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How Saleh's Darnold decision could impact 49ers, 2021 draft

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On Thursday, two of the NFL's head-coaching vacancies were filled as the Jacksonville Jaguars hired Urban Meyer and the New York Jets handed the keys to 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. Saleh reportedly will bring in Mike LaFleur as his offensive coordinator.

The Jets gave Saleh a five-year contract, showing faith that while it might take time to turn the franchise around, Saleh is the right man for the job.

Saleh's first course of business will be deciding what to do at the quarterback position. The Jets own the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, setting them up to select either Ohio State's Justin Fields or BYU's Zach Wilson to be the face of the franchise. However, Saleh could decide to stick with Sam Darnold at quarterback, believing the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft still has a high ceiling and just needs to get Adam Gase's stink off him.

ESPN's Adam Schefter believes Saleh will give Darnold a chance to prove he can be a franchise quarterback while running Kyle Shanahan's system under LaFleur.

"Here's what I would expect the New York Jets to do at quarterback this upcoming season," Schefter said on "SportsCenter" on Thursday night. "I would think that Sam Darnold is going to return as the Jets' quarterback and the Jets will entertain offers for the No. 2 pick. I think they could take an offensive tackle, they could take a wide receiver, they could do whatever they want with that pick. But right now, I think the plan would be to proceed with Sam Darnold as the quarterback of the New York Jets in 2021. I think [Jets general manager] Joe Douglas and this staff believes in him, I think Robert Saleh believes in him and I think that they'd like to give Sam Darnold the opportunity fo a full season, when he's healthy, with a new staff to see what he can do. I would be surprised if Sam Darnold were not the starting quarterback for the Jets on Opening Day."

 

NFL Media's Peter Schrager also said there is a "significant" chance that Darnold returns to the Jets.

Saleh and the Jets sticking with Darnold would not only push Fields and Wilson down the draft board a peg, but it also gives the 49ers the opportunity to trade up to No. 2 to acquire a quarterback they truly believe in, if Saleh and the Jets do intend to shop the pick.

Darnold remaining as the quarterback for the Jets also takes a possible buy-low option off the table for the 49ers should they decide to move on from Jimmy Garoppolo. All indications are that general manager John Lynch and Shanahan plan to have Garoppolo be their starting quarterback in 2021, believing that when Garoppolo is healthy he is a quarterback the 49ers can win a Super Bowl with.

If the Jets do indeed plan to keep Darnold as their starting quarterback, the 2021 NFL Draft gets a lot hazier than initially expected. The Jets drafted left tackle Mekhi Becton in the first round last year. They could opt to draft Oregon tackle Penei Sewell at No. 2 overall, giving them two elite anchors on the offensive line to keep Darnold upright and healthy. They could look to draft Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith to give Darnold a true No. 1 receiver, moving 2020 second-round pick Denzel Mims to a preferred No. 2 slot.

The Jets sticking at No. 2 and selecting a non-QB would cause both Fields and Wilson to slip. The Miami Dolphins own the No. 3 pick and are set to build around Tua Tagovailoa. The Atlanta Falcons could draft a QB at No. 4, but that depends on how new head coach Arthur Smith feels about what Matt Ryan has left in the tank. The Cincinnati Bengals (No. 5) have Joe Burrow, the Philadelphia Eagles (No. 6) have Carson Wentz and Jalen Hurts and the Detroit Lions (No. 7) still have Matthew Stafford, who remains at top-12 quarterback.

If Shanahan and the 49ers are enamored with either Fields or Wilson, the Jets' passing on them creates an opportunity for San Francisco. They could try and swing a deal with the Jets, although that would cost a boatload of draft capital. Or, they could wait and see if one or both slide past No. 5 and then swing a slightly less expensive deal with a team like the Carolina Panthers (No. 8) or Eagles to go up and get their guy.

 
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Conventional wisdom still has the 49ers sticking with Garoppolo and using the No. 12 pick either on a cornerback or edge rusher, believing that when healthy they have all the pieces necessary to get back to and win the Super Bowl.

But Shanahan's frustration with Garoppolo's inability to stay on the field and penchant for turnovers undoubtedly will have him surveying all of his options.

Saleh choosing to stick with Darnold is a decision that will have ripple effects across the NFL, and could give the 49ers just the opportunity they need to move up in the draft and grab either Fields or Wilson.

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