they no doubt concluded that Darnold, 23, offered more appeal than choosing a quarterback with the No. 8 overall pick or trying to move up in the draft. With the status of one potential alternative, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, in doubt because of accusations of assault and sexual misconduct leveled at him in multiple lawsuits, the Panthers opted for Darnold. He will get the chance to work with a sharp offensive coordinator, Joe Brady, and a better offensive line and cast of skill positions than he did with the Jets.
Already this off-season, Douglas has made significant changes to reshape the perception of the Jets by hiring the dynamic Robert Saleh as the head coach and adding receivers Corey Davis and Keelan Cole and the edge rusher Carl Lawson, among others, in free agency.
The optimal, though perhaps most difficult, path to contending in the N.F.L. is securing a great quarterback on a rookie contract, with its slotted salary and modest cap charge allowing a team to bolster other areas of its roster.
The previous Jets general manager, Mike Maccagnan, tried to do that with Darnold and failed. Now comes Douglas’s turn.