FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Sam Darnold was not the Jets' first choice to be their new franchise quarterback, even if he turns out to be the right choice. Kirk Cousins was always Plan A.
Of course, their pursuit of the 30-year-old Cousins turned out exactly how they feared it would. They offered him a fully guaranteed, three-year, $90 million contract, and he still took less to sign with the Minnesota Vikings.
But what if Cousins had said yes?
With Cousins and the Vikings headed to the Meadowlands to face Darnold and the Jets on Sunday, that's not a scenario the Jets want to consider. They couldn't be happier with Darnold as their quarterback. He's developing even faster than they expected, one team source said. And they are convinced he's the one to lead them back to the playoffs - probably soon.
But things would have surely looked a lot different for the Jets if Cousins had taken their money. Obviously the Jets wouldn't have traded the sixth overall pick in the 2018 draft, plus their two second-round picks (Nos. 37 and 49), and next year's second-rounder to Indianapolis so they could move up to No. 3 where they grabbed Darnold. But they also would've had less cap room to operate with last offseason and next one, too.
Most importantly, their entire philosophy and timeline for rebuilding their team would have changed.
Here's a peek at how the Jets' plans - and their entire franchise - would have changed if Cousins had taken their offer and the Jets hadn't moved on to their Quarterback Plan B:
Would the Jets' offseason spending spree have been the same?
Mostly. But not quite.
It's impossible to know the structure of the Jets' offer to Cousins, but based on what he got from Minnesota, his 2018 cap hit with the Jets probably would've been $28 million. They would've also spent an additional $1.1 million in cap room if they had all their original draft picks.
But with $15.4 million in cap space remaining right now, they probably had an extra $10 million to spend. They also likely wouldn't have spent $10 million on QB Josh McCown.
So, the net result is the Jets would've had about $7 million or so less to spend in free agency if they had signed Cousins. That's not much, but considering the cap hits on players like CB Trumaine Johnson ($10 million), C Spencer Long ($6.6 million) LB Avery Williamson ($6 million) and WR Terrelle Pryor ($4.2 million), it's basically one player.
They liked their receivers, so maybe they wouldn't have signed Pryor coming off his ankle injury. Also, they could have passed on Long and drafted someone like Iowa center James Daniels, who went 39th to the Bears (two picks after the first of the two second-round picks the Jets sent to the Colts), and is now on the verge of becoming their starting left guard.
They also would've needed a backup quarterback. Maybe Teddy Bridgewater would've still signed with the Jets (for a cap hit of $2.3 million), and he wouldn't have been traded to the Saints (for a 2019 third-round pick). But he came here in part because he was given a chance to compete for the starting job, which wouldn't have been available with Cousins on the team.
Who would they have drafted in the first round?
Obviously they wouldn't have drafted a quarterback. Maybe they could have traded down. The Buffalo Bills, who had two first-round picks, ended up sending two second-rounders to Tampa Bay to move up from 12 to 7 to draft QB Josh Allen. They also tried to trade with Denver at 5, so dealing with the Jets at 3 wouldn't be a stretch. The price would've been higher, and the Jets surely would've wanted the Bills' second first-round pick.
But assuming they stayed put at 6, guard Quenton Nelson - who the Colts picked - would've been perfect to help the Jets keep their big quarterback investment protected if Indianapolis didn't take him at 3. Also, if the Denver Broncos had decided to take Darnold at 5 (or traded to a team that did), defensive end Bradley Chubb - the edge rusher the Jets so desperately need - could've been the guy.
Who would they have taken at 37, 49?
A lot of these what-ifs are hard without knowing how the first round shook out. But among the tantalizing options available at 37 were Daniels, 6-foot-4 receiver Courtland Sutton (Broncos), running back Kerryon Johnson (Lions) and guard Braden Smith, who was taken by the Colts with that pick. Guard Connor Williams (Cowboys) could've been a good fit at 49.
How would their 2019 draft been affected?
They'd still have their 2019 second-rounder they sent to Indianapolis. And since they wouldn't have made the Bridgewater trade - either they wouldn't have signed him, or they would have kept him as Cousins' backup - they'd still have the sixth-rounder they sent to New Orleans in that trade, and obviously wouldn't own the Saints' third-round pick.
Would they still have a ton of cap room for 2019?
Based on Cousins' deal with Minnesota, his second-year cap hit with the Jets likely would've been $31 million. And since everything else would've been roughly the same, that's really the only difference. Right now, OverTheCap.com projects the Jets to have about $106 million in cap room next March. So figure they would've been around $75 million, which is still a lot.
Would the Jets' philosophy and timetable for rebuilding have changed?
Absolutely, and that's the wild card in this entire fantasy projection. By drafting the 21-year-old Darnold, the Jets began a process they hope will have them competing for a playoff spot in 2019, and being a championship contender by 2020 or 2021. They are rebuilding around Darnold, and they know they have time to let him grow.
But with Cousins, every move made would've been about winning now. They weren't going to pay a quarterback $30 million a year to preside over a rebuilding process. This would've been about winning a championship between 2018 and 2020 while Cousins was still under contract.
A longshot? Perhaps. But maybe it would've made the Jets more aggressive in going after players like Khalil Mack. Not that they could've afforded him and Cousins too, but they certainly would have tried.
They would've had no choice but to be more aggressive in everything, and they couldn't afford to be patient in their evaluations of anyone - including the coaches. Because they'd know they only had a three-year window before they'd likely have to start over and search for another franchise quarterback again.
So the bottom line is this: The Jets are thrilled to be building slowly around Darnold towards a better future. Would they have been better off with Cousins, and either Nelson or Chubb and maybe some other aggressive moves? Perhaps. But the pressure on all of them would've been great to be right, because they know they'd be starting over in 2021.
Instead, by 2021, the Jets might just be getting started on a better future with Darnold at their helm.