The Jets get optionality and the chance to build around Zach Wilson, but an NFL executive explains what the Panthers are getting in Sam Darnold.
Sam Darnold is going from Broadway to Mint Street, following Monday’s blockbuster trade that sent the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft from the Jets to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for three picks.
Darnold is also getting a fresh start, after a disappointing three-season run in New York, where the games he looked like a top quarterback were few and far between.
“He can be a functional NFL starter with flashes of big-time play, and then snaps of head-scratching decisions with the football,” an AFC personnel executive tells FanSided of Darnold.
That’s what the Panthers are getting in return for a 2021 sixth-round pick, and picks in the second and fourth rounds in 2022.
From his time behind center of the USC Trojans, through his 38 games in Kelly Green, turnovers and poor decisions have dogged Darnold, lowering his once lofty ceiling.
A career 59.6 percent passer, Darnold produced 8,097 passing yards with 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions during his time in New York.
Clearly, general manager Joe Douglas and the Jets believe dropping BYU’s Zach Wilson at the No. 2 overall pick into an offense that now features wide receivers Corey Davis and Denzel Mims along with franchise tackle Mechi Becton have far more potential than dropping the needle and praying Darnold could turn things around if Ja’Marr Chase or Kyle Pitts suddenly appeared in his supporting cast.
As a result, the Jets’ offense has the chance to make real strides, and grow together with a rookie quarterback.
Wilson inherits a far more stable and potent situation than Darnold has had at any point in his career to date. Both in terms of playmakers around him, and a power-structure assembled by Douglas — who did not draft Darnold — and rising offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur.
Meanwhile, Darnold lands amid his most dynamic supporting cast yet … Running back Christian McCaffrey, and wide receivers Robby Anderson, D.J. Moore, and David Moore give the new Panthers’ signal-caller plenty of weapons.
But, Darnold’s most significant inheritance isn’t a weapon at all.
“I expect him to play pretty well under [Panthers offensive coordinator] Joe Brady,” the executive says. “Joe Burrow looked like a mid-round pick in 2018, then became the No. 1 overall pick by 2019 after playing in Brady’s offense.”
Brady could be on the cusp of becoming an NFL head coach for the first time next season at the age of just 32. Especially if his new star pupil experiences a Burrow like renaissance in 2021.
Back in New York, the Jets are hoping Wilson’s time as Broadway’s marquee star is far more entertaining and successful than Darnold’s. Just as the Panthers clearly believe they have the supporting cast and coaching infrastructure in place to Bring out the best in their new quarterback.
So, what is Darnold’s ceiling, away from the mediocrity that surrounded him in terms of skill players and uncertainty in terms of coaching in Adam Gase’s failures to develop him?
“Sam can be a middle-tier starter in this league,” the executive pointed out. “Having him and Jameis Winston, both reclamation projects, in the NFC South will sure be interesting to watch.”
PodcastBuccaneers’ built in Super Bowl repeat advantage
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in their home stadium back in February, capping an NFL season unlike any other. It might have provided a built in advantage to repeating at the end of the league’s first 17-game season in history.
COVID-19, and all of its stringent protocols, lurked around every corner and not only did the Buccaneers largely avoid the disease wreaking havoc — with linebackers Devin White and Shaq Barrett both getting healthy and back on the field for the postseason, but the circumstances just might have helped mold the champions that included four new starters acquired via free agency, including quarterback Tom Brady.
“[The pandemic] Was a blessing and a curse,” Buccaneers left tackle Donovan Smith told me during an appearance on The Matt Lombardo Show podcast. “It did feel weird not having fans there. We had to sit there, make the adjustments and deal with it. There were no excuses.
“It was also a blessing, a lot of guys were away from their family because it brought everyone together in a way. You were always together in a locker room, some guys stayed together, and you learned a lot about each other going through all of that together, because that was the people you were with.”
It was easy to see the Buccaneers got stronger as last season went along, rattling off a perfect 4-0 record in December as part of a 5-3 second-half.
Much has been said in this space about the masterful job that Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht has done this offseason keeping the band together; tagging wide receiver Chris Godwin, re-signing Lavonte David and Shaq Barrett, extending Brady to lower his cap number, and bringing back Rob Gronkowski, along with all 22 starters.
That cohesion, combined with the experience of navigating a pandemic and its impact on team chemistry last season, should serve Tampa Bay well as it aims to repeat in a season that will present a new set of unprecedented challenges.
This time around, Brady won’t be playing his first year in a new system — and will be coming off a 4,633-yard season with 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions at age 43. Head coach Bruce Arians won’t need to meld a unit together out of a group of newcomers.
While the hope is daily testing eventually becomes a thing of the past, and masks can eventually be saved for Halloween, playing 17 games will present its own set if rigors. The smart teams will find a way to play younger players and rest veterans during blowouts. Sidestepping major injuries will be just as important as keeping COVID-19 out of a locker room.
It will be the smart coaching staffs and the veteran rosters that are best built to succeed in the next season unlike any other, that kicks off this September.
Tampa Bay’s depth, and veteran experience winning a championship together just might allow the Buccaneers to embark on a dominant barnstorming tour beginning in Week 1, rather than building to a crescendo over the second half.
“You have to approach the season and attack the season from Week 1 to get to those big games,” Smith explained. “You want to win games early, win games often, and you want to get on a roll. Being able to get everybody back just allows us to have another year or two in the system, be more comfortable with guys, play faster, more physical, and fly around having fun with it. The game slows down as you get more reps, and we’ll be back together and be able to get even better.”
Tre Nixon’s journey from UCF to the NFL Draft
In a historically deep wide receiver class, UCF’s Tre Nixon is primed to give some team some supreme value.
When Nixon pulls on an NFL hat for the first time later this month, it will be grueling training sessions at EXOS in Phoenix that helped prepare him for the biggest moment of his professional life.
For weeks at a time this winter, Nixon trained with South Carolina’s Shi Smith, Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman, Ole Miss’s Elijah Moore, among others. Actually, competed against might be the more apt description for what those sessions wound up being like.
“I was surrounded by guys who are going to get picked really early,” Nixon recently told FanSided. “So, I needed to bring my A-game every single day to just compete.”
After catching 109 passes for 1,671 yards and 13 touchdowns in three seasons at UCF, following his freshman season at Ole Miss, Nixon’s time in the Desert set the stage for Nixon to run the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds at 6-foot-1 and 187 pounds, post a 35.5″ vertical leap, and run the short-shuttle in 4.25 seconds.
“We had a really tight group,” Nixon said. “Every day, when we were running sprints, or the three-cone, or the short-shuttle, if one of us ran a fast time, I stood there thinking in my head ‘I have to be faster,’ or ‘I’ve got to get better.’ Every day, day in and day out, we were competing with each other and it brought the best in all of us.”
Like every other prospect in this class, not having the NFL Combine was a disappointment for Nixon, but he hasn’t let that discourage him from putting his best foot forward both at pro day and during virtual visits with teams.
“Growing up as a kid, that’s what everyone dreams about,” Nixon admitted, of the disappointment over not having a Combine. “Going out there and running a 4.3 [40-yard dash] on national TV and doing all of your position work. Ultimately, though, we had pro day to show our skill-sets and what we can do … ”
With pro day in the rearview mirror, Nixon hopes that he can follow in the footsteps of some of the receivers who he’s watched growing up, such as DeSean Jackson, “and how he created plays deep downfield as the fastest guy out there,” and Adam Thielen among others who he constantly “tries to pick up little pieces of their game.”
But one NFL receiver has already reached his hand back to Nixon to help bring him along to the league, and that’s former Rebels teammate, Seattle Seahawks All-Pro DK Metcalf.
Metcalf and Nixon were roommates in Oxford for one season, and a strange twist of fate had Metcalf rehabbing at Exos while Nixon was in town training. He made sure to do his part to make Nixon’s draft journey as smooth as possible.
“I was talking to him about his pre-draft process went,” Nixon explained. “One of the biggest things I learned from DK and A.J. Brown, it’s the work ethic that matters. How they prepared for what they did … Every day, I saw DK out there catching extra passes off the JUGS, I’d see A.J. putting extra work in. The work is always going to speak for itself, but the amount work you put in is what you’re going to get out when it comes to game time. That was the biggest thing I took with me when I came from Ole Miss to UCF … If you want to go get something, you have to put in the work to get it.”
That mentality has served Nixon well through training, through UCF’s pro day, and now in the weeks leading up to the draft. He hopes, that it translates into hearing his name called, where that work ethic will follow him into the league.
“Every day when I wake up, my challenge is to completely empty the tank,” Nixon said. “When it comes to training, route-running, and whatever we’re working on that day, I’m going to know that I emptied that tank. It’s nothing new to me at that point.”
“We want to be a great team that drafts, develops, and retains their players, not draft develop and trade. But like I said earlier, you try to take the information you have at hand and try to make the best decision that you can moving forward. And ultimately, these decisions were made. We were able to acquire assets to help us moving forward.”
Douglas, entering his second NFL Draft, has the opportunity to draft his quarterback and will have two first-round picks this year, two first-round picks next year, and three picks in the second-round over the course of 2021 and 2022.
Based on the Jets’ draft record last year, Douglas’ 10 picks in the first three rounds and 21 picks overall combined over the next two years has the chance to build quite a formidable roster, possibly capable of challenging the Buffalo Bills in short order.
Here’s a look back at the Jets’ picks in the first-three rounds of the 2020 draft, under Douglas:
Round 1 – OT Mekhi Becton: 74.4 overall grade from PFF, seven sacks allowed
Round 2 – WR Denzel Mims: 15.5 yards per reception in nine games
Round 3 – LB/S Ashtyn Davis (pick acquired in trade with Giants): 36 total tackles, 1 TFL, 1 fumble recovery in six starts
Round 3: DL Jabari Zuniga: five total tackles in eight games.
Becton is the Jets’ starting left tackle, Mims will likely open camp opposite Jamison Crowder, and Davis should push for a starting job.
Given the bevy of picks in Douglas’ war chest, not only is New York positioned to move up in the first-round each of the next two years to add a premier player, but Douglas’ track record in the draft has the chance to turn the multitude of those picks into quality players on the depth chart.
Every draft pick is a lottery ticket by nature, but Douglas’ experience evaluating and acquiring talent during his time in the Baltimore Ravens’, Philadelphia Eagles’, and now the Jets’ front office should give New York fans plenty to be optimistic about with Wilson behind center and Douglas building around him.
Playing 17 NFL games is going to present a whole slew of challenges for players and teams to navigate, particularly to prevent starters from suffering injuries from adding an added game’s worth of snaps.
The smart teams are going to find a way to spread playing time out to players lower on the depth chart both to gain experience and to preserve the health of their starting players over the course of what will be more of a proverbial meat-grinder than usual.
Nowhere is this going to be more important than along both lines of scrimmage, where the drop-off from starters to reserves is more stark and important than anywhere else on the field.
Some teams have already made that part of their Modus Operendi.
Joe Judge and the New York Giants, in my opinion, are one of those teams that seem to have real-game experience implementing the kind of strategy that will serve them — and other teams in 2021 and beyond.
Because the Giants started No. 4 overall pick Andrew Thomas at left tackle, and the Georgia alum seemed to struggle through the first half of the season, and also drafted tackle Matt Peart in Round 3, and guard Shane Lemieux in Round 5, those three rookies rotated snaps with veteran tackle Cam Fleming and at times, guard Will Hernandez, who was ultimately supplanted by Lemieux by season’s end.
Not only did three rookies gain valuable experience, but Thomas, Peart, Lemieux, and Hernandez all experienced playing offensive line in an environment where they had to be accustomed to coming off the bench for plays or series’ at a time.
Of that group, Thomas played 96 percent of snaps, Lemieux played 49.7, Fleming played 89, Hernandez played 51.7, and Peart played 14.8 percent of the Giants’ offensive plays.
Peter King suggested in his Football Morning in America column this week that smart teams could tie their quarterback’s snaps to their left tackles. But, it also wouldn’t be a shock to see backup interior linemen play roughly half of snaps, particularly in garbage-time situations in the second half of games. Last season, Judge was already ahead of that curve, albeit for what at the time was a very different reason.
The Giants used a multitude of linemen to gain exposure to NFL game-speed and to be ready should disastrous injuries strike up front last season. This upcoming season, that strategy might be viewed as the forward-thinking one to prevent those injuries and prolong a team’s competitiveness.
Matt Lombardo is the site expert for GMenHQ, and writes Between The Hash Marks each Wednesday for FanSided. Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattLombardoNFL