The final section of Five Difficult Decisions focuses specifically on the draft, and what could end up being Mike Maccagnan’s most important decision as Jets GM. The 10-6 finish will push fans to expect immediate impact players in the draft, but the team still has no long-term answer at quarterback. Is this the year the Jets find their franchise signal caller?
How important is grabbing the heir apparent this offseason? If Tony Pauline is to be believed, it’s something of pivotal importance to the Jets brass. Taking a quarterback in the first two rounds is definitely going to limit the immediate improvement potential of the Jets, but it’s a risk Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles seem willing to take. Bringing back Ryan Fitzpatrick addresses the present at the helm of the offense but not the position’s future. The Jets surely aren’t going to commit to Fitzpatrick on a long-term deal at age 33 and with natural skepticism over his ability to repeat his 2015 production.
Drafting a quarterback early is a move that tends to define eras for general managers and head coaches, so it won’t be taken lightly. Missing on a highly drafted quarterback can set a franchise backwards like no other move can, but the benefits of hitting on one are obvious. While 10-6 in year one is nice, Maccagnan and Bowles ultimately are here to build a team that is competing for the playoffs every season. The backbone of such teams are competent quarterbacks, and more often than not you find these players in the draft’s first two rounds. This is why it’s tough to treat Bryce Petty as the team’s future at the position. You can certainly root for him to develop into a capable starter at some point, but you can’t expect it. A team hasn’t found a franchise quality quarterback on day three or later in the draft since Dallas picked up Tony Romo in 2003.
With that said, for the Jets to take a quarterback in the first two rounds there must be prospects worth drafting. This class has some depth around the top half of the class, so extensive research is more than just due diligence. I mocked three quarterbacks in the top fifteen this past week, and there are a couple of polarizing Big Ten prospects in Connor Cook and Christian Hackenberg that will warrant a lot of studying as possible day two selections.
At this point in the process California’s Jared Goff and North Dakota’s Carson Wentz are seen as the cream of the crop and both in play as top five picks. It’s hard to imagine either being available for the Jets at 20, though a team that can red-shirt Wentz like the Jets is undeniably the best fit for him. There is much less of a consensus on Memphis’ Paxton Lynch, appearing as high in mock drafts as second overall to Cleveland or not appearing at all in a top 32. Lynch’s draft position like a lot of other players will become more clear as the process plays itself out more in the coming months, but at this point he’s the most likely of the mooted first round talents to be available for the Jets.
Lynch at his best looks like a Ben Roethlisberger clone, a legitimately mobile 6’7 245 pound impressive passer that can extend plays and keep his eyes down field. Despite a 68% completion percentage this past season however his ball placement can be pretty inconsistent, and can throw balls in the dirt a little too much than you’d like to see (a little like Fitzpatrick). He also has the typical shotgun-centric spread system knocks that a player like Bryce Petty had coming into last year’s draft. He needs at least a year of seasoning, but that is something the Jets can offer.
If it’s not a quarterback on day one, day two has a pair of intriguing Big Ten prospects with a valuable similarity but notable differences. Connor Cook and Christian Hackenberg are both three-year starters in pro-style offenses, which is becoming an increasing rarity across the college football landscape. Cook has been a productive starter for an excellent Spartans team his entire career, whereas Hackenberg has started for a mess of a Penn State offense the past couple of seasons. This has no doubt hurt Hackenberg’s production and makes him a divisive prospect. Cook is divisive in his own right, but for other reasons. Cook does have some strange questions about his football character, which is a particularly big red flag for a quarterback. Hackenberg meanwhile receives an enormous amount of praise in this area.
Strictly on the field, Cook was a consistently productive player and has a lot of first-round traits. Cook has decent size, a more than solid arm, a quick release and can make NFL-caliber throws (albeit with inconsistent accuracy). He looks very comfortable in a pro-style offense and when the pieces are functioning competently around him it’s hard to find a prospect in this draft that looks more like an NFL quarterback. He’s not as comfortable when put under pressure or if the defense forces him to ad lib from the original play, a negative trait in comparison to the rest of this class. If he can pass the meetings with teams at the combine, he could see a late reversal of fortune on his lukewarm draft stock. His decision to not attend the Senior Bowl has already raised questions over that, however.
Hackenberg on the other hand is a difficult player to get a grasp on. Outside of his first promising year under Bill O’Brien, the Penn State offense as a whole largely struggled. Hackenberg’s play was both a symptom and a cause. He completed at least 60% of his passes just twice this past season and forced a lot of balls. And while he throws an absolute dart, it’s the only pitch in his arsenal. Is it a hero complex? Has he already been David Carr’d? Either way, he’s a player that will need at least a year to reset. It’s not hard to imagine that with a flawless pre-draft process he could become hotly contested after the top tier prospects, but at this point he looks like a third round pick.
One last note on both Hackenberg and Cook is that neither finished with a season completion percentage of at least 60% in any of their full seasons as starters. Since 2009 33 quarterbacks have been drafted in the first three rounds. Only three quarterbacks finished with a completion percentage under 60% in their final season: Josh Freeman, Jake Locker, and Mike Glennon. It’s not great company.
The Jets should expect to be back in the playoff race with some improvements, but the lynchpin of consistent contenders is most often the quarterback position. It’s a classic now versus later predicament. If the Jets do draft a quarterback early, he must be “the guy” and not “a guy.” This is a player that is going to need time to develop and the Jets must be able to afford it with 100% commitment. If the Jets draft a quarterback and are ready to bail after one year, a too common fate for day two picks particularly, it’s a waste of a valuable pick. It’s the potential difference between a long-term starter at tackle or linebacker, or a new leader in the backfield.
Prediction: Unless the Jets trade Wilkerson and add another first round pick, getting the quarterback of the future will have to wait another year.
*College statistics and photo credit from www.cfbstats.com