Sam Darnold begins the most important six-game stretch of his career on Sunday, now that his injured shoulder has healed enough for him to play. It’s either a six-game sprint for him to save his career as the Jets’ franchise quarterback, or a six-game showcase to prove his worth to somebody else.
If it’s the latter, there is no doubt that the 23-year-old Darnold is still seen as a valuable asset around the NFL. Just how valuable he is, if the Jets eventually decide to trade him, remains to be seen.
“Nobody thinks he’s a lost cause, if that’s what you’re asking,” said one NFL executive. “If they decide to trade him, they’ll find plenty of takers. Getting a franchise quarterback with experience, where you’re not starting from scratch, still on his rookie deal? There’s a ton of value in that.”
There is, of course, no guarantee the Jets will be looking to trade Darnold this offseason. However, at 0-10 they are careening towards the No. 1 pick in the draft, where they’d figure to draft Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who is generally acknowledged as one of the best quarterback prospects to come out of college in years. At the very least, the Jets figure to be drafting second, where they might have to consider Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields.
If that happens, and they choose to draft a quarterback, they will have no choice but to explore the trade market for Darnold, which could be robust. He’d have value to any team that doesn’t have a young, quarterback of the future and isn’t in position to draft one this spring. That could include “maybe a dozen” teams, according to that NFL executive, though in reality that estimate seems high.
What could they get? Several NFL sources have said the starting point for any Darnold deal figures to be the deal the Arizona Cardinals made for Josh Rosen in 2019, after they drafted Kyler Murray with the first overall pick one year after they drafted Rosen 10th overall. The Miami Dolphins traded a second-round pick and a future fifth-round pick for Rosen, who was cut one year and three starts later.
But Darnold is much better than Rosen, and far more well-regarded around the league, so the Jets likely would expect to get more – especially since he still has two years left on his rookie contract (including his fifth-year option for 2022). Whether they could get more – like, perhaps, a first-round pick – depends on how many teams are engaged in trade talks. Sources mentioned Washington, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Denver, or even Jacksonville if they don’t land the top pick as possibilities. Perhaps the Tampa Bay Bucs could be involved if they’re pondering life after Tom Brady. And New England would surely be interested, though the Jets couldn’t possibly be crazy enough to trade a franchise quarterback inside the AFC East.
With six games left in the season and five months until the draft, all that is just speculation. It’s not even clear yet that the Jets absolutely would draft Lawrence if they had the first pick. They could probably get an even bigger return by keeping Darnold and auctioning off the No. 1 overall pick instead.
But if they do decide to trade Darnold, it’s clear some teams will be very interested. That could change if Darnold’s final six games are a disaster, but right now he is not viewed as damaged goods.
“He’s still got a strong arm, a knack for making plays out of the pocket, and we always thought he was pretty intelligent and poised,” the NFL executive said. “He’s gotten into some bad habits, bad mechanics, but that’s really a product of the lack of support around him. And all that stuff can be fixed.
“Teams that need a quarterback, that can’t get to the top of the draft, will see fixing Darnold as much easier than grooming a second-tier rookie. And if it doesn’t work out, they’ve only wasted a year or two.”