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NY Jets: The gap between Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield is smaller than you think

Allen Settle
NY Jets (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
NY Jets (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
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The gap between NY Jets’ quarterback Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield isn’t large.

The 2018 NFL Draft still lingers heavily on the minds of NY Jets fans.

April 26th, 2018 was the infamous date on which Gang Green used the third overall pick on a player the franchise hoped would be its eventual savior — quarterback Sam Darnold. This draft also saw Heisman quarterback Baker Mayfield taken with the first overall pick.

As is often the case in the NFL world, these two players were forever linked together through their draft positioning. Each will spend the rest of their career being compared to the other top selection.

Unfortunately for the Jets, this has not been a flattering comparison.

Both quarterbacks entered the league under similar circumstances. Both were top colligate prospects taken by famously struggling franchises. Both faced the challenging task of correcting the course of their respective teams.

Over two years later, it would seem as though each is on opposite trajectories. Mayfield’s Cleveland Browns currently boast a 10-5 record and have a 61 percent chance to clinch their first postseason berth since 2002.

Darnold, on the other hand, sits at 2-13. There is widespread speculation that his team will use their upcoming top pick to select his replacement.

Despite a gap that feels wider than the Grand Canyon, there is real evidence to suggest that Mayfield and Darnold may be closer than they appear.

One factor in this claim sits above all others. Conveniently, it was also the biggest reason for the Jets’ upset win over the Browns at the close of the season.

The NY Jets weapons vs. the Cleveland Browns’ weapons

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused the sports world (and culture as a whole) to experience situations that would have otherwise been unthinkable. In the case of the 2020 Week 16 slate, it gave us a sample that could not have existed under normal circumstances.

Cleveland faced a major competitive disadvantage when reports surfaced that top receivers Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and KhaDarel Hodge were each ruled ineligible for the matchup against the Jets due to COVID-19 contract tracing.

This left Mayfield with tight ends Austin Hooper and David Njoku as the only legitimate pass catchers on the roster. Otherwise, undrafted Ja’Marcus Bradley was forced into the team’s No. 1 wide receiver position.

For the record, he finished the game with five catches and 60 yards. These were his only receptions this season. You may also remember that the Browns were already without their superstar playmaker Odell Beckham Jr., who they lost to an ACL tear earlier in the season.

The results had a disastrous effect on Mayfield. The normally sharp passer recorded 285 yards despite throwing the ball 53 times. He finished the game with no touchdowns and a measly 21.0 QBR.

The comparison

These results could be expected of any quarterback who was forced to work without their top four options. However, it may also reveal that the ceiling of Mayfield and Darnold may be closer than many think.

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It’s not exactly a stretch to suggest that Darnold has failed to live up to expectations. The former USC star holds a 13-24 career record with 44 touchdowns and 37 interceptions.

However, he has spent the majority of his time in the NFL with a skill position corps that resembles the one the Browns deployed during their matchup.

During his rookie campaign, the third pick was forced to work with the likes of Jermaine Kearse, Robby Anderson, Terrelle Pryor, Eric Tomlinson, and Bilal Powell as his starting cast.

His sophomore season saw a depth chart with Le’Veon Bell, Anderson, Jamison Crowder, Demaryius Thomas, and Ryan Griffin. We have clear evidence that Bell has not been a top option since leaving Pittsburgh.

Now, in 2020, Darnold is surrounded by a 37-year-old Frank Gore, Crowder, Denzel Mims, and Chris Herndon.

Would you take any of these supporting casts over Mayfield’s combo of Hooper, Njoku, Nick Chubb, and Kareem Hunt? I certainly wouldn’t.

Conclusion

Mayfield’s nightmare scenario has been Darnold’s constant reality since making his debut in 2018. While I would take the Browns’ leader over the Jets in a re-draft situation, I would also push back on the idea that Mayfield is a vastly superior option to New York’s starter.

This will be important for Jets fans to wrap their minds around as the team makes difficult decisions about their future. If they elect to trade Darnold, they should set a high price.

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If they choose to retain him, they must provide him with legitimate talent to unlock his full potential.

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