FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Not long before Mike Maccagnan was officially named the Jets’ general manager in January, 2015, he had dinner with former Packers general manager Ron Wolf, who was a part of the Jets’ search committee into a new GM and coach. The conversation turned to quarterbacks.
Wolf had previously grilled Maccagnan about his philosophy on acquiring quarterbacks, and Maccagnan shared what he recalled as a detailed rundown in what he looks for from quarterbacks and how he goes about finding them. Now Maccagnan wanted to know Wolf’s philosophy.
“My philosophy is you draft one every year,” Maccagnan recalled Wolf telling him.
“So simple,” Maccagnan said Monday during a pre-draft briefing. “It’s a very simple logic. It’s such an important position, and you constantly have to address it. Even teams that have quarterbacks are always looking. Very intelligent and very simple.”
Simple in theory, perhaps, but it’s the execution that counts most.
In Wolf’s case, he parlayed his approach to the Packers’ first Super Bowl championship since the Lombardi era and wound up being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015. Wolf’s most critical move at quarterback was to trade a 1992 first-round pick to the Falcons for future Hall of Fame passer Brett Favre. But Wolf didn’t stop there. From 1992-99, he drafted seven quarterbacks, including Mark Brunell (1993), Matt Hasselbeck (1998) and Aaron Brooks (1999), none of whom could get into the lineup because of Favre’s ironman streak of consecutive games, but all of whom were traded for valuable draft picks and enjoyed productive NFL careers elsewhere.
Maccagnan is off to a far less auspicious run on quarterbacks two-plus years into his tenure with the Jets. He selected Bryce Petty in the fourth round in 2015 and took Christian Hackenberg in the second round last year, but neither quarterback may wind up being the long-term answer. Petty showed some promise during limited play last season after the Jets’ playoff hopes had evaporated, but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in December. Hackenberg didn’t even appear in a game as a rookie in what was essentially a redshirt season.
And now here is Maccagnan once more faced with a major decision: With the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, does he take another quarterback in a class that is considered underwhelming by most NFL scouts? Or does he draft into the heart of the talent pool — namely, the defense, particularly in the secondary — and figure that veteran Josh McCown can be a nominal starter if neither Petty nor Hackenberg can beat him out in an open training camp competition?
That’s a daunting set of circumstances for a team coming off a miserable 5-11 season and not appearing to have a viable alternative at the most important position in the sport.
Maccagnan and the Jets’ coaches and scouts have done painstaking work analyzing this year’s quarterback class, with all the top prospects — Deshaun Watson of Clemson, Mitchell Trubisky or North Carolina, Patrick Mahomes of Texas Tech and DeShone Kizer of Notre Dame — getting the once-over. But none of them is a sure thing in the mold of recent blue-chip passers such as Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Andrew Luck or Cam Newton. And there is clearly a danger of being lulled into a false sense of security by wishing away their flaws and hoping that one of them can be the answer.
Remember the 2011 draft, when Newton went No. 1 to the Panthers? That turned out to be a terrific choice, and the former Heisman Trophy winner led Carolina to the Super Bowl after the 2015 season. But the three quarterbacks who went next — Jake Locker (eighth overall), Blaine Gabbert (10th) and Christian Ponder (12th) — all turned out to be huge disappointments. Locker retired and Gabbert and Ponder are unsigned.
What’s a general manager to do? Unless Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles have a strong conviction — and we mean career-defining conviction — on one of these quarterbacks, then their best option is to either take a top defensive player in a draft rich in defenders, especially edge rushers and defensive backs, or else trade back and acquire more picks.
Maccagnan used a veritable megaphone during his media briefing at the Scouting Combine in February to announce that his pick was up for sale. And while he wouldn’t divulge what conversations have taken place about trading the pick, he will certainly be listening when the Jets are on the board. And if he does select into the strength of a defense-dominated draft, there is still a chance he can come away with a solid quarterback prospect in later rounds.
Davis Webb of Cal, Brad Kaaya of Miami and Pitt’s Nate Peterman will be available in later rounds.
And don’t forget about next year, when the quarterback class is expected to be a strong one. With little hope of a winning season in 2017, the Jets may very well be in position next year to take Sam Darnold of USC or Josh Rosen of UCLA, both of whom are already in the conversation as big-time NFL prospects.
The calculus is a difficult one for Maccagnan, who needs to get this one right or may soon find himself short on time to turn his floundering team in the right direction.