By late November, the Jets usually are already thinking about the next season. When the playoffs are out of the range of possibility, it’s not hard to turn your attention to the NFL Draft.
This year, though, the Jets are 6-4, in the thick of the playoff race — and yet it’s fair to wonder about the future as they prepare for Sunday’s home game against the Bears. The future at quarterback, at least. Wednesday, coach Robert Saleh benched Zach Wilson, the purported franchise quarterback, due to poor performance. He’ll be the third-string quarterback (and inactive on game day) until further notice.
That’s not a ringing endorsement for his future with this franchise, though Saleh said this isn’t the end of the road for Wilson with the Jets.
“He’s capable of so much more than what he’s playing at,” Saleh said. “The issues for him are so fixable, but I think he just needs to be able to reset to get those things fixed. We haven’t wavered in our belief that he’s going to be the future of this franchise. We have not. Like I said, we have every intent to get him back on the football field at some point.
“Consider it a slingshot,” Saleh said. “You might get pulled back a little bit, but I think when we let go, it’s just going to take off.”
Rosenblatt: Jets’ Zach Wilson benching is a bold decision — and the right one
The Jets obviously believed in Wilson’s talent. They wouldn’t have picked him second overall (ahead of Bears quarterback Justin Fields) just 19 months ago otherwise. But through 20 games, Wilson has been a massive disappointment, and statistically one of the worst highly drafted quarterbacks in recent memory.
It’s fair to wonder if the Jets truly view Wilson as their future, especially as it becomes clearer that this is a playoff-caliber roster in need of a playoff-caliber quarterback. Maybe that will wind up being Mike White, but that remains unclear. More likely, the Jets will bring in someone new in 2023, whether to compete with Wilson in training camp or to replace him entirely.
We narrowed the options down to some notable candidates who could be acquired via free agency, trades or the NFL Draft — with the most obvious name at the top of the list.
1. Jimmy Garoppolo (49ers): When Wilson got hurt in the preseason, a contingent of fans wanted the Jets to make a trade for Jimmy G. Maybe they were onto something. The connection is obvious: Saleh, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur and many others on the Jets staff coached in San Francisco and developed close relationships with him. The Jets run a similar offensive system to the 49ers, too.
Garoppolo has been stellar since taking over as the starter in place of an injured Trey Lance. In nine games, Garoppolo has thrown for 2,159 yards, 15 touchdowns and four interceptions, completing 67 percent of his passes. Per TruMedia, he ranks fourth among QBs in EPA per dropback. And if he hits free agency, Garoppolo won’t come cheap — each of the 15 highest-paid quarterbacks makes at least $25 million per year.
I asked The Athletic’s Matt Barrows, who covers the 49ers, where Garoppolo stands with San Francisco and if he’d actually hit free agency. This is his feedback:
“Everything depends on how the current season turns out. Remember, Garoppolo took the 49ers all the way to the Super Bowl in 2019 and they still took a hard look at adding Tom Brady just a couple of weeks after the season ended. The 49ers, in fact, have been eying replacements for years, which suggests that nothing short of a Super Bowl victory will assure another season of Garoppolo in San Francisco. The sentiment toward Garoppolo is positive now, but it’s been fickle over his tenure with the 49ers. That is, he could win every game from here until the Super Bowl. But if he falters in the big game, many — perhaps most — fans will want him gone.
“The other issue is the salary cap. The 49ers have done their financial planning with the thought that they’d have a starting quarterback, Trey Lance, on a rookie deal. They have a big contract, Nick Bosa’s, to consider in the offseason and Christian McCaffrey’s is hefty as well. If Garoppolo continues on his current trajectory, he’ll have far more enthusiastic suitors than he had last March. How aggressively would the 49ers engage in a free-agent bidding war knowing they have Lance on the roster?”
2. Geno Smith (Seahawks): Don’t laugh. Smith has been so good for Seattle this season, he’s hard to ignore. If the Seahawks let him hit free agency, he’ll have plenty of interest. Saleh, who is close with Pete Carroll, even mentioned Smith on Wednesday as an example of why Wilson can turn things around: “I still talk to a lot of people in Seattle and ask them about Geno and the way he operates on a day-to-day basis.”
Geno Smith and teammates on the lost years that weren’t
The Seahawks (6-4) have far exceeded expectations, and it’s largely because of Smith: 2,474 passing yards, 17 touchdowns, four interceptions and an NFL-best completion percentage of 72.8. He has the second-best passer rating, too (108.0).
3. Daniel Jones (Giants): A year ago, this would’ve been a laughable idea. But Jones has been solid for the Giants this season, even if his numbers don’t jump off the page: 196.8 passing yards per game, 10 touchdowns and four interceptions while completing 64.6 percent of his passes — 9 percentage points greater than Wilson, and that’s with one of the worst groups of pass catchers in the NFL.
He’s big (6-5, 221), young (26 in May) and one of the better athletes at quarterback (451 rushing yards, four touchdowns). He’d also presumably come cheaper than Garoppolo, though there’s no evidence yet that he’s capable of leading a playoff team. The Giants also might franchise tag Jones this offseason.
4. Gardner Minshew (Eagles): He hasn’t been a starter since the beginning of his second season with the Jaguars in 2020, but look at his numbers to start that year: 1,855 yards, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions while completing 65.9 percent of his passes in seven games. If Wilson had those numbers this year, the Jets might be 8-2. Minshew was even better as a rookie, though that was long enough ago that it’s fair to wonder if that was a fluke.
Minshew would likely be competition in training camp for Wilson rather than an all-out replacement.
5. Teddy Bridgewater (Dolphins): A former Jet, even though he never played a game for them. You know what you’re getting in Bridgewater: a solid veteran who can run the offense. He threw for 3,052 yards, 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions as a starter for the Broncos last year. Not exciting, but potential competition for Wilson.
Cap casualties/trade options
1. Lamar Jackson (Ravens): Let’s just get this out of the way now. It would be shocking if the Ravens let Jackson leave, and he almost certainly won’t actually hit free agency with the franchise tag available. If his relationship with Baltimore got so bad that it was willing to trade him, the Jets surely would at least pick up the phone — but that would take an astronomical package, on top of Jackson likely seeking a record-breaking, fully guaranteed contract.
2. Derek Carr (Raiders): Things have gotten bad in Las Vegas. The Raiders seem likely to want to start fresh next season with a new quarterback, especially since cutting or trading Carr would save them nearly $30 million. He’s having what is considered a down year, but his numbers (243.5 yards per game, 15 touchdowns, five interceptions, 62.4 percent completions) would be a massive upgrade for the Jets.
3. Ryan Tannehill (Titans): Another option who isn’t a star, but is exactly what the Jets could use right now in place of Wilson. Tannehill has solid numbers — 210.6 passing yards per game, 10 touchdowns, four interceptions, 65.1 percent completions in eight games — for a run-heavy offense. Cutting him would save the Titans around $18 million.
4. Jared Goff (Lions): He’s shown he can win with a talented supporting cast, and the Jets will have that next season. He was the quarterback for a Rams team that went to the Super Bowl in 2018, and he’s been OK for the Lions this year. He’s averaging 243.8 yards per game, 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing 63.7 percent of his passes. If the Lions cut him, they’ll save $20.6 million.
Unless the Jets completely abandon Wilson, it’s unlikely they’d bring in a rookie quarterback to replace him — a rookie who would undoubtedly need seasoning, too. But the Eagles also didn’t intend to move on from Carson Wentz when they drafted Jalen Hurts in the second round, so it can’t be entirely ruled out.
At present, the Jets would draft 18th. If they make the playoffs, they’d drop down into the 20s. Based on rankings from The Athletic’s Dane Brugler, the quarterbacks who might be available in that range (or later) include Kentucky’s Will Levis and Stanford’s Tanner McKee. Others who have gotten draft buzz include Florida’s Anthony Richardson, Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell, Washington State’s Cameron Ward, Houston’s Clayton Tune and Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall.
(Top photo: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)