Hoping to end their long search for a franchise-caliber quarterback, the New York Jets selected USC's Sam Darnold with the third overall pick Thursday night in the NFL draft, signaling the start of a new era.
The Jets, who traded up three spots last month, chose Darnold over UCLA's Josh Rosen and Wyoming's Josh Allen. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield went to the Cleveland Browns with the No. 1 pick. That Darnold went to the Jets was a surprise, as he was long projected as the likely top pick.
Darnold said he wasn't discouraged that he wasn't the No. 1 pick, claiming he knew it was a possibility from the outset. Fair or not, he's perceived as the Jets' savior.
"I'm taking it head on," he said of the pressure. "I'm a pretty confident guy. I'm comfortable in my own skin. I'm going to go in there and do the things I do, what the coaches ask me to do and do it at the highest level. That's my plan."
This was a monumental decision for the Jets, who hadn't used a first-round pick on a quarterback since Mark Sanchez in 2009. It has happened only three other times in the common-draft era -- Richard Todd (1976), Ken O'Brien (1983) and Chad Pennington (2000).
Darnold is the Jets' highest-drafted quarterback since Joe Namath, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1965 AFL draft.
"He has a very high ceiling," said general manager Mike Maccagnan, who scouted Darnold five times in person last fall. "That will play itself out over the spring."
Coach Todd Bowles didn't rule out the possibility of Darnold as the opening-day starter. Incumbent Josh McCown will go into training camp as the No. 1 quarterback, but that could change.
"We're not going to throw him out there, but at the same time, we're not going to hold him back, either," Bowles said.
Maccagnan said it wasn't until Thursday that he first thought Darnold could fall to them. It's believed he was the highest-rated quarterback on the Jets' draft board. They held a secret private workout with him recently and later brought him to their facility for a visit.
On his visit, team officials took him to dinner and "maybe one or two of us ordered cocktails," Maccagnan said. "Of course, Sam isn't legal, so we were joking around with him a little."
Darnold turns 21 on June 5.
"He's very young," Maccagnan said. "We feel he has a bright future."
Darnold was regarded by many talent evaluators as the safest quarterback in the draft because of his combination of passing skill and mobility. He rose to national prominence in 2016, led USC to an epic Rose Bowl victory over Penn State and compiled a 20-4 record as a starter in his career.
On the down side, Darnold raised questions about his pro readiness with a spotty performance in 2017. He tied for the FBS lead with 22 turnovers.
"Obviously, you don't want turnovers on any level," Bowles said. "But we think his upside and ability far outweigh the turnovers. ... We didn't feel too bad about that."
The Jets chose Darnold with the pick acquired on St. Patrick's Day from the Indianapolis Colts. To ensure themselves of a top quarterback, they dealt three second-round picks (including one in 2019) to move up from No. 6 overall.
Darnold came off the bench in 2016 and won eight of nine starts, establishing himself as the Heisman favorite for 2017. He led USC to its first Pac-12 title since 2008, setting the school's single-season record with 4,143 passing yards. But he also threw 13 interceptions and lost nine fumbles.
"It feels amazing," he said after being picked. "It really is a dream come true."