FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Trevor Lawrence has admired the Manning family since he was a kid. He wears No. 16 at Clemson because Peyton donned it at the University of Tennessee, Lawrence’s favorite school growing up. Two summers ago, he attended the Manning Passing Academy and spent time with Peyton and Eli. He also got to know Archie, the family patriarch, who stays in touch with occasional text messages.
In the coming weeks and months, Lawrence, 21, faces Manning-sized decisions as he prepares for his NFL future.
Does he forgo the 2021 NFL draft to play one more season of college football (Peyton, 1997)? Does he try to control his draft-day destiny by demanding a trade to a preferred team (Eli, 2004, San Diego Chargers-to-New York Giants)?
Or does he take the conventional route and play for the team that drafts him (Peyton, 1998, Indianapolis Colts)?
“There were some people that tried to get Peyton to [force a trade],” Archie told ESPN. “The Colts weren’t exactly the epitome of the top franchise in football, you know.”
Neither are the New York Jets (0-13), whose sustained losing has sparked a narrative that haunts their downtrodden fan base: What if Lawrence doesn’t want to play for the Jets, the current frontrunner for the No. 1 overall pick?
ESPN interviewed five prominent agents and three former general managers, and the overwhelming consensus is Lawrence will turn pro with enough leverage to execute an Eli Manning-type maneuver. Opinions are mixed on whether he will actually try to pull it off.
In other words: It’s premature to say the Jets should be sweating, but they might want to keep a handkerchief nearby just in case.
To be clear, the five agents, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, are not associated with Lawrence, who isn’t permitted to hire representation until he declares for the draft. (The NFL deadline is mid-January.) Some believe the lure of New York will cause him to look past the franchise’s struggles (one winning season since 2010), while others feel the big-city glamour is overblown and that he would be wise to run away from the Jets, who have a poor reputation for developing quarterbacks.
“Would I be hesitant? It would be a stop sign that would be about 100 feet in diameter,” one agent said.
A former GM countered, “You’re not going to say no to the Jets. You’re in a marquee market. Could he do an Eli? I guess he could, but I doubt seriously he would.”
Before Manning, there was John Elway, who used a fledgling baseball career as leverage against the Baltimore Colts in 1983. They drafted Elway No. 1 overall, but traded him to the Denver Broncos because he made it known he didn’t want to play for the Colts. Eli didn’t play baseball, but he told the Chargers — who were perennial losers at the time — that he would sit out a year before playing for them. It worked, as he was traded to the Giants minutes after being chosen No. 1 overall by the Chargers.
Lawrence, regarded by talent evaluators as a generational prospect, has enough juice for the same kind of power move, according to agents and personnel people. ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay agree in their latest mock that Lawrence would be the slam-dunk No. 1 pick if he declares.
“He has truly unusual leverage,” said ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum, a former Jets GM and Miami Dolphins vice president of football operations.
If Lawrence has qualms about playing for the Jets with the first pick, he could sit out a year and “easily hold an auction between Adidas, Under Armour and Nike, and come out of that doing really well,” Tannenbaum said. “He could come out and say, ‘Hey, I’m only playing in one of these four cities.’ Or, ‘Don’t draft me because I’m not going.’ His leverage is he will be financially set by his off-the-field money.”
One agent said Lawrence’s leverage would be based on public-relations pressure on the Jets, because “the Johnsons don’t want to get embarrassed” — a reference to team owner Woody Johnson and CEO Christopher Johnson. The Jets are sensitive to the perception of organizational dysfunction and the last thing they need is a prized prospect blowing them off.
“If they know that Trevor Lawrence doesn’t want to play for them, then they would make the argument, ‘We’re committed to Sam [Darnold] and we believe in Sam,'” the agent said. “Jets fans aren’t going to buy it, but that’s what’s going to happen.”
Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. give their mock drafts for the top 10 picks in the next NFL draft.
Another agent said that type of move would be “a death blow” to the franchise, adding, “It would take you a while to recover from that if he came out publicly and said, ‘I don’t want to go to a team like the Jets, that haven’t been winners.'”
Each of the five agents, citing coaching and front-office instability, expressed apprehension about the Jets’ organization, some stronger than others. All five agreed that Lawrence’s representation would need to have a conversation with the player about the pros and cons of playing for the Jets, examining everything from ownership’s commitment to winning to the offensive line’s ability to protect the quarterback. One agent said it would be “malpractice” by Lawrence’s side not to discuss the option of pursuing a trade.
A different agent said he always tries to meet with an NFL team’s ownership before the draft, trying to figure out if his quarterback client would be a good fit. In one case, the agent was so impressed with the organization and wanted his player to be drafted by that team that he arranged for him to meet the owner at an awards banquet — an “impromptu” get-acquainted opportunity during the run-up to the draft. They hit it off and the team drafted him.
‘That guy gives you a chance’
The biggest indictment of the Jets is their inability to develop quarterbacks. Since 2009, they have used first- and second-round picks on Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, Christian Hackenberg and Darnold, none of whom lived up to expectations. Part of the reason is instability. In that span, the Jets have had three head coaches and seven different offensive systems.
Darnold’s situation, most agents said, is an eye opener. They said if they were in Lawrence’s camp, they would want to meet with team brass before the draft to learn how the Jets plan to create a quarterback-friendly infrastructure.
“You have to think about that because do you want to end up like Sam has ended up?” one agent asked. “He’s literally had no chance, and now he’s — I guess you could say he’s starting to get under the ‘damaged goods’ list.”
If they have to sell themselves to Lawrence, the Jets can stress they have the means with which to improve.
They have draft capital — five picks in the first three rounds, including two first-rounders. They will have $ 75 million in salary-cap room, second most in the league, according to Over The Cap. They have a promising left tackle (Mekhi Becton) to protect the quarterback’s blind side. They have general manager Joe Douglas, who, despite a rough start to his tenure, is well-respected in league circles. His job is to spend the money wisely. Money doesn’t always buy happiness, as the previous Jets regime learned from bad deals (see running back Le’Veon Bell) and extravagant offers that weren’t accepted (see quarterback Kirk Cousins).
The X factor is the Jets’ coach. If they fire Adam Gase, which is expected, who will replace him? That could be a huge component for Lawrence. It also could be a big factor in the Jets’ search. They might lean toward an offensive-minded coach to groom Lawrence, and there will be a handful of top coordinators available — Eric Bieniemy (Kansas City Chiefs), Joe Brady (Carolina Panthers), Brian Daboll (Buffalo Bills) and Arthur Smith (Tennessee Titans). Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson also could be a target if he’s fired.
Tannenbaum threw out a what-if scenario that could be a game-changer:
What if the Jacksonville Jaguars, likely picking No. 2 in April’s draft, hire Clemson’s Dabo Swinney as their coach to replace the embattled Doug Marrone? That wouldn’t bode well for the Jets, who could face immense pressure to deal the pick. While a Swinney-Lawrence reunion seems remote, considering the amount of draft picks it would take to move up one spot, the importance of the head coach in Lawrence’s decision can’t be underestimated.
Dan Orlovsky picks the Chargers and Jets as two teams with good potentially open head-coaching opportunities.
The Jets also could sell Lawrence on the idea of playing in the biggest market, but opinions were sharply divided on whether market size matters in today’s global, social media landscape.
Legendary quarterback Joe Namath, who led the Jets to their only Super Bowl title more than 50 years ago, is living proof of an athlete who maximized the power of New York. Namath said he wouldn’t be surprised if Lawrence tries to orchestrate a trade, based on the fact it has been done before. At the same time, he noted the benefits to playing in Gotham.
“There’s only one New York City in the world and it’s one of the greatest places in any profession,” he told ESPN. “Any professional, whether it be sports or business or medical, whatever, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. If you could get position there, it’s going to be a wonderful time spent, whether it be 30 years or 40 year or five years. New York is special in the world.”
The anti-New York crowd pointed to Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who is crushing the endorsement game even though he plays in the nation’s 32nd-biggest market.
“The days of Broadway Joe are over,” said one agent, claiming without hesitation he’d attempt to get Lawrence away from the Jets. “It doesn’t matter where you play anymore.”
The allure of the big city might not matter to Lawrence, some speculated, because of his strong religious beliefs and small-town upbringing. He’s a devout Christian who was raised in Cartersville, Georgia (population: 20,000). He’s engaged to his high school sweetheart and due to graduate this month, in his third year at the school. He participated in Clemson’s Senior Day on Nov. 28, reinforcing the widespread belief he is planning to leave for the NFL. In an early-September interview, he told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi, “I plan on this being my last season.”
Lawrence is so grounded, some believe, that he wouldn’t try to rock the norm by pulling a draft-day power play. Folks said that about Eli Manning, too, but he and his agent, Tom Condon, decided to be bold.
Why they did it is a matter of debate. Archie Manning reiterated what he said then: It was Eli’s call in 2004, not his.
“I didn’t tell Eli to do that and I would never tell anyone to do that,” Archie said. “I wouldn’t be critical if they decide to do it.”
Top college quarterbacks sometimes reach out to Archie and Peyton, seeking advice on whether to turn pro. Archie said he wouldn’t steer Lawrence one way or the other, including whether to seek a trade. He believes it has to be a personal choice.
“Trevor is as good-looking a college quarterback as you’ll ever see,” Manning said. “He checks all the boxes. There’s no doubt Trevor is ready for the NFL. He’s won a national championship and I’m sure he’d love to cap it off with another. I really don’t know that he wants to play any more college football.”
Former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi, who orchestrated the Manning trade and was the Colts’ GM when Elway was dealt without his knowledge by Baltimore ownership to Denver, told ESPN the value of a franchise quarterback is immeasurable.
“There was a feeling that when you’re on the team bus and you’re on the road, and you’re a little more nervous than you are at home, you see him sitting there and you know you have a chance,” said Accorsi, who plucked Bernie Kosar out of the 1985 supplemental draft for the Cleveland Browns.
“I mean, that guy gives you a chance every week. That’s why I went out of my way every time to try to get one. There are exceptions, but that guy gives you the best chance.”