Sudden fall: Jets' Sam Darnold goes from savior to potential trade chip

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- It was such a cool moment, those hugs in Detroit.

New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, a winner in his first NFL start, walked out of the locker room with teammate Josh McCown and was immediately embraced by his mother, Chris, who was fighting back tears of joy. Next on the greeting line was his father, Mike.

"That was fun," a smiling Darnold said as he fell into his dad's arms.

Heck, yeah, it was fun. The Jets' fan base went to bed that night -- Sept. 10, 2018 -- thinking its long and agonizing search for a franchise quarterback was over. The Jets were 1-0 and they had a 21-year-old rookie with infinite potential.

Who could have imagined 26 months later, Darnold and the Jets would be heading toward a seemingly inevitable breakup?

Darnold has gone from perceived savior to potential trade chip in less time than it takes to complete law school. Still rehabbing his twice-injured throwing shoulder, he won't play Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS) -- his fourth missed game. It's fair to wonder:

Have we seen the last of Darnold in a Jets uniform?

Darnold said he's "very confident" he will play again this season, and the organization is optimistic as well, but the tenor of this injury/recovery has changed. Instead of "rush-him-back" mode, which was the approach after the initial injury Oct. 1, both sides are proceeding with caution because now it's a two-way business decision.

The Jets view Darnold as an asset, and they want to protect the value of that asset in the event they decide to trade him -- the likely outcome if they land the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL draft. A third shoulder injury would put him in the category of "damaged goods," making it harder to recoup, say, a second-round pick. (In 2019, the Arizona Cardinals received second- and fifth-round picks for 2018 first-rounder Josh Rosen.)

Darnold, too, sounds different than a month ago. While expressing a desire to play and be with teammates, he said Monday, "I've got to think about me. Me injuring my right shoulder, it's definitely tough to kind of weigh all the options of what I can do. You start thinking about [it] in terms of just longevity and how I can further injure the shoulder. From where we're at right now with it, it's a good decision to be able to give it another week to heal up."

Assuming he returns, Darnold can solidify the 2021 starting job with the Jets by playing well this season and winning a couple of games, which probably would knock them out of the Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields sweepstakes. But here's the cold reality:

Unless he morphs into Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes, Darnold's performance over the remainder of the season won't matter if the Jets have a chance to draft Lawrence or, possibly, Fields. Many talent evaluators believe Lawrence would be too good to pass up.

"I'd say he's Andrew Luck. You can't say no to him," a former general manager and longtime personnel executive said of Lawrence. "He's got all the pedigree, great kid, everything. You have to take him. I like Darnold. Darnold, in time, might be a really, really good quarterback. He's young and promising, but your plan now is, 'What do we get for Darnold?' You just kind of move on."

Despite his struggles, Darnold is well-regarded among evaluators, many of whom believe he has been undermined by poor personnel and poor coaching. Even general manager Joe Douglas, who will make the final call on Darnold's future, admitted recently, "I certainly haven't done a good enough job of surrounding Sam with the weapons he needed last year or this year."

Douglas gets a hat tip for accountability, but his emotional investment in Darnold has limits, especially since he didn't draft him. Lawrence is considered a once-in-a-decade prospect at the sport's most important position. Not only would he be an upgrade over Darnold, but there's a significant salary-cap benefit to starting over with a rookie contract.

It would cost $4.6 million to keep Darnold in 2021. If they exercise his fifth-year option, which is debatable, it would be an estimated $25 million in 2022. That's two years, close to $30 million.

The first pick in the draft would be about $36 million over four years, plus a fifth-year option.

Currently, the Jets (0-9) hold the No. 1 pick, one game ahead of the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8) -- which means the Jets control their own destiny, so to speak. They can lose their way to Lawrence while hoping Darnold plays well, but not too well. Yeah, it's a weird dynamic.

"My job as a quarterback is to move the ball down the field, take care of the football and score touchdowns," Darnold said. "I feel like once I get back out there, I'm going to do everything I can to do that."

After 32 starts -- two full seasons -- Darnold is not in a good place. His record is 11-21 and his Total QBR is 44.6 -- 36th out of 36 qualifying quarterbacks since 2018.

Dead. Last.

Statistically, Darnold was a better quarterback in his past 16 starts compared to the first 16, as he made slight improvements in nearly all of the major passing categories. That's somewhat encouraging, but this isn't the career trajectory the Jets envisioned when they made him the No. 3 overall pick in 2018.

"The hardest thing to do is to separate the play of a quarterback from what's going on around him -- the lack of talent around Sam Darnold," said NFL Network analyst Brian Billick, a former Super Bowl-winning coach with the Baltimore Ravens. "They brought in Adam Gase to be the quarterback whisperer and make that transition. It hasn't happened so far."

An AFC scout who has studied Darnold doesn't think he is playing as poorly as his numbers might indicate, adding, "The team is just bad, so he looks bad. I don't think there's a question with overall decision-making. And I don't think they have to get Lawrence. [Darnold] is good enough. Trade the pick, accumulate studs to build a better team with better character and more toughness -- and get a new head coach."

Darnold has gone three straight games without a touchdown pass and nine straight without more than 230 yards in a game, dating to last season. By comparison, Cincinnati Bengals rookie Joe Burrow already has topped the 230 mark in six games.

According to scouts, Darnold struggles against blitzes and man-to-man coverage. Only five quarterbacks have been blitzed more than Darnold over his past 16 starts. When he gets hit early, he tends to get happy feet and will rush through his progressions. At times, he presses, leading to bad decisions -- such as refusing to slide and aggravating his previously injured right shoulder. The same habit from college -- sloppy footwork -- remains an issue.

Darnold once represented hope for a downtrodden franchise. Now he's like the rest of the players on the team, playing out the string and wondering about his future.