Zach Wilson Is a Risk Worth Taking for New York Jets

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistApril 26, 2021

FILE - BYU quarterback Zach Wilson warms up before participating in the school's Pro Day football workout for NFL scouts in Provo, Utah, in this Friday, March 26, 2021, file photo. The New York Jets head into the NFL draft needing a quarterback and they hope to find the face of the franchise who can develop into a star and lead them to sustained success. The overwhelming favorite to hear his name selected by the Jets with No. 2 pick is BYU’s Zach Wilson. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

While the New York Jets have not turned in their draft card just yet, the consensus feeling is that they are poised to take Brigham Young quarterback Zach Wilson.

The Jets own the No. 2 selection, Clemson's Trevor Lawrence is expected to go No. 1 and 2018 first-round pick Sam Darnold has been jettisoned.

There's no such thing as a can't-miss draft prospect, and Wilson wasn't widely considered a top-two pick until relatively recently. However, the Jets feel comfortable penciling in a rookie as the starter in 2021.

"I don't think there's risk," new head coach Robert Saleh told reporters. "It still comes down to having a good football team and building a good roster around everybody."

The challenge of having a good football team and a good roster is the same one that faced the Jets three years ago when they draft Darnold. It's also why not everyone believes that Wilson is a slam-dunk selection at No. 2 or the right fit for the Jets.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. believes that sticking with Darnold would have been the right move for New York.

"If I were the Jets, Rich, I would've stuck with Sam Darnold," Kiper said on the Rich Eisen Show (h/t Mike Rosenstein of NJ.com). "I would not have drafted a quarterback."

One unnamed quarterbacks coach went into more detail about why drafting Wilson is a risk, telling Bruce Feldman of The Athletic:

"The good with Zach Wilson is really good, but the bad can be really, really bad. And when he goes to a bad team like the Jets and he's trying to win games, those are big concerns. ... If I had to bet money, I'd bet it doesn't work out for him with the Jets. Zach playing right away in that market with his play style — woof—that'd make me really nervous."

Any team with the No 2 pick in the draft is going to have talent issues, so why is Wilson such a risky option for the Jets? Why is he a risk worth taking? Let's dig in.


The Risk Factor with Drafting Wilson

George Frey/Associated Press

Expecting Wilson to start from Day 1 on a talent-starved roster is risky. From Tim Couch and David Carr to Darnold, we have seen that young quarterbacks can struggle to rise above their supporting cast.

Yes, the Jets made some major additions in free agency, but this is largely still a roster that won only two games in 2020.

Darnold couldn't quite overcome the talent deficit in his three seasons in New York. It's fair to wonder whether Wilson will fare any better. Darnold, for what it's worth, was viewed by many as the top quarterback prospect in 2018.

"I think he caught some backlash this year because of the pre-season hype and the interceptions," one AFC executive said of Darnold to NFL Media's Lance Zierlein. "He's still the most complete quarterback in this draft with the best makeup to be a good pro."

While Wilson has emerged as a draft darling, he isn't quite the polished pro prospect that many viewed Darnold to be.

"The gunslinger's mentality and improvised release points are clearly patterned off of one of his favorite players, Aaron Rodgers," Zierlein wrote. "However, his play is a little more reminiscent of a blend between Jake Plummer and Johnny Manziel coming out of college."

Wilson also has just one level of elite production on his college resume. He passed for 3,692 yards with 33 touchdowns and three interceptions last year. He passed for only 1,578 yards in 2018 and had an 11-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2019.

The progress Wilson showed between 2019 and last season was tremendous. However, he will need to prove that he can continue improving on an NFL playing field. And there's no guarantee he will be able to do so.


What About the Upside?

One big selling point for Wilson is the growth he displayed last season—much of it as a result of his own study habits.

"This guy's a football junkie," BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said, per Brian Costello of the New York Post. "He studies film like crazy."

It also helped that Wilson put the shoulder injury that bothered him in 2019 in the rearview. The combination of health and increased football knowledge helped Wilson produce a season's worth of impressive film.

Some, including NBC Sports' Chris Simms and NFL Media's Gil Brandt even view Wilson as a better pro prospect than Lawrence.

Gil Brandt @Gil_Brandt

If you pinned me down and forced me to pick between Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, I might pick Wilson. It's that close for me. Honestly, I'm surprised the Jaguars' new head coach didn't show up at BYU's pro day.

While Wilson's rise in 2020 wasn't quite as dramatic as Joe Burrow's the year before, it also isn't a situation where teams need to go back a year to find his best tape—as is the case with prospects like Justin Fields and Trey Lance.

Then there's the physical upside, which Wilson showed off during his pro day.


Zach Wilson made some unreal throws at @BYUFootball Pro Day. @zachkapono1 | @NFLDraft https://t.co/JwRsRUh6B1

While teams should never put too much stock into how a player performs at a pro day—that's how guys like JaMarcus Russell get drafted highly—Wilson's ability to throw on the move and from multiple angles shouldn't be held against him.

The reality is that Wilson is close to a complete package when it comes to 2020 tape, athletic upside and—based on accounts from those around him—work ethic.

While Wilson isn't a perfect prospect, he's worth taking a chance on at No. 2 overall.


Why Is Wilson Worth the Risk?

The basic answer here is that Darnold is gone and the Jets need a quarterback. Like all of this year's prospects, Wilson is a risk, but he would also fill New York's position of greatest need.

While previous regimes failed to develop Darnold, Mark Sanchez and plenty of other quarterbacks, the Jets cannot be scared off by their track record, lack of talent and potential fit.

The roster got better in free agency, with the likes of Corey Davis, Tyler Kroft, Dan Feeney and Tevin Coleman being able to directly support the quarterback. Saleh is not the same coach who guided Darnold, and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur is an experienced offensive mind.

The Jets aren't an elite team, but on paper, they are better than they were a year ago. The new coaching staff deserves an opportunity to prove itself.

As for the recent quarterback history in New York? The Jets need only to look to the long-listless Cleveland Browns to find a glimpse of hope. The Browns have an even more depressing recent quarterback history than that of the Jets. They just won 12 games, including one in the postseason.

Has Baker Mayfield—who was taken first overall in 2018, two spots ahead of Darnold—been a Pro Bowl quarterback for Cleveland? No, but he's survived the early ups and downs while the Browns put a competitive roster around him. Even if Wilson isn't perfect out of the gate, the Jets can ride his early struggles.

Perhaps New York could have built a contender around Darnold as the Browns have around Mayfield. But that ship has sailed, and drafting Wilson represents a fresh opportunity.

Passing on that opportunity because Wilson represents a risk is a mistake that the Jets cannot afford to make.