Zach Wilson is officially a New York Jet. One year ago, Wilson, entering his junior season at BYU, wasn’t even guaranteed to be the Cougars’ starting quarterback. Now, he’s set to be the starting passer for one of the NFL’s most iconic and heavily scrutinized franchises, which also features one of the most energetic, vocal, and QB-starved fan bases. And, with Sam Darnold out of the fold, there’s no real safety net behind him (James Morgan and Mike White are the other QBs currently on the roster). Wilson won’t be eased into his new gig.
After emerging seemingly in a flash this past year, Wilson is being hurled into what will be the most intense environment for any rookie QB this season. If Wilson lives up to the hype, it wouldn’t be the first time in his career he’s defied long odds. But history suggests it’ll be an uphill climb to become New York’s long-awaited savior.
With the Jaguars choosing Trevor Lawrence first and Wilson following, the 2021 QB class becomes only the eighth in the Super Bowl era in which QBs were picked back-to-back to open the draft. The complete list:
• 2021: Trevor Lawrence (Jaguars), Zach Wilson (Jets)
• 2016: Jared Goff (Rams), Carson Wentz (Eagles)
• 2015: Jameis Winston (Buccaneers), Marcus Mariota (Titans)
• 2012: Andrew Luck (Colts), Robert Griffin III (Washington)
• 1999: Tim Couch (Browns), Donovan McNabb (Eagles)
• 1998: Peyton Manning (Colts), Ryan Leaf (Chargers)
• 1993: Drew Bledsoe (Patriots), Rick Mirer (Seahawks)
• 1971: Jim Plunkett (Patriots), Archie Manning (Saints)
Quarterback is one of the most difficult positions for teams to get correct in the draft, and because the worst teams get the best picks in the draft, the most talented passers often end up being dumped into unfavorable situations. The environments and cultures that players step into arguably have as much impact on how their careers will unfold as how much talent the players themselves have. That said, teams have done a better job of maximizing the careers of no. 1 picks than they have no. 2 picks in scenarios in which QBs went back-to-back to open the draft.
Let’s follow my colleague Rodger Sherman’s method in breaking down how often the first QB selected in an NFL draft ended up being the best player in his class, based on Pro-Football-Reference’s career approximate value statistic (AV). As Rodger noted, AV isn’t a perfect metric to evaluate a QB’s career, but it does give us a quantifiable way to compare each passer’s career across different eras. The stat does benefit players who had longer careers, but, uh, most good QBs you’ll see on this list—including Andrew Luck, who retired early—ended up having lengthier careers than the average passer. With that in mind, in the following graphics, I’ve included a column indicating the AV of each passer through their first five NFL seasons (the length of a first-rounder’s rookie contract, when options are used), along with a column indicating how many seasons they spent with the team that originally drafted them. The last column shows a QB’s best individual season based on AV.
In drafts in which the first two picks were used on QBs, here’s how the first picks have done:
And here’s how the second picks in the same drafts have done:
Green represents players who were above average; red is below. You’ll notice more red in the second image, meaning that NFL teams, in a vacuum, have done a much better job of maximizing the no. 1 pick. Only once has the second QB recorded a higher career AV than the first (Donovan McNabb topping Tim Couch). Short-term success significantly favors no. 1 picks, who record an average of 55 AV over their first five seasons, compared to 36 AV for no. 2 picks.
What about a quarterback picked at no. 2 when the no. 1 pick wasn’t used on a QB? That scenario has happened only twice in the post-merger era: Mitchell Trubisky in 2017 and Bert Jones in 1973. In the context of AV, their careers have been dramatically different, perhaps affirming the idea that the draft is an absolute crapshoot:
No rookie QB situation is exactly the same. In assessing the Jets, it’s easy to see cases for why Wilson might or might not succeed. The bad news for Wilson: The Jets have looked startlingly inept over the past decade and the pressure is on him to perform at a high level. Amid all the hype, there’s at least some concern about how well Wilson will transition to New York, which has been a tough place for QBs to succeed. Zero Jets passers amassed 4,000 yards in a single season during the 16-game era—this fan base is desperate for a quarterback to break through.
Here’s how recent New York starters have performed, using our AV method:
At BYU, Wilson had to live up to the standard of past Cougars passers. Pass-happy offenses designed by LaVell Edwards and Norm Chow helped fuel the legacies of players like Steve Young, Steve Sarkisian, Ty Detmer, and Jim McMahon, paving the way for players like Max Hall and John Beck. BYU set itself apart as a school expected to produce productive college QBs. Beck explained the expectations of a BYU QB when I spoke with him in January.
“I think there’s an understanding BYU is a place that prides itself in its quarterbacks,” Beck said. “It’s had a great tradition and history of quarterbacks. Those guys in the late ’70s and ’80s, they were the top in the nation. A lot of those guys went on to have solid NFL careers, they’ve been Super Bowl champions, MVPs. The BYU quarterback is kind of like the special spot on the football team because it’s meant so much over the years, and you carry a responsibility. There’s an expectation—a really high expectation—and you feel it when you’re that.”
The legacy of New York QBs is entirely different, but the pressure will still be there. And Wilson, a QB who faced only five Power 5 opponents in three years (30 games), will have plenty to adjust to at the next level. He’s now due to be tested by Bill Belichick’s Patriots, Sean McDermott’s Bills, and Brian Flores’s Dolphins twice each year. The good news: New York reset its coaching staff, hiring former Niners defensive coordinator Robert Saleh—a Seahawks defensive quality coach during Russell Wilson’s rookie year—to be head coach. He brought in offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, a Kyle Shanahan disciple, to direct what’s expected to be a very QB-friendly scheme. As Pro Football Focus’s Seth Galina has detailed, Wilson benefited from playing in an outside zone–heavy scheme last year, providing him a favorable environment.
The Jets are also positioned to build a legitimate, young core around Wilson through the draft, beginning Thursday night when they pick again at no. 23. New York owns 19 more picks over the next two drafts, which includes two first-round picks and two second-round picks next year. The Jets rank 10th in PFF’s Improvement Index, which quantifies teams’ added value each offseason, after adding receiver Corey Davis and pass rusher Carl Lawson this offseason. Spotrac projects the Jets to have more than $70 million in cap space next offseason, which should allow the rebuild to continue in earnest in 2022, as well.
Wilson’s surrounding cast and culture in New York will play a significant role in whether or not he succeeds. His own talent will contribute to that, too. History—both for no. 2 picks and for his own organization—doesn’t favor his chances. But Wilson has defied long odds before.