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Jets QB primer: Three candidates, seven burning questions

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Todd Bowles is facing what could be the toughest decision of his coaching tenure with the New York Jets -- a multiple choice question at quarterback. Will it be the grizzled incumbent (Josh McCown), the once-promising veteran with the inspiring comeback story (Teddy Bridgewater) or the hot-shot rookie (Sam Darnold)?

Bowles got off easy in previous training camps. In 2015, IK Enemkpali made it a no-brainer after breaking presumptive starter Geno Smith's jaw with a locker room sucker punch. Ryan Fitzpatrick parlayed that break into a two-year run. It was an easy call last summer because Christian Hackenberg flopped, leaving Bowles no choice but to start McCown, which worked out in the short term.

Now it gets really interesting -- a rare, three-way quarterback battle, and it commences Friday with the first training camp practice. What you need to know:

1. Does Darnold really have a shot to be the opening day starter?

Yes, he does. If the third overall pick builds on his encouraging spring and plays well in the preseason, he probably will be under center when the Jets open Sept. 10 against the Detroit Lions. If Darnold is neck-and-neck with the vets, he still could get the nod based on the organization's belief that he's the future and will only get better. Basically, it's his job to win.

A little history: Of the last 10 quarterbacks drafted in the top 10, dating to 2012, six started on opening day, most recently Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles (2016). Deshaun Watson started in Week 2 last season for the Houston Texans.

2. Is it realistic to expect Darnold to be ready by Week 1?

This is where some perspective is required. For all his potential, Darnold doesn't have a lot of quarterback experience (only three total seasons as a starter in high school and college) and he was a turnover machine last season at USC (a total of 22, tied for the most in the FBS). The Jets must coach that out of him, if possible. If he can't protect the football, he has no chance to win the job.

"A lot of great quarterbacks have a gunslinger mentality, where they believe they can make every throw," offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates said last month. "Sometimes you just have to teach them the process of situational football and taking care of the football."

You'd like to see them exercise patience. There's no need to rush him.

3. In what ways can Bates help Darnold?

Bates operates a quarterback-friendly system designed to put the burden on the playcaller, not the quarterback. In other words, his offense should make it easier from a mental standpoint at the line of scrimmage. Bates is a Mike Shanahan disciple whose system is similar to those of Sean McVay (Los Angeles Rams) and Kyle Shanahan (San Francisco 49ers), who worked wonders last year with Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo, respectively.

Darnold isn't as experienced as Goff or Garoppolo, so don't expect instant stardom, but the organization believes Bates' scheme can help him through some of his growing pains. This could offset Darnold's lack of experience.

4. Would Bowles entrust his team to a 21-year-old? He prefers veterans, doesn't he?

There is some truth to that, considering his track record, but let's get one thing straight: Darnold is better than Hackenberg and Bryce Petty, both ex-Jets. Bowles, who has the final say on the decision, needs to win games and will play the quarterback who gives him the best chance. It would be silly for a 20-28 coach to think otherwise.

5. Can Bridgewater steal the job?

Sure can. The former Minnesota Vikings starter, two years removed from a gruesome knee injury, was the talk of the spring at One Jets Drive. His command of the offense and winning personality really impressed his new teammates. Bridgewater moved well in noncontact drills, showing the ability to throw on the run -- a key element in Bates' offense.

But can his surgically repaired knee withstand the week-to-week rigors of the position? We won't know that until he gets hit in the preseason, if then. If Bridgewater checks all the boxes, he can run off with the starting job if Darnold isn't ready.

6. Could Bridgewater get traded?

Yes, the Jets are open to it, but it hinges on a few factors. Namely: Is there a market for him? Right now, the answer is no, but that could change with one injury in the preseason. In 2016, the Eagles were prepared to go into the season with Sam Bradford, Chase Daniel and Wentz, but they traded Bradford to the Vikings, who needed an injury replacement for -- wait for it -- Bridgewater.

Bridgewater could be deemed expendable if Darnold wins the job. In that scenario, why keep all three? They'd be paying Bridgewater and McCown a total of $16 million to sit on the bench.

7. Where does all this leave McCown?

In a holding pattern. The Jets can win games with McCown (5-8 last season), but they consider him a fallback option. If neither Darnold nor Bridgewater seizes the moment, they can turn to McCown, knowing he could step and lead the offense. There isn't a more respected player in the locker room than McCown, but he's 39 and it's time to think young. This summer will be devoted to seeing what they have in Darnold and Bridgewater.