THE JETS ARE DEFINITELY TAKING A QUARTERBACK... UNLESS THEY DON'T
With as much coverage as the NFL Draft gets, there's one storyline going woefully overlooked. Strangely, it involves the largest media market.
On March 17 the New York Jets traded the sixth overall pick and three second round picks (two this year, one in 2019) to move up three spots in the first round Thursday night. Given the hefty cost it makes sense they're committed to selecting a franchise quarterback. We accept it as fact.
But it's entirely possible that quarterbacks are drafted 1-2, which begs the question: How can the Jets be sure which QB will fall to them? The experts say it's obvious: They must feel comfortable with at least that many of this year's wildly divergent crop of signal callers.
That's flawed logic.
A more reasonable assumption is the Jets are comfortable with three players at the top of the draft. Assuming they're all QBs is based on the tenet that teams with unsettled situations under center must draft the best rookie passer available. Look a little closer, though.
Today's offenses have little in common with even the most successful schemes of 10 years ago. The modern game, while still quarterback-dependent, is almost exclusively about finding and exploiting matchups (witness the proliferation of perimeter screens and run-pass options). Traits like positional flexibility matter more than ever, and an emerging wave of new-school general managers have no qualms about challenging the status quo.
So what if the Jets' draft board starts with two quarterbacks instead of three? What if Saquon Barkley is next in line?
If that sounds crazy, consider the following:
1) Positional Values Change Constantly. The notion that it's never okay to take a running back at the top of the draft is a relatively recent construct. It came about as offenses stopped relying on bell-cow backs to handle 20+ carries per game. As the running back era faded, premium-pick disappointments (Reggie Bush, who quietly had a pretty good career across several stops) and outright busts (Trent Richardson, anyone?) cemented the belief that top-10 backs were a no-no.
But lo and behold, offenses are pivoting once again. Strictly defined roles like wide receiver, running back, and tight end have given way to shape-shifting weapons that defy easy categorization.
Take the current gold standard for positional flexibility, Le'Veon Bell. After skipping training camp the Pittsburgh lightning rod rushed for 1,291 yards and nine touchdowns last season -- but also racked up 85 receptions, good for 10th in the league.
Did you get that? He had more catches than A.J. Green. More than Mike Evans. More than Demaryius Thomas and Doug Baldwin and Stefon Diggs. You get the idea.
But while Bell sets an incredible standard, he's not alone. Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara, David Johnson, LeSean McCoy... the list of multi-dimensional headaches goes on. Did you know Mark Ingram had 58 receptions last year AND rushed for 12 touchdowns? Hell, Duke Johnson caught 74 passes.
Meanwhile, tight ends split wide and wide receivers take handoffs in the backfield. Up is down, black is white. It's beautiful anarchy.
2) The Jets' quarterback situation is not as dire as you think. Josh McCown is no one's idea of a long-term solution, but he did yeoman's work last year on a terrible team with virtually no supporting cast. (Remember when the talk last summer of a winless Jets team? They won five games!) He won't carry them to a Super Bowl, but on this year's team, with so many holes to yet to fill, is McCown really the thing holding them back?
Then there's the sneaky addition of Teddy Bridgewater, who may never return to form after a sickening leg injury two years ago. The upside on the 2014 first-round pick, however, is significant. Is it crazy to think new general manager Mike Maccagnan might play the long game, addressing other needs while giving Bridgewater time to prove himself.
3) Barkley might be as good as advertised. What makes a transcendent talent is anyone's guess. But man-oh-man, people sure seem to think the Penn State superstar is special. He's frequently mentioned as an option for the Browns and Giants, the two teams picking before the Jets, and Saints head coach Sean Payton says Barkley is "the best running back prospect I've seen in 25 years." He's also reputed to have exceptional intangibles, work ethic, and leadership skills. Those are face-of-a-franchise traits.
So if that's the case -- if the Jets can get a Le'Veon Bell-type talent but without all the off-field baggage -- isn't that player worth the third overall selection? Particularly if you're not sold on whatever quarterbacks are still available?
Oh, and then there's this: As the roster currently stands, Isaiah Crowell is the Jets' starting running back.
Bonus Option: They can still trade this pick. If Maccagnan has his heart set on one or two guys and they're gone by pick three, he may get more back than he gave up in the first place in a trade with another QB-needy team. Perhaps he figures there's a good shot he'll land his man, and if not he'll simply flip the pick and recoup his investment.
None of this is to say the Jets won't draft a quarterback with the third overall pick this Thursday. Even if they do, we'll never know how their board was stacked or what they might've done if that particular QB wasn't available. In other words, unless they pick Barkley or some other non-QB, this whole thing is academic.
Still, don't be surprised if Maccagnan makes waves at the top of Thursday's draft -- or if he's not the only one. The winds of disruption are blowing and NFL roster-building is in a state of transformation.