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Have the New York Jets Finally Found Their Franchise QB in Zach Wilson?

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistAugust 16, 2021

New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson stands on the sidelines in the second half of an NFL preseason football game against the New York Jets, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Corey Sipkin)
Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

Coming out of the first week of the preseason, New York Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson isn't making splashy headlines like Justin Fields in Chicago or Trey Lance in San Francisco

And that probably suits the Jets just fine. 

Wilson, under the watchful eye of the Big Apple media bubble, had a rocky start to camp. There were flashes of a big arm and quality play, but also a day in which The Athletic's Connor Hughes tallied Wilson as going 11-of-24 with two interceptions and three points on seven drives. 

Expectations that Wilson would follow in the footsteps of a Joe Burrow or Justin Herbert and light the NFL up right away—let alone turn into a long-term option under center—were flattened a bit, to say the least. 

That set the stage for Saturday night, when Wilson quietly had a solid 6-of-9 line with 63 yards in limited work during a 12-7 win over the New York Giants

Doesn't sound like much, but as NFL Network's Brian Baldinger broke down, some of the technical details behind the throws were encouraging: 

Brian Baldinger @BaldyNFL

.@nyjets #ZachWilson and these 3 throws should get all #JETS fans excited. Talent. Arm strength. Accuracy all on display. Solid building block. #BaldysBreakdowns https://t.co/wrBjgw04dW

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All of this in a live setting that served as Wilson's pro debut. As Pro Football Focus noted, he was perfect on his two attempts beyond 10 yards. He converted all three of his attempts on third down, even in the face of pressure. PFF also noted he's got the second-highest passing grade of any rookie passer this preseason so far. 

More to the point, the Jets utilized some bootleg actions and quick-hitters on short drops to give Wilson some easier throws in his first game. Those quick-hit throws and bootlegs were common for Wilson in his career at BYU, which should keep him comfortable in a live-game setting despite the dramatic change in speed.

Remember, Wilson completed 67.6 percent of his passes with 7,652 yards and 56 touchdowns against 15 interceptions in three season at BYU. If the Jets can bring some of his collegiate comfort zones to the pros (like Cincinnati did with LSU concepts for Burrow), he should have a solid rookie year. This is especially true as he gets more reps with his permanent set of targets. 

Part of making sure the Jets don't fall into quarterback purgatory again relies on properly building the roster around Wilson. The offense flashed some such improvements on Saturday, as Wilson found big free-agent addition Corey Davis twice for 18 yards. He's got another big body in Denzel Mims, quality veterans like Jamison Crowder and a massive second-round breakout candidate in Ole Miss' Elijah Moore. Keep in mind, the Jets' offensive line is bolstered by first-rounders Alijah Vera-Tucker at guard and Mekhi Becton at tackle. 

A revolving door of coordinators (Darnold had two over three seasons, for example) and head coaches, plus an inability to put top-tier weapons around the quarterback to complement some strong defenses didn't help highly drafted quarterbacks realize their potential. 

NFL @NFL

Move the sticks. @ZachWilson delivers a strike. #NYJvsNYG https://t.co/JMA9yWQS4v

Looking back as far as 2000, the Jets haven't gotten a ton out of the quarterback position. A first-round investment in Chad Pennington led to a few playoff appearances before a brief visit by one Brett Favre. Defenses propped up 2009 No. 5 pick Mark Sanchez, who completed 55.1 percent of his passes with a 33-29 record (with two trips to the AFC title game and one butt fumble) over four years in the Big Apple. And 2013 second-round pick Geno Smith never completed 60 percent of his passes over the course of two seasons, nor did he throw for more touchdowns than interceptions in notable patches of playing time. 

The Jets then decided to take another risk on a USC passer early, drafting Sam Darnold at No. 3 in 2018. He missed 10 games, completed more than 60 percent of his passes once, threw 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions and went 13-25 over three seasons. The Jets saw enough and shipped him to Carolina this offseason. 

Make no mistake, the Jets failed Darnold as much as the inverse, but it's at least something the front office seems to be attempting to fix with how it's building around Wilson. 

The lackluster performances from the Jets' QBs in the past sets a pretty low bar for Wilson to pass to generate any type of hype, but his play on Saturday warranted the hype.

"He looked comfortable, especially on third down," Jets head coach Robert Saleh said, according to ESPN's Rich Cimini. "[He] made some good throws, directed the offense really well. He got in and out of the huddle and moved it very well. It was a good first day."

Adam Hunger/Associated Press

More than anything else, it just comes down to Wilson. His first pro showing didn't hint at any major issue that will derail his career, like a penchant for turnovers Darnold showed early (including college, where he had 22 interceptions in two seasons). Wilson mostly looked like his film at BYU, throwing on the run well and in the face of pressure, even into tight windows. 

Is it early? Indeed. But rest assured, Jets fans will happily take a solid outing like that as opposed to the gloom and doom that would've come if Wilson had shown up at his first pro game and turned the ball over or generally flirted with the dreaded "B" word. 

Wilson will have to stack good performances, particularly in the regular season, to put his name alongside Burrow and Hebert in terms of recent rookie performers—and even longer to fix the long-term suffering of Jets faithful. But with his skill set and an organization that appears to be committed to building around their new franchise quarterback after making heavy investments in players around him, there's reason for positivity about the outlook. 

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