Robert Saleh joins the Jets with a potential once-in-a-generation opportunity. Maybe even a once-in-a-lifetime shot.
Speculation persists that quarterback Deshaun Watson is so fed up with the Texans’ coaching search and the hiring of general manager Nick Caserio that he wants out of Houston just months after signing a $156 million contract extension in September. Among other things, Watson is upset that the Texans did not interview Saleh, who was hired by the Jets last week and was introduced Thursday to the media.
Which begs the question: Would Watson welcome a chance to play for Saleh and instantaneously transform the Jets’ moribund offense into a potential playoff-caliber operation?
Answer: The Jets must find out what it would take to make that happen.
Neither Saleh nor general manager Joe Douglas would directly address the Watson issue, mostly because they can’t. At least not publicly. Tampering rules prevent coaches and executives from openly discussing players on other teams.
"Our next step in the process is to get together as a staff, go over all the guys that are on our team, really get their perspective from watching the tape and include the perspective of people that have been here the last few years," Douglas said. "It’s going to be a great meeting that sets the foundation for our off-season."
Translation: Not going there.
But Douglas and Saleh must go there, if for no other reason than to find out what it might take to acquire an elite 25-year-old quarterback who is under contract through 2025 and can be a potential game-changer on offense.
Douglas has worked diligently to position the Jets in terms of draft-choice compensation (they have four first-round picks in the next two years) and salary-cap room (more than $70 million heading into the offseason). And while his initial thought surely was to carefully build with those picks to add players at premium positions, the chance to parlay some or all of those picks — and perhaps more, if the bidding for Watson escalates — must be considered.
This is a potentially franchise-altering instance of a marquee quarterback being available at a young age, and the Jets must do their due diligence to determine whether it’s feasible to bring Watson to town.
They passed up the chance to take the former Clemson star (as well as Patrick Mahomes) in the 2017 draft, taking Jamal Adams instead at No. 6 overall. Douglas dealt Adams to Seattle and got a handsome return — first-round picks in 2021 and 2022, a third-rounder this year and safety Bradley McDougald.
Mike Maccagnan cast his lot with Sam Darnold in 2018 with the third overall pick, but he has not panned out, partly because of poor roster-building around him. Now it’s left for Douglas and Saleh to decide whether to keep Darnold for at least another year and build around him, take another quarterback with the second overall pick or potentially make a move on Watson.
When the time is right, Douglas has to make the call to Caserio because the Jets are so well-positioned in terms of what the Texans might need if they are ready to part ways with Watson. The process won’t unfold immediately, of course, because the league year doesn’t begin until March. But discussions certainly will take place before then, and Douglas and Saleh soon will have a feel for what it might take.
If the price is reasonable — and we’re talking at least three first-round picks here, up to and including this year’s No. 2 overall, because quarterbacks are the most valuable asset — then the gamble is worth it. But if the Texans want more, that’s too much and will leave the Jets with too many holes.
Remember, they already have plenty of needs at pass rusher, defensive back, running back, receiver, tight end and offensive line depth. They have a chance to build around Darnold and upgrade at other positions or to select a quarterback such as Ohio State’s Justin Fields, Alabama’s Mac Jones or BYU’s Zach Wilson. Thus, no instant upgrade with Watson.
But if you give away too much in a deal for the Texans’ quarterback, you run the risk of spinning your wheels if he doesn’t have enough around him. After all, Houston went 4-12 with Watson this season, in part because there weren’t enough quality players around him.
For now, Saleh wants to take a deeper dive on Darnold to see if he can be the answer.
"What I can tell you with regards to Sam is he’s got an unbelievable arm talent," Saleh said. "There’s a reason why he was the No. 3 pick in the draft. He’s fearless in the pocket. He’s got a natural throwing motion. He’s mobile. He’s extremely intelligent. He’s tough as nails."
With the benefit of improved coaching and undoing the damage left behind by Adam Gase, there’s a chance new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur can do for Darnold what LaFleur’s mentor, Kyle Shanahan, has done for other quarterbacks. And if Saleh and LaFleur are convinced they can get more out of Darnold, they shouldn’t overpay for Watson.
But if they believe Darnold’s upside is limited by his penchant for turnovers and poor accuracy, Watson has to be an option moving forward.
Not an easy choice, but one that must be seriously explored. It’s one that might mean the difference between a slow build for Saleh and instant hope for a playoff run.