After Trading Darnold, Pressure is on Douglas to Protect His New Quarterback

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Sitting at the podium on Tuesday afternoon, a usually stoic Joe Douglas couldn’t help but show the slightest bit of emotion.

The poker face from New York’s general manager faded just a bit when he was asked if his team would be selecting a quarterback with the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. His smirk—coupled with a coy, “that’s a fair assessment”—was about as forthcoming as it gets for Douglas. He smiled again when asked about Zach Wilson, perhaps giving off another tell about the future of the franchise under center.

His brief drops of excitement, however, were coupled with another emotion that was just as palpable: regret.

Douglas lamented the end of the Sam Darnold era on One Jets Drive. He may not have drafted the supposed franchise quarterback in 2018, but he felt responsible for making sure that Darnold reached his potential in New York. He promised Darnold’s parents that he’d “do everything in his power” to take care of their son with “protection and playmakers.”

The blockbuster deal that sent the former No. 3 overall pick to the Carolina Panthers was the final confirmation that he wasn’t able to make good on that promise. It was the confirmation that starting Darnold under center was no longer in the Jets’ best interest.

“Sam’s a first class human being, a pro’s pro,” Douglas said on Tuesday. “I really respect Sam and I’m rooting for Sam and I know he’s going to be successful [in Carolina].”

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Now, as the Jets prepare to usher a new quarterback into the building in just three weeks’ time, Douglas needs to make sure that the lack of support that plagued the Darnold era doesn’t rear its head again. He can’t afford to make the mistake that he, compounded with Mike Maccagnan before him, made the first time around.

The good news for the Jets is that there’s nowhere to go but up. Adam Gase’s offense ranked last in the NFL in 2020. Sam Darnold finished 33rd out of 33 qualified quarterbacks in QBR under Gase. Neither of those guys are in the building anymore. Insert head coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, who come from a Kyle Shanahan regime that breeds success offensively in spite of what has been subpar quarterback play in San Francisco.

Douglas will have the opportunity to pair Saleh and LaFleur with a new quarterback, starting their clocks simultaneously and allowing whoever is under center to develop under the same coaching staff. That’s a luxury Darnold never had.

The Jets also went out and got themselves a No. 1 wide receiver in Corey Davis. Douglas admitted that letting wideout Robby Anderson walk last offseason was a huge mistake, and he made sure he rectified it early in free agency by signing Davis. The addition of Keelan Cole, a full offseason to get healthy from Denzel Mims and a proven slot receiver in Jamison Crowder complete a receiver room that might not be elite, but is certainly good enough. The Jets can add another receiving threat in the draft with one of their five top-100 picks.

Running back figures to be a committee, with Tevin Coleman leading the way, unless the Jets invest a top pick in a running back. The Niners offense has operated under a committee since Shanahan took over, and if the offense LaFleur plans to run in New York will resemble that of his old team at all, one can expect the same for the Jets. It’s a zone-run scheme that’s heavily reliant on quick offensive linemen that can get off the ball and seal their defenders toward the inside.

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Left tackle Mekhi Becton showed his ability to be a dominating run blocker a season ago. George Fant finished the season strong after a rocky start at right tackle, and figures to be a much better scheme fit in LaFleur’s offense than he was in Gase’s. 

The question marks come on the interior, and if Douglas wants to give his rookie quarterback support, the interior offensive line is going to need to improve dramatically. That can be the make or break in establishing the run game to open up play-action. It can also prevent some of the interior pressure that plagued the Jets a year ago.

Darnold was pressured on 38 percent of his dropbacks last season, fifth most in the NFL. Zach Wilson, the presumed No. 2 pick for the Jets, is especially adept at creating passing lanes on the run and outside the pocket, but that can’t be the norm. He’ll need a whole lot more protection than Darnold got.

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Alex Lewis and Greg Van Roten at the two guard spots didn’t get the job done last year, and the Jets can save nearly $9 million by cutting them before June 1. Unfortunately, New York missed out on virtually all the top interior linemen in free agency. Dan Feeney and Corey Levin are the only additions the Jets have made on the line thus far and neither project to be a starter.

If Douglas is going to adequately keep his rookie signal-caller off his back, he’s going to need to address the interior line early in the draft. That’s where he can really set this supporting cast apart from the one he gave Darnold a year ago.

Organizationally, Douglas has a lot more power this year. He hand-picked his head coach. He’s hand-picked the weapons that will fill this locker room. Now he’s about to hand-pick his quarterback. With that power comes accountability, though. Douglas can’t miss with these moves. Whoever starts at quarterback next year has to have a significantly better environment in which to succeed than Sam Darnold did.

If he does, Douglas will have a whole lot more reasons to smile.

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