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Sam Darnold isn't a bust, but Colts-Jets 2018 trade now feels one-sided

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Why the Jets should draft Lawrence with No. 1 pick (1:24)

Mike Tannenbaum explains that, regardless of how Sam Darnold plays this season, the Jets should select Trevor Lawrence if they land the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. (1:24)

The trade wasn't expected. It was a Saturday morning, St. Patrick's Day, in 2018. The Indianapolis Colts, coming off a 4-12 record in 2017 and holding out hope that they would have a healthy quarterback in Andrew Luck, traded back three spots from No. 3 to No. 6 with the New York Jets.

The Jets were looking to draft a franchise quarterback; the Colts had an eye on several players in that area while also wanting to compile more draft picks for general manager Chris Ballard's rebuilding project.

Ballard gave up the third pick to get the No. 6 pick, two second-rounders in 2018 and a second rounder in 2019.

Green is supposed to bring along good things on St. Patrick's Day. But for the Jets and their green uniforms, the verdict on quarterback Sam Darnold, who was taken at No. 3 overall, is still out. Colts guard Quenton Nelson, who was the sixth pick in the draft, is the NFL's best guard while playing on one of the best offensive lines in the league.

The struggling Jets (0-2) visit the Colts (1-1) at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS). More than two years later, here's how the blockbuster deal looks today:

Worth it? Darnold's talent evident, but future murky

Picking third, the Jets didn't know which quarterback they'd get, but they wound up with the one they coveted most.

Sunday's game will be the 29th start of Darnold's career, the 16th under Jets coach Adam Gase -- a full season under the so-called quarterback whisperer. For the first time, Darnold's standing with the Jets is a hot topic of discussion in the blogosphere and sports-talk world.

Has he grown into what the Jets had envisioned in 2018? No, because they expected a mega-star.

Is he a bust? Absolutely not.

Darnold is somewhere in that giant in-between, a gifted player struggling to carry a franchise that has provided little infrastructure. His blemishes are more noticeable than, say, those of Josh Allen, who was drafted four spots after him by the Buffalo Bills, but some of that is due to the disparity in the supporting casts. The Jets' 0-2 start already has fueled buzz about Trevor Lawrence (the Clemson quarterback who is expected to be drafted No. 1 in 2021), raising questions about Darnold's long-term future.

"I feel like he's progressing the right way," Gase said. "We've just got to keep working through some of these things that occur in games."

No, it hasn't been perfect. Since the start of the 2018 season, Darnold ranks 36th out of 37 qualifying quarterbacks in Total QBR (45.7). The numbers aren't kind to Darnold, who is 11-17 as a starter, but it shouldn't change the narrative surrounding the trade.

It was the right move then.

Now?

"It doesn't seem like it at the moment, but the team is struggling and Darnold has no weapons around him," an NFL scout said. "That's a tough question to answer, it really is."

In two-plus seasons, Darnold has played with 17 different wide receivers (those who caught at least one pass), 18 starting offensive linemen and not a single running back who gained more than 789 yards in 2018 or 2019. With so many moving players, none of whom approached Pro Bowl recognition, it's hard to get an accurate read on Darnold.

"I'm sure it's probably not fun for him to go through where he's got a revolving door of wide receivers and trying to figure out who his guys are," Gase said. "The injuries to those guys aren't fun for him to go through."

Oh, but the talent is there. Did you see Darnold's "how'd he do that?" touchdown pass on Sunday to wide receiver Braxton Berrios? Flushed from the pocket, he sprinted to his left at 14 mph and somehow threw to his right -- a dime that covered 37 yards in the air, per NFL Next Gen Stats.

Don't try that at home.

On paper, the Jets overpaid for the Darnold pick. Using the points-value chart that many teams use as a guideline for trades, the Jets gave up 3,100 points, the Colts only 2,200. The chart says the No. 1 overall pick is worth 3,000 points, which underscores how much the Jets surrendered.

No doubt, the Jets could have used those picks to address other needs, as Indianapolis did with its haul. Maybe they would have better receivers, a perennial weak spot. Maybe they'd have an edge rusher for a change. The Jets knew the downside to the trade, but they were tired of relying on stopgaps and quasi-prospects at the sport's most important position. The previous regime, headed by former general manager Mike Maccagnan, made a bold move to end the perpetual game of musical quarterbacks.

It was worth a shot. The value of the investment has dipped, based on current market conditions, but the trade still has growth potential.

"I think we're going to see him turn into that quarterback that we all expected shortly, I really do," Jets CEO Christopher Johnson said last week. "I think he's an absolute sterling quarterback."

Money talks in this business. In May, the Jets must decide whether to exercise Darnold's fifth-year option, which will cost an estimated $25 million in guaranteed salary for 2022.

If the Jets somehow wind up with the No. 1 overall pick, they could select Lawrence. If they go in that direction -- highly speculative at this point -- they almost certainly would trade Darnold, whose contract is easy to move. Could they recoup a second-round pick? That might be tough; it depends on how Darnold plays the rest of the way.

Worth it: How Colts built around an offensive guard

One of Ballard's favorite sayings is he wants a team that can win at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

The Colts didn't have that in 2017, Ballard's first year as general manager. It was nothing close to that, in fact. Indianapolis gave up a league-high 56 sacks.

That wasn't going to cut it, especially with the expectation Luck would be back for the 2018 season after not taking a snap in 2017 (shoulder surgery).

The 2018 draft featured quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Darnold, running back Saquon Barkley, linebacker Roquan Smith and pass-rusher Bradley Chubb.

But Ballard had his eyes on one player, the only player whose pro day he went to watch: Nelson.

"Now, [Ballard] didn't just say, 'Hey, we're going to move back three spots.' There were a whole lot of other conversations with that," Colts coach Frank Reich said. "... We knew that Quenton was in the equation. He wasn't the only guy in the equation because you can't just bank on that. You never know, but we felt some confidence he would be available. I just trusted Chris and it turned out to be a great move."

The Colts believed if they moved back, they still should be able to get one of three players: Chubb, Smith or Nelson.

Chubb went to Denver at No. 5. That meant Nelson or Smith at No. 6.

Remember Ballard's desire to dominate the line of scrimmage?

That's where Nelson fit, and the Colts had their eyes on a little-known linebacker from South Carolina State named Darius Leonard in the second round.

Selecting an offensive guard that high in the draft isn't normal. In fact, Nelson was the second guard selected in the top 10 of the draft since 2007.

The Colts wanted to ensure that Luck, once he returned, would not take the same pounding he endured during the first five years of his NFL career. And they knew Nelson was that good, so good that some say he was arguably the best overall player in that draft.

"I 100 percent agree with Chris on this," Reich said. "For this big of a move, both in the trading back and of the drafting of a guard, as you're saying at that position, I think it's appropriate to say that it was probably good that the GM and the head coach both 100 percent agreed that this is a generational player. That was the case in evaluating Quenton."

Nelson has changed the identity of the Colts' offensive line from one of the weak links on the roster to one of the league's top units.

It's not often an offensive lineman is a highlight waiting to happen, but that's what Nelson is. His pancake blocks routinely show up on social media. Smaller defensive backs do their best to avoid Nelson when he pulls on a running play.

"I definitely hear about the plays I make, but at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. I have a job to do and I have to go out every single Sunday and do that," a humble Nelson said. "Just have to stay steady, stay the course. And stick to the process and attack each week as if you're going against the best player."

Nelson's nastiness has rubbed off on the rest of the unit. He has started all 36 games (34 regular season, two playoffs) in his career. The Colts have started the same five offensive linemen for the past 20 overall games, which includes the 2018 playoffs. They gave up a league-low 18 sacks in 2018, and it's one of the reasons why quarterback Philip Rivers decided to sign with the Colts this past offseason.

But it goes beyond Nelson, already a two-time first-team All-Pro. The Colts used the rest of the draft picks from the trade to select starting right tackle Braden Smith at No. 37. The 2019 second-round pick acquired from the Jets was used on cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, a starter last season as a rookie.

The Colts obviously still need a franchise quarterback, with Rivers, 38, playing on a one-year deal.

But nobody thought Luck would shock the NFL world and retire two weeks before the start of the 2019 season.

The Colts will have to address the quarterback position at some point soon, and when they do, he'll have some key components around him.