FLORHAM PARK, N.J.
Mike Maccagnan likes to tell this story about when he was the Texans’ director of college scouting before becoming the Jets’ general manager in 2015.
During draft meetings, he’d sit next to GM Rick Smith and often would think to himself about how close he was — literally — to the top executive spot in the organization. Just one seat over: How could it be much different from being the chief lieutenant?
As Maccagnan has discovered in the last three years, it’s a lot different. Just a few feet away was in reality a world away when you have to make the most important decisions.
And now here is Maccagnan, just days away from making his most consequential choice, one that almost certainly will set the course of the franchise for the next decade or more.
Maccagnan barely disguised his intention to select a quarterback when he spoke Monday with reporters at a pre-draft media briefing, although he spoke only vaguely about his specific intentions with the third overall pick. But make no mistake: Even if he didn’t name names, it’s a virtual lock that he’ll look to one of four quarterbacks to lead his team into the future.
Those four are Sam Darnold of USC, Josh Rosen of UCLA, Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma and Josh Allen of Wyoming. It’s a grand slam of prospects in a draft class that has been talked about as one of the most promising in recent years. Of course, as is the case with any draft, the chances for failure are always there. Maccagnan knows his future will be decided on how well — or how poorly — his choice pans out.
“I think there are some very good prospects that happen to be quarterbacks in this draft,” he said. “I know that might not happen every year.”
Which is why it’s all the more important for Maccagnan to get this one right. With a rare chance at a top-five pick, the Jets need a player who can be the answer at a position that has been so vexing in the nearly half-century since Joe Namath won the team’s first and only Super Bowl title. It has been one of the most futile searches imaginable, and although the Jets have gotten close to another Super Bowl appearance with the likes of Vinny Testaverde, Chad Pennington, Richard Todd and, yes, Mark Sanchez, none has been able to deliver another ring.
There’s zero guarantee that any of this year’s draft-eligible quarterbacks — and that includes Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, another first-round prospect who’s considered just a notch below the four top passers — can be the long-term answer. But with a team clearly in rebuild mode after Maccagnan took apart the roster last season, he needs to add the centerpiece passer to make it all work.
Credit Maccagnan with getting this far in the process, though. Were it not for his bold move to trade up from sixth to third, he might have been shut out entirely from getting one of the top quarterbacks. There’s a chance that Darnold, Rosen, Mayfield and Allen will be gone by the fifth pick, so imagine that nightmare scenario had Maccagnan not moved up.
“I think we have a pretty good feel of how we see them,” he said of the quarterbacks the Jets are considering. “You have an order, so of course, you like your order.”
The Jets have met with all of the top passers, and as long as they’re happy with at least three of the four, the math says they’re guaranteed to get a shot at someone they like. If either of the teams ahead of them — Cleveland at No. 1 or the Giants at No. 2 — takes Penn State running back Saquon Barkley or North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb, the Jets will have at least three possible candidates.
Maccagnan appeared relaxed amid all the speculation and pressure associated with the Jets’ pick, but make no mistake: This is the most significant moment of his professional life, and the decision he makes on Thursday night will be crucial.
Either he hits on a franchise quarterback who can lead his team back to playoff contention — perhaps even the Super Bowl — or he becomes the latest iteration of failure in a long and sad history of Jets disappointment.