New York Jets  

 

New York Jets must settle QB plan -- for the present and future

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By Wednesday afternoon, two of the NFL's most quarterback-needy teams had grasped for their future. The Rams and the Eagles are positioned, thanks to blockbuster trades, to select quarterbacks with the first two picks of the draft.

That leaves the New York Jets, among others, with no obvious quarterback on the roster for next season and without one on deck for the future.

Another week has all but come and gone and Ryan Fitzpatrick is still unsigned, with the sides remaining far apart, while the Jets continue to go through the ritual of due diligence/creating leverage. Brian Hoyer -- whose postseason meltdown for the Texans should serve as a reminder to Jets fans that, yes, it could have been worse than how Fitzpatrick played against the Bills with a playoff trip on the line -- paid a visit to New York, making it the most recent in a series of flirtations with the uninspiring free-agent market. Then, Hoyer moved on to a meeting with the Broncos. Paxton Lynch, the Memphis quarterback who is projected to be the third signal caller off the board, made a visit and he now becomes the quarterback to watch in the draft because he might now be the subject of considerable ardor for teams like the Jets.

To recap the Jets' tenuous quarterbacks room ...

Geno Smith remains on the roster, which gives little comfort to a fan base that has now lived decades without a franchise quarterback and -- for now -- doesn't even have a stopgap measure to rally around. That is what Fitzpatrick is, after all: an able placeholder for 2016, but probably not much more beyond that. Smith could wind up as everything from the starter to out of the building. Bryce Petty is still a work in progress. And receivers Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall sent video clips to Fitzpatrick of plays they were watching from last season as the team began its offseason workouts earlier this week. It was the football equivalent of a "wish you were here" postcard. On Tuesday night, Fitzpatrick was spotted at the New York Rangers' playoff game in the company of Decker and Nick Mangold -- while Hoyer was out to dinner with the Jets' decision makers -- leaving fans to wonder if such a public display of affection among teammates could mean a deal is imminent.

Don't bet on it quite yet. Fitzpatrick may seem to be out of other viable options for the next stop on his peripatetic career path. But he remains, indisputably, the best option for the Jets -- he is coming off a career year and developed terrific chemistry with Marshall and Decker -- and this contract staredown has gone on far longer than anybody could have expected, with Fitzpatrick wanting closer to top-of-the-market money and the Jets stuck on something that much more resembles an offer for a top-of-the-line backup.

The Jets have endured significant movement this offseason -- gone are Chris Ivory, Damon Harrison, Demario Davis and, most recently, the retired left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson -- and they have added Matt Forte and Ryan Clady, among others. Mo Wilkerson remains on the franchise tag, but he is not participating in the workouts and is most often talked about right now as a potential trade chip if the Jets choose to swoop far up in the draft order to select a quarterback. There isn't much question that the Jets have taken a step back this offseason in personnel. But with a brutal schedule staring them in the face, the idea of starting the season without Fitzpatrick is still the greatest obstacle to these Jets taking the final step into the playoffs.

Ironically, the upcoming draft should make Fitzpatrick look more attractive, not less. He is the ideal elder statesman to have in the starting role, which would allow a younger player to develop behind him. The Jets have picked a quarterback in each of the last three drafts (Petty, Tajh Boyd and Smith) and a stunning 10 since the 2000 draft, when they took Chad Pennington. Pennington was, in retrospect, the closest the Jets have gotten to settling the position since Joe Namath. But all those drafted quarterbacks point to the Jets' -- to the sport's -- desperation to find the most critical piece of the puzzle. Look no further than the Rams and the Eagles -- who already have a presumed starter and top backup on the roster -- moving up to draft one for evidence of how critical it is to settle the position.

The Jets have been trying to find a keeper at the position for years and no one has panned out over the long haul. But Fitzpatrick brought them a needed measure of stability and competence -- they don't always go in concert -- last season, taking over the starting job when Smith was punched by a teammate and then delivering the best statistical season of his career and of the Jets' pained history. Now the Jets have the rare opportunity -- rare for this franchise -- to engineer a smooth transition into the future. But to do it, they have to keep Fitzpatrick. And then look to the draft for the intriguing option it could present.

The feeling among some NFL decision makers is that the next few classes of quarterbacks do not look particularly strong. So for teams in need of a quarterback of the future, this class -- even if everyone in it could use some time to develop -- may be the last, best chance to do it for a while. With Jared Goff and Carson Wentz assumed to be going off the board with the first two picks, Lynch is the quarterback mostly likely to be available when the Jets pick at 20, although his value was almost certainly boosted when the Browns dropped down to the eighth slot. At 6-foot-7 and 244 pounds, Lynch wowed evaluators with his arm strength at his pro day. Because he played at Memphis, he did not face top-tier defenses every week and did not play in a sophisticated offense that demanded much of him. He is raw and likely will need considerable time to develop before he is ready to lead an NFL offense. But because of his obvious physical skills, he is considered to have the biggest upside of any of the quarterbacks who will be available. That could make him appealing to a number of teams who now must decide if they are willing to wait out the first round for him, or think it is necessary to construct a trade to get him.

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Leigh Steinberg is Lynch's agent and is about to participate in his 42nd draft. He says he will cry no tears if Lynch drops a few spots in the first round and is selected by a good team that can offer important coaching and give Lynch the opportunity to win for a decade. The Jets, with a top defense and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, could fit the bill -- especially if Fitzpatrick is in the fold to allow a player like Lynch plenty of time to get ready.

"When Bill Walsh had Joe Montana, he carefully integrated him in spots his first year," Steinberg said. "It's not all or nothing. There's a way to give that young quarterback the experience without breaking his confidence and breaking the world's confidence in him. If you had someone sitting behind Ryan Fitzpatrick, he could be brought in gradually in spots. Either they end up having a learning curve and he's ready to go by the middle or the end of the season or they are in much better shape for next year."

It is unclear if the Jets have a strong enough feeling about Lynch to merit moving up to acquire him. The Jets surely have other needs in the draft (an edge rusher, most obviously) and it would take a sacrifice (like having to include Wilkerson in a trade) if the Jets believe they would have to move far up the board to get Lynch. But settling the most unsettled position on the team, the most important position on any team, has to be the priority -- for now with Fitzpatrick and potentially the future with Lynch. They can do both before the draft is over next weekend. If they do, the Jets might finally look forward again to the day when their players are not just eager fans at a playoff game.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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