jets sam darnold adam schefter
Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

What does Sam Darnold’s future with the New York Jets look like upon the hiring of Robert Saleh as the new head coach?

Ryan Honey

On Thursday night, news broke that the New York Jets would be hiring Robert Saleh to be the team’s next head coach. Saleh will be filling the void left by the recently fired Adam Gase, who was sent packing after nine wins across a pair of unsuccessful seasons.

Previously the 49ers defensive coordinator, Saleh is expected to bring a level of intensity to Florham Park that was certainly present in and around San Francisco’s defense, a unit that finished fifth in total yards allowed this past season despite a number of injuries.

But since he’s a defensive-minded individual, it’s interesting to think of what will come about with the team’s current starting quarterback. Sam Darnold‘s future with the organization isn’t exactly clear. You could blame Gase for this situation or you could point the finger at Darnold himself, but either way, the young quarterback has experienced a hindered development.

Does the organization ride with Darnold in 2021? Does it part ways with him and draft his replacement (Ohio State’s Justin Fields or BYU’s Zach Wilson) at No. 2 overall?

In disagreement with those who want to see change across the board, the Jets would be better off putting the former plan to use.

The belief is that Saleh is expected to bring 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur (the brother of Packers head coach Matt LaFleur) with him to Florham Park to be the Jets’ new offensive coordinator. The reason why this would make a difference in the eventual Darnold-related decision is that LaFleur’s passing attack has succeeded without the best of quarterbacks.

Thus, the Jets wouldn’t need to make a significant change and acquire Fields or Wilson in order to succeed in this facet of the game.

In 2020, the 49ers were 12th in the NFL with 252.1 passing yards per game with primary starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo out for much of the season. Amid his absence, Nick Mullens played in 10 games (eight starts) and recorded just a 44.2 QBR (total quarterback rating that’s adjusted based on the strength of opposing defenses), which was 31st out of 33 quarterbacks measured via ESPN.

Garoppolo’s QBR, on the other hand, was just 61.4 through his six starts, which would’ve tied him with Daniel Jones for 21st out of the quarterbacks measured.

LaFleur thus ran an effective passing attack when his quarterbacks were pretty much below average, essentially meaning the young coach was able to correctly scheme the passing-game targets toward open space.

Despite playing in just seven games, Niners receiver Deebo Samuel led the league with 4.6 average yards of separation (per Next Gen Stats) while star tight end George Kittle averaged 3.9 when he was healthy. Both Brandon Aiyuk and Kendrick Bourne averaged 2.8 yards of separation.

The Jets don’t need a new quarterback right now, especially with the type of offensive game-planning that LaFleur would bring to the table. Simply speaking, the receivers make the magic happen.

For what it’s worth, ESPN’s Adam Schefter additionally stated he “would be surprised if Sam Darnold were not the starting quarterback” in 2021.

So if Darnold does indeed remain with Gang Green, what does the organization do with the No. 2 overall pick? Do the Jets trade it away? Take an offensive lineman?

Either one of those choices makes sense, but the most logical maneuver would be to draft what would benefit LaFleur’s passing attack the most — a talented receiver. And boy, is the early portion of the draft stacked with those.

Given the likely occurrence of the Jaguars selecting Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the top overall pick, the Jets should have each of the top three receivers on the board — LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle, and Alabama’s DeVonta Smith — for the taking.

Judging by what we saw during Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship, Smith certainly seems the most talented, having caught 12 balls for 215 yards and three scores. Heck, he didn’t win the 2020 Heisman Trophy for nothing.

Each of the three wideouts portrays his own on-field strengths and is ranked in The Draft Network’s top 10 prospects. Right now, the top prospect of the three happens to be Smith at No. 5, and reasonably so. His elusiveness, speed, and ability to change the offensive tempo at the snap of a finger are all incredibly attractive qualities for a receiver, especially since the speed of the game is in a rapidly increasing state.

Time (along with the NFL Scouting Combine) will tell which receiver ends up becoming the top one drafted, but don’t be surprised if Darnold and one of these soon-to-be rookies link up at MetLife Stadium next season.

NYY

NYM

NYG

NYJ

NYK

BKN

NYR

NYI

NJD

SJU