Jets’ offseason mission: Protect QB Sam Darnold

INDIANAPOLIS — Mark Sanchez provided some positive moments as a rookie in 2009, but the New York Jets really haven’t derived this much optimism from a young quarterback since Chad Pennington in 2002. Pennington’s chance to be great was undermined by shoulder injuries. The biggest threat to Sam Darnold is his own team — specifically, the front office. The onus is on general manager Mike Maccagnan & Co. to protect the team’s most valuable asset by building a strong offensive line.

The Jets might have something special in Darnold, and they can’t blow it by letting him become a human pinata. They know this, and from all indications, they plan to make a major push in free agency to rebuild the wall in front of their 21-year-old quarterback.

“I would say right now that’s a position that we’re going to look very strongly at in free agency,” Maccagnan said at the NFL scouting combine. “It’s definitely an area we want to improve upon.”

Good idea.

The Jets have two vacancies on the offensive line — center and left guard. Spencer Long, who took most of the snaps last season at center (and several of them were quite adventurous), was released recently in a salary-cap move and signed with the Buffalo Bills. Left guard James Carpenter, coming off shoulder surgery, will be an unrestricted free agent and likely won’t be re-signed.

League insiders believe the Jets will use free agency to address the line issues, saving the draft to attack other weaknesses. With only three picks in the top 94 — No. 3, 68 and 94 — it won’t be easy to find quick fixes in the draft, but it would be a mistake to ignore the position completely. That has been the case for too long. For some reason, Maccagnan seems averse to picking linemen. In four drafts, he has picked only two — right tackle Brandon Shell (fifth round, 2016) and guard Jarvis Harrison (fifth round, 2015). Harrison never played for the Jets; Shell is a two-year starter.

Instead of creating a pipeline by drafting and developing, Maccagnan has been throwing free-agent money at the problem. There needs to be a balance. He should look at the Indianapolis Colts, who, after years of neglect, finally made a commitment last offseason to improve their line. As a result, Andrew Luck stayed healthy and played like the Luck of old. They probably saved his career.

Memo to the Jets: Don’t push your luck by putting Darnold in harm’s way. Let’s take a look at how they plan to address the line, which was lackluster in 2018:

Guard: Word around the combine is the Jets will try to sign Los Angeles Rams free agent Rodger Saffold, a 2010 second-round pick and a longtime starter at left guard. He allowed only two sacks in the past two seasons. The concern with Saffold is that he will be 31. In recent years, Maccagnan has avoided multiyear contracts for players over 30, but maybe he feels pressure to expedite the rebuilding process. It looks like they will stick with Brian Winters at right guard.

Center: Two free agents on the Jets’ radar are the Kansas City ChiefsMitch Morse, 27, and the Denver BroncosMatt Paradis, 29. Morse hasn’t allowed a single sack over the past three seasons, according to STATS, but he has had concussion issues and missed 14 games over the past two years. Paradis was a rock of durability from 2015 to 2017, but he’s still recovering from a surgically repaired fibula. On Wednesday, Broncos GM John Elway called it “a pretty significant injury.” He said he’s interested in re-signing Paradis, but he added, “Matt has been a great warrior for us for four years. But, obviously, with the injury that he had, that changes the thought process. We’ll have to see where that falls.” The top center in the draft is NC State’s Garrett Bradbury, according to Scouts, Inc. He’s projected as a second rounder; the Jets don’t have a second-round pick.

Tackle: The Jets could stand pat with Kelvin Beachum and Shell, who’s coming off knee surgery, but they have to think long term at left tackle. Beachum, entering the final year of his contract, isn’t viewed as Darnold’s blindside protector of the future. The Jets might have some interest in Tampa Bay Buccaneers left tackle Donovan Smith, but there’s talk he will get the franchise tag. Trent Brown, 26, is an intriguing option, but he will be pricey, and some say he’s a product of the New England Patriots‘ system. The Jets might be better off looking for a left tackle in the draft.

The marching orders are clear. It’s an SOS: Save Our Sam.

“We definitely are excited about putting players around Sam,” Maccagnan said, “and that will be one of our focal points this offseason.”

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