NFL Draft 2018, revisited: Why Jets picked Sam Darnold instead of Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson

The 2018 NFL Draft will be remembered for five quarterbacks going in the first round, starting with the Browns’ Baker Mayfield at No. 1 overall. Two-plus seasons later, the results are much better for some teams with those QBs than others.

The Jets took Sam Darnold at No. 3 overall, and so far have gotten limited returns. The Cardinals took Josh Rosen at No. 10 overall, only to give up on him after one season and take Kyler Murray at the same spot as Mayfield one draft later.

While Mayfield is doing well to bounce back from a sophomore slump in Cleveland, Darnold is on the verge of going in Rosen’s direction after Year 3. In comparison, Josh Allen, whom the Bills took at No. 7 overall, has emerged as a MVP candidate in 2020, while Lamar Jackson, the Ravens’ No. 32 overall pick, has already been there and done that in 2019.

The more the Jets, after an 0-3 start, lose games this season tied to Darnold’s poor play, the better they will be positioned in the 2021 draft to consider a trio of top QB replacement prospects: Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance. Darnold isn’t getting much help from his supporting cast, but there’s still plenty of pressure on him to play better with his job and future in New York on the line.

Hindsight is 20-20, but it’s still interesting to re-examine why the Jets were highest on Darnold above the rest of the ’18 QB class once the Browns took Mayfield. Here’s how New York’s pick of Darnold developed, setting up Allen to land in Buffalo and Jackson to be stolen by Baltimore:

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Why the Jets drafted Sam Darnold

Darnold looked like a can’t-miss pro-style QB during his stellar redshirt freshman season at USC in 2016. But after a shaky, inconsistent sophomore campaign where his interceptions ramped up, capped by a miserable Cotton Bowl performance against Ohio State’s talented defense, Darnold became more of a polarizing prospect.

At the same time, Mayfield, who was sensational as a junior at Oklahoma, followed that up with a spectacular senior season as the Heisman Trophy winner in 2017, succeeding Jackson. Darnold once looked like the surefire No. 1, but Mayfield clipped him at the end, as the Browns were thought to be picking Darnold as late as draft-day afternoon.

The Jets didn’t expect Darnold to be there. Most late mock drafts had them taking Mayfield or Rosen. There was a growing sense that the Jets preferred to take Mayfield most, given how much they liked his playing style and big “made for New York” personality. Rosen was seen more as the consolation, with the possibility of both Mayfield and Darnold being gone, in some order, with the first two picks.

It wasn’t just the Browns throwing off the Jets with their selection of Mayfield. The Giants chose to eschew quarterback when there was clamoring on the other side of New York that they should take Darnold if was available Instead, they were very happy to take running back Saquon Barkley, waiting until No. 6 overall in 2019 to take Daniel Jones to be Eli Manning’s successor.

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The Jets wanted Mayfield most for sure and didn’t really want Rosen. So Darnold’s availability became a surprisingly good Plan B. There were concerns about Darnold’s turnover rate, but then general manager Mike Maccagnan believed Darnold had the highest upside vs. Rosen, Allen and Jackson.

Turns out even the Bills wanted no part of Rosen and the Cardinals were lukewarm on him, despite taking him. The Jets, before 2018, hadn’t taken a QB in the first round since Mark Sanchez in 2009. They wasted a second-rounder on Christian Hackenberg in 2016.

At the time, Darnold looked like “the safest pick”, “checking more boxes” in terms of talent and intangibles than Allen, who played at less pedigreed Wyoming, and Jackson, an explosve but inconventional dual threat QB. Darnold, who dueled Rosen in the USC-UCLA matchups, was seen as the more heady, less erratic QB in comparison.

Everything lined up for the Jets to take the ideal-sized Darnold (6-3, 225 pounds) as their franchise passer and they had a hard time passing.

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Why the Bills drafted Josh Allen

For Allen, with his great size (6-5, 237 pounds), arm and athleticism, there were two big pre-draft concerns. The first was, despite the ability to make every throw and impress with the deep ball, Allen was often wildly inaccurate at Wyoming, completing only 56 percent of his passes. The second was playing against a lower level of competition but still not dominating as much as his physical talent said he should have.

The Bills, however, focused on the positives, helped by the background of coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane. Both had been part of the Panthers’ organization and experienced the rise of Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. Allen’s arm strength also had been likened to Patrick Mahomes, whom the Chiefs took No. 10 overall in 2017.

There were the MVP elements of Newton and Mahomes, but one more highly drafted QB factored into the mix — Carson Wentz. The Eagles’ No. 2 overall pick in 2016 had a simliar college pedigree from North Dakota State. The fact that Allen was favorable composite of all three made the pick more comfortable for Beane and McDermott.

The Bills, once Mayfield and Darnold were gone in the top three, knew the Browns, picking a second time, wouldn’t take a QB at No. 4. The Broncos, who were picking No. 5, liked some of Allen’s attributes, but passed and went for edge pass rusher Bradley Chubb. The Colts, with Andrew Luck, were out on Allen at No. 6. The 49ers, after the Jimmy Garoppolo trade, were out at No. 8. The Bears, after taking Mitchell Trubisky No. 2 overall the previous year, were out at No. 9.

The Cardinals, however, were looming at No. 10, and the Bills were originally picking at No. 12. The Buccaneers, with 2015 No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston, were glad to trade down five spots from No. 7 to No. 12. The Bills were willing to part with two second-rounders (No. 53, No. 56) because they believed in Allen that much.

The big three for the Jets in the 2018 draft always came down to Mayfield, Darnold and Rosen in that order. The Browns liked Allen but warmed to Mayfield more. The Giants had some interest in Allen, too, but they locked into Barkley. Darnold was sure to be a top-three pick with none of those teams trading down and the Bills accepted he wouldn’t be available at No. 12.

The Cardinals, however, really wanted Allen and the Bills had to be somewhat aggressive to grab him post Mayfield and Darnold. He was the guy they really wanted to build around to solve their long, post-Jim Kelly franchise QB woes. To their credit, they have done just that, with their offensive line, wide receiver, running back and tight end overhauls since taking him. Allen now is being lifted by the ideal supporting cast of protection and skill players.

Darnold was the Jets’ choice with Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles, before Adam Gase was hired to replace Bowles in 2019. eventually winning a short power struggle with Maccagnan. According to the New York Daily News, Gase, then Dolphins coach, preferred Allen to Darnold in the 2018 draft. That might explain a little why Gase hasn’t gotten the best out of Darnold and Darnold hasn’t looked good under Gase. The Bills then were smart to also get ahead of No. 11-picking Dolphins and Gase, too to get Allen.

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Why the Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson

The Jets do employ undrafted rookie cornerback Lamar Jackson in 2020. But if comedian Larry David had his way in 2018, Maccagnan would have listened to him and the “other” Lamar Jackson would have been their starting quarterback instead of Darnold.

But in reality, the Jets weren’t attached much to Jackson. The Browns were definitive on Mayfield and the Bills were all about Allen. In relation to them, the Jets settled for Darnold. vs. being really excited that he was their guy.

Given the Jets were desperate to be inside the box with Darnold, there was no way they would have been willing to adapt their offense to Jackson with then offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. Looking back, the fact that Jets never took Jackson seriously as a pro prospect since his dynamic rise at Louisville is more a reflection on their dysfunction than his talent.

As for the Bills taking Jackson over Allen, before the draft in 2018, Jackson told reporters he didn’t have a “single meeting” with Buffalo officials. With Jackson hailing from South Florida, the Dolphins had one reason to think about him at No. 12. But again, Gase, even with his Tim Tebow experience in Denver, wasn’t about to drastically change his offensive ways again for Jackson in Miami.

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Once Jackson got past the bad, needy teams, there was a thought that a good team with an established veteran QB would stash Jackson behind their starter. The top of that list were the Saints and Packers, who ended up picking No. 14 and No. 18.

The Ravens passed on Jackson at No. 25 overall, taking tight end Hayden Hurst (since traded to the Falcons) instead. Once the Steelers (No. 28) and Patriots (No. 31) didn’t jump on Jackson, it made sense for the Ravens to trade back into No. 32 ahead of the second round to snag him before several other teams would consider a run at him.

With Joe Flacco hitting his peak during the Ravens’ Super Bowl 48 run after the 2012 season, they finally found the ideal time to make the transition, knowing they had Greg Roman, known for getting the best out of dual-threat QBs in the NFL, on their offensive staff. Although teams such as the Patriots and Cardinals since also have been OK tailoring their offense around their quarterbacks’ running ability, the Ravens were best equipped to do so then, making them the perfect fit to maximize Jackson’s unique skill set.

Based on what we know now, Allen to the Bills and Jackson to the Ravens were meant to be. In contrast, Darnold, not nearly the same kind of athlete, is lacking that “it” factor and hasn’t gotten the same dedicatoin from the Jets to help make him better. 

Going forward, the Jets taking Darnold over Allen and Jackson may grow into feeling like one of the biggest draft QB whiffs. But in reality, the Jets’ real regret is not taking somewhat of a swing at either alternative.

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