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Zach Wilson’s Been Bad. What Does that Mean for His NFL Future?

The Jets rookie has struggled mightily in his NFL debut, raising questions about whether the team’s decades-long search for a franchise passer is doomed to continue

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The list of organizations that have selected more than one top-five quarterback in the past five drafts starts and ends with the New York Jets. Sam Darnold at no. 3 in 2018, then BYU’s Zach Wilson at no. 2 in 2021. That’s not good news, folks.

It’s actually really hard to find that feat repeated in modern draft history. The Rams took two top-five quarterbacks in a seven-draft span between 2010 (Sam Bradford) and 2016 (Jared Goff); the Jaguars did it over a eight-draft period (Blake Bortles in 2014, Trevor Lawrence in 2021). If we widen the parameters to include the top-10 picks, we can get the 2018-2019 Cardinals in the window: They selected Josh Rosen with the no. 10 pick in 2018, then ended up with the no. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, and immediately replaced Rosen with Kyler Murray, a franchise-saving decision.

Speaking of immediately replacing bad first-round quarterbacks with potential early first-round picks … it’s time to talk about Zach Wilson’s rookie season.

The Jets shouldn’t, and won’t, draft Wilson’s replacement in 2022. The upcoming class is mediocre, and New York has way too much invested in Wilson. They drafted him in part because he fits their system; they hired his personal quarterbacks coach, John Beck, onto the staff to help facilitate the fit. Wilson is their guy.

But their guy has been really rough down the stretch, punctuating his fraught rookie season with perhaps his worst performance so far on Sunday: 19-of-42 for 202 yards, featuring a season-low 45.2 completion percentage and three sacks. It’d be less worrisome if it were more rare. But Wilson’s best games this year are almost immediately followed by poor performances; his best throws brief glimmers in an otherwise murky pool. Nobody can feel good about a season-long 56 completion percentage, six touchdowns and 11 interceptions, a sack rate of almost 9 percent, and a quarterback rating of 24. Assessing rookie quarterback play can be hard, so I want to talk about exactly what’s going wrong, and why it matters so much moving forward.

Wilson’s processing remains debilitatingly slow, and it has multiple negative effects on his game. There are plays during which Wilson’s slow process means the ball is delivered to the checkdown well after the checkdown is a viable option: Zone defenders have already keyed on the route and are closing downhill, ensuring that the gain will be marginal at best, a loss at worst. Here’s an example in which Wilson should identify that the middle linebacker has opened to the side of the field opposite the back, leaving four defenders over two receivers to his desired route combination. But he lingers on that look, bounces to the same look on the other side of the field, and then gets to the RB swing, where a Saints defender is already waiting.

The lateness also leads to inaccurate passes. Here, Wilson should again recognize right away that the linebacker is flying to match the running back through all of the traffic generated by the three bunch receivers. This is the ideal look on which to throw the angle route from the back. Right as Ty Johnson breaks, you can see his hands jump up, as he’s expecting the ball—but it isn’t there. Wilson is still reading out the clear-out routes, which are much more viable options against zone coverage as opposed to this man defense. When he finally gets to the angle, he has stopped his feet in the pocket, and guides the throw in behind Johnson. It’s still a drop, and a catchable football—but this play should have been so much easier than it was.

A quarterback’s footwork in the pocket, and his management of that space, are closely tied to his timing. Feet and eyes should be married in a quarterback’s progressions—but that has never been the case with Wilson, even going back to his BYU days. Wilson flees the pocket at the first sight of trouble—trouble that should be reasonably managed by a quarterback of any degree of experience in the NFL. Here’s a running back option route that uncovers beautifully into open space—but because Wilson wasn’t confident in the timing of the route break, and because an outside pass rusher moved him ever so slightly off his spot, Wilson is out of the pocket and in the scramble drill.

Now, because Wilson has that impressive knack for off-platform throws with adjusted arm angles, he’s still able to throw this ball to the back and pick up a first down. But just because bad process can create good results does not mean bad process should be celebrated, especially when the saving grace of this bad process—Wilson’s arm talent—is not reliable. Wilson shot up draft boards because of his arm talent and creativity, but he hasn’t been consistent in those regards in the league. Here’s a similar throw—out of the pocket, adjusted arm angle, pressure in his face—that Wilson dirts earlier in the game.

This inconsistency is perhaps more concerning than anything tangible about Wilson’s timing and pocket management—two things that were noted weaknesses of his coming out of BYU. Arm talent was supposed to be Wilson’s strength, but it has never been consistently realized in New York. We can find other examples as well. Wilson’s ability to generate velocity from wonky throwing platforms elicited Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes comparisons—but in the league, he is hesitating on such throws and missing dramatically.

The 9 route on the outside was a favorite throw of Wilson’s in college—one that he was able to deliver both over the top and on the back shoulder. He’s been a grab bag when throwing this ball in the NFL, with flashes of good placement, but also balls that somehow die in the air despite his strong arm.

And on deep routes that break toward the sideline—throws that should be possible given Wilson’s velocity, his bad habits in footwork and pocket management delay the ball’s arrival. Here, there is a window in which to hit his receiver on the deep flag route in the end zone—but because Wilson is drifting, waiting, and watching the receiver uncover, the defensive back has enough time to recover and close on the catch point. Again, while this ball is catchable, Wilson has made the margins for error smaller with his decisions and process.

That’s a lot of football there—and it’s all from just one game. His start against the Saints was arguably his worst of the season, and Dennis Allen’s defense can be a nightmare for even veteran quarterbacks. But we can’t pretend that it’s an aberration. We can find examples of poor pocket management, poor footwork, poor mechanics, and poor accuracy all over Wilson’s film this season, no matter which game we dive into.

Building out this prolonged film argument may seem gratuitous, but it is necessary. It’s important to see just how badly Wilson is playing, because rookie quarterback play is a combustible topic, and drawing ironclad conclusions from a small sample size is a fool’s errand. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that, because Wilson has been bad all season, he’s definitely going to be bad forever.

But I am going to tell you that he’s a bad quarterback right now. And while a lot of rookie quarterbacks look like bad quarterbacks for a while, they regularly show the flashy traits that got them drafted highly, that make them worthy of development. They regularly show growth throughout the season. I don’t believe we’ve seen either from Wilson yet, which makes it mighty tough to believe he will improve anytime in the future. His rookie film doesn’t remind me of Baker Mayfield or Josh Allen, let alone Kyler Murray or Justin Herbert. It reminds me of Daniel Jones or Dwayne Haskins. There’s just a whole lot of bad.

Declaring Zach Wilson as probably bad should rightfully elicit a knee-jerk reaction from Jets fans—actually, it should elicit a few. Those reactions are justified. The first might be a demand for consistency across the rest of the class: Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, both of whom were also in the conversation for the top ranking in the class, also look really bad on the stat sheet. If Wilson is officially bad, why aren’t Lawrence and Fields?

Because their film is just remarkably better. We can find examples of both going through their progressions with better pacing, and delivering late in their progressions with better accuracy. Here’s Lawrence on a touchdown against the Cardinals early in the season getting to the backside of mirrored corner routes with enough time to hit a diminishing window.

And Fields, looking for a double post concept in the high red zone, seeing way too much traffic, and then getting to the open curl from his tight ends and delivering a fastball, low and away, to protect the receiver from the incoming hit.

We also should note that, while Lawrence and Fields aren’t producing well, they are doing better than Wilson in most catch-all metrics, like adjusted net yards per attempts or expected points added per dropback. Even if you move the goalposts and look only for key plays, Wilson still fails to measure up. Both Fields and Lawrence have more frequent peaks than Wilson (as measured by Pro Football Focus’s big-time throw percentage) and less frequent valleys than Wilson (their turnover-worthy play percentage). He has been worse than Fields and Lawrence, on both the eye test and on the data sheets.

Wilson vs. Lawrence vs. Fields

QB Adjusted Net Yards/Attempt EPA/dropback CPOE Big Time Throw % Turnover Worthy Play %
QB Adjusted Net Yards/Attempt EPA/dropback CPOE Big Time Throw % Turnover Worthy Play %
Lawrence 4.32 (30) -.067 (28th) -6.6 (31st) 3.6% (21st) 3.8% (29th)
Fields 3.87 (31) -.134 (30th) -3.2 (29th) 5.9% (7th) 3.9% (30th)
Wilson 3.61 (32) -.168 (31st) -8.9 (32nd) 2.9% (29th) 4.4% (35th)
Sources: Stathead, RBSDM.com, Pro Football Focus

The second kneejerk reaction from Jets fans is a familiar caveat from the Sam Darnold days: that the environment around him makes it difficult to figure out just how good he is, and just how good he can be. And that argument is right—to a degree. It is difficult to evaluate Wilson in the context of his Jets team, which has been forced to rely on rookies not just at quarterback, but at running back (Michael Carter), wide receiver (Elijah Moore), and offensive coordinator (Mike LaFleur, a first-time play caller). This Jets team didn’t have a great depth chart to start, and has been unlucky with injuries. Early in the 2021 season they lost starting left tackle Mekhi Becton to injury; last week they gave significant snaps to receivers D.J. Montgomery and Vyncint Smith following injuries to Moore and Corey Davis. Wilson himself missed time, and accordingly precious experience, with a PCL injury.

All of these factors occlude our insight into Wilson’s play. But the simple reality is that every quarterback plays under disadvantageous contexts. Wilson’s receivers are bad—but they aren’t as bad as Jalen Hurts’s are in Philadelphia, where the Eagles’ second-year quarterback has clearly made strides. His offensive line is bad—but it isn’t as bad as Fields’s in Chicago or Tua’s in Miami. If I could pluck quarterbacks out of their current rosters and offenses and deposit them into new ones and watch how they perform, my job would be a heckuva lot easier—but I can’t. So we do our best with what we’ve got, and what we have in New York is a quarterback who’s struggling mightily.

The third and final kneejerk reaction is the one I will finally acquiesce to: that it’s just too early to tell. It is not impossible that Wilson will become wildly successful. Maybe it will be because of a change in coaching, like it was with Jared Goff when the Rams hired Sean McVay; maybe it will be for a massive improvement in accuracy, as was the case with Josh Allen in Buffalo. By no means is the book shut on Wilson, who will continue to benefit from the most precious things a young player can get during his developmental years: time. Attention. Reps. Opportunity. He’ll get some of the bad stuff, too—pressure, visible mistakes—but all in all, if you want a quarterback to get better, you have to invest in him. And the Jets are clearly doing that.

But no amount of investment can right the original wrong: that the Jets may have just plain missed with the second overall pick. Yes, tons of league sources and ex-league executives and public draft analysts love Wilson—some even had him above Lawrence. But the league’s been wrong before—many times, in fact—and the Wilson hype never passed the sniff test for me. The Jets were the pivot of the NFL draft—the first uncertainty after the Lawrence certainty—and for some reason, the Wilson pick was signed, sealed, and delivered months before draft day. No Trey Lance question, no Fields question, no Mac Jones question. There was certainty in the building that Wilson should be the pick, and in the media that Wilson would be the pick.

One year into his career, that certainty has evaporated. What’s left is that creeping worry: that no matter what the Jets do, the fatal mistake was made on draft day, and everything that comes after is just nailing Jell-O to a tree. The book on Wilson isn’t written, but projecting out over the next couple of seasons, New York is far closer to picking a third top-five passer than they are to enjoying the relief of a franchise quarterback.