Bryce Petty, taken in the fourth round, is a more important draft pick for the New York Jets than Leonard Williams, who was taken in the first. This has nothing to do with the oversize talent of Williams, the pass-rusher from USC who was supposed to be gone before the Jets grabbed him at No. 6.
This has everything to do with Williams' stated ambition in his first mass interview as a Jet. Before his career had even started, Williams was describing a career highlight as a sack of Tom Brady, preferably his first sack as an NFL player. Never mind that nobody wants to wait until Week 7 to get to the quarterback, particularly that quarterback; here was a new foundation player for a franchise in dire need of one, locked in on the man most responsible for the state of the Jets of the past 15 years.
The quarterback is everything in pro football, and until the Jets find a real one in Tom Brady's division and in Eli Manning's market, they will remain a second-class NFL citizen on both fronts. So the Jets have to hope Petty develops into a star. And if he can't develop into a star, the Jets have to find a prospect in next year's draft, or in 2017, who can.
They're not winning a Super Bowl for the first time in nearly half a century until that happens. Williams might help coach Todd Bowles build an even stronger defense than Rex Ryan built, and do it without any of Ryan's bluster, but the NFL is a more quarterback-centric place than ever before, a place that's increasingly unforgiving to teams without a high-level player at that position.
It's been a long time since journeymen Trent Dilfer (Baltimore) and Brad Johnson (Tampa Bay) won championships in a three-year span while linked to elite defenses. The list of the past dozen quarterbacks to win it all reads like this: Brady, Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Eli, Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson and Brady.
As NFL starters, Fitzpatrick and Smith have a combined record of 44-73-1 with 148 touchdown passes against 135 interceptions. Fitzpatrick has been in the league 10 years to Smith's two, and has made 89 starts to Smith's 29, and he has never posted a winning record. So he isn't a worthy short- or long-term solution, in case Smith decides to take in another movie this fall instead of attending a pregame meeting with the rest of his team.
Petty has a chance to be a lot better than both. A chance, anyway. He's a 6-foot-3 pocket passer with above-average athleticism and an arm accurate enough to throw for more than 8,000 yards in two seasons as Baylor's starter. Of the 29 touchdown passes Petty completed last season, 20 covered at least 20 yards, more than any other major-college quarterback. The knocks against him are ripped right from the book on Marcus Mariota. As another video-game operator of a spread offense, Petty has no history of huddling up teammates or taking snaps under center. Scouts and executives were worried enough about his transition to the NFL game that he wasn't among the top 100 prospects taken in the draft; he lasted until Pick No. 103.
But a middle- or late-round landing spot doesn't necessarily represent a death sentence for quarterbacks. Brady famously went 199th in his draft; Bart Starr went 200th; Russell Wilson went 75th.
"It's all about the person," Petty said. "My desire is to be the best regardless of what system I'm in. ... Being in another offense, being in another system is part of the game and I want to master that system just like I mastered what we did at college."
The Jets thought enough of Petty's odds of mastering their system to trade up one spot to get him, and to make sure Jacksonville didn't ship Petty to Cleveland or somewhere else. It was a smart move by newbie general manager Mike Maccagnan, who has needed about 15 minutes to make his predecessor, John Idzik, look like the hopeless amateur he always was on owner Woody Johnson's dime.
The Jets still need to get a little lucky here. They need Petty to become their most significant draft choice, because he sure is playing a more significant position than any on Bowles' all-world defensive front.
"We weren't trying to compensate for the quarterback or not compensate for the quarterback," Bowles said when asked if drafting Williams was the Jets' way of assembling a defense that would cover for the likes of Smith. "We were just trying to take the highest [-rated] player available."
At some point the Jets will need their quarterback, any quarterback, to be their highest-rated player, just like Brady is at the top of their division and just like Eli Manning is across town. The Patriots were able to address their defense with their first four draft choices, including three linemen to go after opposing quarterbacks, because they're all set with Brady, the four-time champ, on the other side of the ball.
Meanwhile, the Giants decided to better protect their own two-time champ by spending their first-round pick on 6-foot-6, 329-pound Ereck Flowers of Miami, a bodyguard GM Jerry Reese called "a gigantic human being" and coach Tom Coughlin called "a battleship, an aircraft carrier ... the strongest guy in the draft."
The Jets have added quality players (Williams) to hit the quarterback, they have added quality players (Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie) to intercept the quarterback, and they have added quality players (second-round pick Devin Smith, veteran Brandon Marshall) to catch passes from the quarterback. Of course, they haven't added a quality player to be the quarterback.
Unless that player turns out to be Bryce Petty.
"You have people that question you and that was their decision," Petty said. "So my job now is to prove to the other 31 teams what they're missing out on."
His job now is to develop into someone more valuable than Leonard Williams. If that doesn't happen, the Jets will continue their never-ending search for their next Joe Namath, a credible franchise quarterback to compete with the Bradys and Mannings of his craft.