When the New York Jets said goodbye to Sam Darnold on his pre-draft visit in mid-April, they were convinced he’d never again set foot in their facility. They were so confident he was going to the Cleveland Browns that Jets CEO Christopher Johnson, in a private meeting with Darnold, played the role of real-estate adviser. He recommended the best places to live in the Cleveland area.
Everybody knows what happened on draft night. The Browns stunned everybody by taking Baker Mayfield with the No. 1 overall pick, allowing Darnold to fall to the Jets at No. 3. Johnson was so ecstatic he called it a turning-point moment for the franchise.
The young quarterbacks will be across the field from each other for the first time Thursday night at FirstEnergy Stadium. Unfortunately, it’s not Darnold versus Mayfield, who is learning on the bench behind Tyrod Taylor, but it’s still a semi-juicy storyline as Darnold faces the team that passed on him.
ESPN NFL Nation reporters Rich Cimini (Jets) and Pat McManamon (Browns) break down the quarterbacks, the draft-day decisions and the future:
The Jets have said they were thrilled Darnold fell to them. If the Browns had picked Darnold, would the Jets have picked Mayfield?
Cimini: Only a small circle of people on this planet know the answer to that question and they’re not talking. Know this: The Jets would’ve been comfortable with Mayfield or Josh Rosen; that’s why they traded up to No. 3. They weren’t as high on Josh Allen. The Jets really liked Mayfield’s mobility and competitiveness. This week, coach Todd Bowles described him as “gritty.” Could you imagine Mayfield’s big personality in New York? Oh, my. At the same time, they were enamored with Rosen’s arm talent and pro readiness. But as one member of the organization said, the football gods smiled on them by delivering Darnold, who was No. 1 on their board.
Why was Mayfield the pick for the Browns?
McManamon: The Browns did what general manager John Dorsey said was important in selecting a quarterback: “Trust your eyes.” Don’t talk yourself out of a player because of a measurement or impression. Watch him play, trust your eyes and believe the player will do the same thing in the NFL that he did in college. There were several intangibles that attracted the Browns to Mayfield. He was competitive. He was a leader; his teammates gravitated to him. He was a worker. He had earned everything he had, walking on at two colleges en route to winning the Heisman Trophy. But the bottom line was the success Mayfield had at Oklahoma winning games.
Why does Mayfield fit the Browns better? Why does Darnold fit the Jets?
McManamon: At this point in the Browns’ history, it’s tough to say any pick is the right fit until it actually proves itself on the field. Mayfield is the fifth quarterback taken in the first round by the Browns since 1999 (Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel), and the second taken first overall (Couch was the other). Browns fans have learned there are no guarantees. But Mayfield has shown three things that provide encouragement and engender belief: His approach has been mature, professional and impressive. In preseason games, he showed an uncanny knack for being able to keep his eyes downfield as he felt and avoided the rush. And he’s a fierce competitor. Cleveland is a tough, hard-working, blue-collar town. One of its favorites in team history was Brian Sipe, an undersized 13th-round draft pick who went on to have some of the best passing seasons in team history. Cleveland loves him, just as it loves Bernie Kosar, a gangly, awkward runner who simply won games. Mayfield has some of the same traits as any good quarterback, but what makes him fit Cleveland and the Browns better is his fiery competitiveness.
Cimini: Schematically, it’s an ideal marriage. Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates runs the Mike Shanahan version of the West Coast offense, which puts a premium on the quarterback being able to throw on the run. That happens to be Darnold’s best attribute. What separates him from most quarterbacks is that he can drop dimes while rolling to his weak side (left). In terms of personality, he doesn’t have Mayfield’s charisma, but that might be a good thing in New York. The Jets love Darnold’s laid-back, California-cool personality. He’s all football and they don’t have to worry about him ending up in the gossip pages of the New York tabloids, a la Joe Namath back in the day. Darnold lives for X's and O's, not TMZ.
Why is Darnold starting and why isn’t Mayfield?
Cimini: The Jets went into training camp with two veteran options, Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater (since traded), but they were blown away by Darnold’s aptitude for the position. After a three-day contract dispute, he showed up in the middle of practice, jumped into the huddle and started calling plays without any meeting or prep time. His recall from the June minicamp was outstanding and he hasn’t lost that momentum. The Jets probably could win more games with McCown, but they still consider themselves a rebuilding team and want to expedite the process by giving Darnold as much experience as possible. It’s hard to quibble with the decision based on the first two games.
McManamon: The Browns never gave Mayfield a chance to start; he didn’t get a single preseason rep with the starters, in games or practice. Stung by past decisions to force rookies in the lineup too early -- especially last season with DeShone Kizer -- the Browns made up their minds well before the draft they would find a veteran and let the rookie learn, knowing full well they were taking that rookie with the first overall pick. The Browns want Mayfield to watch, learn and absorb as much information as he can. Taylor will hold the job as long as he plays well and wins.
What’s the outlook for both the rest of the season?
Cimini: Darnold will face some of the best defenses in the league, starting next week against the Jaguars, so this won’t be a smooth joy ride through the country. The Browns, too, will present a challenge because of their complicated blitz schemes and because this is Darnold’s third game in 11 days. But it will be a great learning experience, making him a better quarterback for 2019. Along the way, he will deliver an occasional “wow” play that excites everyone. In last Sunday’s loss to the Dolphins, he spun out of the pocket to his left and fired a 30-yard bullet (through a tight window) to tight end Chris Herndon. He dropped the pass, but Darnold’s dazzling escape and off-balance throw left teammates and coaches buzzing. This kid is good.
McManamon: It all depends on Taylor. If he plays well, stays healthy and provides some wins, the Browns will keep him on the field. They are that committed to letting Mayfield wait. “There’s no need to rush,” Dorsey said. “I’ve seen when you rush too many of these guys in there, it’s not good. But if you have a degree of patience, it’s usually better in the long run.” That approach seems to have worked for Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City; he was Dorsey's draft pick as well. The Browns are trying to think long-term. But if the record dips and the Browns are into November and December, it would be reasonable to expect Mayfield to play to get him ready to start in 2019. Degrees of patience typically are directly related to the win total. The fewer the wins, the less the patience and the more likely the Browns turn to Mayfield.
Why is Darnold/Mayfield the right guy to end his team’s endless cycle of QB misery?
Cimini: The Jets’ fan base has been tortured for decades. Just when it believes it has a quarterback who can live up to the Namath legacy, something bad happens. In the 1980s, Ken O’Brien wore down because he took too many hits. In the 2000s, Chad Pennington inspired comparisons to Joe Montana, but he suffered multiple shoulder injuries. In 2010, Mark Sanchez helped the Jets to a second straight AFC Championship Game, but he faded as the roster turned over. In 2017, Christian Hackenberg... uh, let’s not go there. Darnold has a wonderful chance to reverse the curse, as long as the organization builds around him.
McManamon: With all respect to the Jets' fan base, they don’t know football torture like Browns fans do. The team in Cleveland has started 29 quarterbacks since 1999. They have one win since the start of the 2016 season. They have seen quarterback hope after quarterback hope fizzle. And they are putting the same emotional energy into Mayfield they have put into previous guys. The Browns believe that Mayfield has a certain swagger that will allow him to deal with the flotsam of past Browns failures the same way he dealt with walking on and succeeding in college. The Browns also have an aggressive general manager in Dorsey, who massively rebuilt the roster in a more traditional way. To believe in Mayfield is to believe in Dorsey.