A dreary matchup on “Thursday Night Football” this week didn’t exactly get a jolt of star power when the Denver Broncos announced Tuesday that Brett Rypien would make his first career start at quarterback against Sam Darnold and the New York Jets.
And looming in the background for both teams will be a very big, exciting name: Trevor Lawrence.
The Clemson quarterback is widely expected to go No. 1 overall in next year’s NFL draft. Which team actually makes that pick is far from certain, just four weeks into the season, but the Jets-Broncos game could have major implications for that race to the bottom.
Both teams enter with 0-3 records, and while both also possess young quarterbacks whom they are thought to view as building blocks, the opportunity to reset and grab Lawrence could be too tempting to resist.
That’s particularly true in the case of the Jets, who have had more time to evaluate Darnold, even if he hasn’t been given the most ideal chance to show what he can do at the NFL level. The No. 3 overall pick in 2018 out of USC, Darnold has been saddled with one of the league’s worst supporting casts, as well as a questionable mentor in Coach Adam Gase.
Questions are also starting to mount about Darnold himself, particularly after a miserable showing Sunday in which he threw three interceptions – including two for touchdowns – and took a safety in a 36-7 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. After a disappointing second season, Darnold has thrown for an average of 187.3 yards over three games, with three touchdowns against four interceptions. His passer rating of 70.7 is the third-worst among quarterbacks with at least 45 attempts, behind only the New York Giants’s Daniel Jones (69.2) and the Philadelphia Eagles’s Carson Wentz (63.9).
Rypien, undrafted last year out of Boise State, is keeping the seat warm for Drew Lock, a 2019 second-round pick who is out for several weeks with a shoulder injury.
In announcing that Rypien will start, Broncos Coach Vic Fangio began by getting the quarterback’s name wrong, briefly confusing the 24-year-old with his 57-year-old uncle Mark, whose 11-year career included leading Washington to a Super Bowl win in 1992.
“Yeah, we’re going to start Mark – I mean Brett – I keeping calling him Mark at times because of his uncle,” Fangio told reporters. “But we’re going to go with Brett. But we do have the ability to mix Jeff in there some in the game, if we feel like we need to.”
After replacing Jeff Driskel Sunday in a home game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rypien completed his first eight passes for 53 yards. His ninth pass was intercepted in the end zone, and the Bucs were able to run out the clock over the final few minutes of a 28-10 win.
Darnold said Monday that “having two pick-sixes or having any interceptions is unacceptable.”
“But we’re looking forward to getting back at it with this quick turnaround,” he added. “We’re looking forward to having a really good game against Denver and we’re looking to get a win.”
Gase, who has quickly become a favorite of oddsmakers to be the first coach fired this season, responded tersely to a question Monday about that kind of speculation.
“This is the NFL,” said Gase, in his second year in New York. “We’re 0-3. We haven’t played well. We have to improve quickly. My job is to do everything I can to get our guys in the right head space.”
It has not helped Gase that the already talent-poor Jets have been hit hard by injuries on the offensive side. Starting running back Le’Veon Bell, a high-price acquisition last year, went on injured reserve after Week 1, starting wide receivers Jamison Crowder and Breshad Perriman have missed games, and rookie wide receiver Denzel Mims, a second-round pick, has yet to see the field because of hamstring issues.
The Broncos have lost starting wide receiver and star pass-rusher Von Miller to season-ending injuries, in addition to Lock’s shoulder woes and other maladies. According to The Associated Press, the combined salaries of Broncos players currently on IR totals $53.4 million, a league high and almost $20 million more than the Dallas Cowboys ($33.5 million), the second-hardest-hit team.
The injuries threaten to derail a season of high hopes in Denver, as opposed to the generally gloomy forecasts for the Jets. At this point, Thursday’s game is shaping up for both squads as a rare chance at a win. The Broncos play in a tough division and have dates with the New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills and New Orleans Saints, but their schedule also includes the underwhelming Miami Dolphins, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons.
The Jets and Broncos are strong contenders for the top pick who both also look well-positioned to chart a new course at football’s most important position. That could add some intrigue to Thursday’s game, the loser of which will have little choice but to start thinking about next year.