What did the NY Jets get wrong in their Zach Wilson evaluation?15 min read
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By: Rivka Boord
It is always important to learn from mistakes and improve moving forward
NFL draft evaluation is one of the most difficult jobs for a sports front office.
Evaluating a quarterback?
The most difficult by far.
Consider that from 2011-20, 32 quarterbacks were drafted in the first round. Of those, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow, (maybe?) Tua Tagovailoa, and Justin Herbert are the only ones that have become true franchise quarterbacks for the teams that drafted them; a 31% success rate on the most important position to get right. Jared Goff and Ryan Tannehill have found a measure of success with clear limitations, and the jury is still out on Daniel Jones.
If drafting a QB in the first round has no better odds than winning at rock, paper, scissors, then many teams are going to have failed. Still, failing three times in a little over a decade is a starkly painful reality for a star-crossed franchise still searching for the next Joe Namath.
Zach Wilson is, perhaps, the worst draft bust in New York Jets franchise history. Worse than Ken O’Brien, who wasn’t a bust despite the bitter taste of passing over Dan Marino. Worse than Kyle Brady over Warren Sapp. Worse than Blair Thomas, Vernon Gholston, Kyle Wilson, Quinton Coples, Dee Milliner, Calvin Pryor, Darron Lee, and Sam Darnold. Far worse than Mark Sanchez.
How did the Jets get it so wrong? How did the majority of prognosticators fall so far short of the mark?
Is it Wilson? Is it the coaching? Is it the team? Or is it a combination of all of the above?
Tanking the tank for Trevor
The 2020 Jets were the sorriest of the sorry teams that the Jets have put on the field. The hapless Adam Gase-led outfit lost their first 13 games of the season and appeared poised to be the third winless team in the history of the 16-game NFL season. Tanking for Trevor Lawrence was the consolation prize for a team that did not deserve to take the field each week.
But then Gase managed to mess that up, too. The draft class that year botched the Jets’ future in more ways than one. An ill-fated Braden Mann tackle on a punt return led to a victory over the 17.5-point favorite Rams, and a victory over the Browns the following week sealed the Jets’ fate. There was to be no generational QB talent in the house.
This is why firing just Gregg Williams after the Zero Blitz game was ill-advised. It would have been smarter to completely clean house and place an interim coach at the helm, putting in place someone on the same page as the rest of the team in the rebuilding process. Perhaps this is on Joe Douglas, but maybe he did not have the authority to can Gase.
Either way, once the Jets lost out on Lawrence, the seeds of the Jets’ present situation were sown. As good as the 2021 quarterback class was projected to be, there was only one clear favorite. The best prospect since Andrew Luck was not going to wear green and white.
Pivoting to Plan B
Once Trevor Lawrence was out of the question, there was some doubt about what the Jets would do. They still had Sam Darnold on their roster, a QB who struggled mightily in his three seasons with virtually no talent around him. Considering the dearth of talent on the roster, Joe Douglas could have opted to hang on to Darnold, trade the No. 2 pick for a nice haul, and begin to rebuild the roster around Darnold to see if he would improve.
Though the Jets tried to keep their plans close to the vest, they ended up unloading Darnold for second- and fourth-round picks in 2022 in what turned out to be a steal of a trade. That second-round pick turned into Breece Hall.
After the Darnold trade, there was also a chance that the Jets would trade down and try to still land one of the top QBs. Would the Jets have taken that trade with the 49ers and accumulated picks? They’d have ended up with Mac Jones, who looks only marginally better than Zach Wilson this year. But they may have also restocked the cupboard more quickly in 2021.
The Jets chose not to go the trade route. They had their pick of the next four likely first-round picks after Lawrence: Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, and Mac Jones. Since Jones and Lance were never seriously linked to the Jets, the choice came down to Wilson and Fields.
While there was no clear consensus about which quarterback was superior, most scouts did seem to prefer Wilson over Fields. This may have been somewhat influenced by the fact that the Jets were linked to Wilson over Fields almost immediately once Robert Saleh and Mike LaFleur were hired as head coach and offensive coordinator, respectively.
This is not to say that Wilson was a bad prospect. Some, such as Chris Simms, even thought that Wilson had a higher ceiling than Lawrence. However, Plan B always has its drawbacks.
Those who preferred Fields or Lance over Wilson cited several concerns:
- Wilson was a one-year wonder during the Covid-19 pandemic with no fans in the stands. Prior to that, he had played two nondescript seasons at BYU.
- He went to a small school and faced subpar competition, often playing with completely clean pockets and receivers running free.
- Wilson’s fancy plays outside the pocket masked the fact that he often demonstrated poor footwork within structure.
Considering that each of these concerns has shown up and then some in the NFL, it is fair to wonder if these should be taken more seriously in future quarterback evaluations. Then again, Patrick Mahomes’s footwork was worse than Wilson’s coming into the league; Josh Allen also played at a small school and made far more mistakes in college than Wilson did; and quarterbacks such as Lamar Jackson and, indeed, Justin Fields also had to adjust to playing within the structure of an NFL offense.
In fact, the biggest of these concerns is likely that Wilson was a one-year wonder in the Covid season. Justin Fields and Trey Lance had looked like NFL quarterbacks their whole college careers, while Wilson had one admittedly sparkling season with no fans in the stands and a generally altered playing environment. This should have given the Jets pause.
On Wilson’s NFL.com predraft profile, he was listed as a prospect with boom-or-bust potential. His weaknesses included:
- Has tendency to over-stride and sail throws at times.
- Passed up on the easy throw to take the harder throw.
- Doesn’t work with enough anticipation as a passer.
- Ill-advised throws under pressure turned into interceptions in 2019.
- Will baby throws, forcing open receivers to break stride.
Sophistication of college offense
On a cursory film evaluation, it appeared that Wilson was far more advanced than Lance or Fields in going through his progressions and making multiple reads. This was one aspect of his game that our evaluators at Jet X thought was going to make him a stud.
However, as Vitor Paiva has admitted in hindsight, while Wilson did seemingly make multiple reads, he was only tasked with a very limited tree of plays. Mesh, which was Wilson’s favorite concept, theoretically has multiple reads, but it is really keying on one defender and then going from one to two. Rarely did you see him truly progress on a play that required more than reading one defender.
Looking back in retrospect, I believe the “few concepts” stuff was something I overlooked when watching Wilson. He ran mesh well. A lot of 989. A lot of play action bombs. And It was basically It. I watched him running mesh and throwing to multiple reads and I was like: hm, he + https://t.co/RiYLE4uVJG
— Vitor (@VitorPaivaM) December 23, 2022
good. But I should’ve asked: what else?
That’s why it’s so hard to evaluate qbs. So much goes into It.
With Fields, I often felt everything was too long-developing in an NFL world where everything goes 3 step. But, on the other hand, it showed a willingness to do things from +
— Vitor (@VitorPaivaM) December 23, 2022
the pocket that Zach, for instance, never had much.
All in all, I think the Jets should move on from Wilson.
I’m higher on Mike White than most, but even if the Jets bring a vet QB (carr, JG), I would make him compete with White.
It’s sad we are having this discussion, tho.
— Vitor (@VitorPaivaM) December 23, 2022
This still does not account for the complete erosion of Wilson’s ability to read even that one defender in the NFL, specifically in 2022. Last season, he seemed to improve on those reads as the year went on. This season, after some nice reads against the Steelers, Wilson’s eyes indicate that he has no idea what he is seeing. Some of his ugliest throws have been on what should have been an easy pre-snap read. Anything requiring a post-snap adjustment is an automatic failure for Wilson, which opponents have been taking advantage of mercilessly.
Still, even though many college quarterbacks come into the league with a relatively limited tree of plays run in college, the fact that Wilson did, as well, should have been a knock on his evaluation. At the very least, we should have looked more carefully at the rest of his game given this limitation.
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From Utah to New York
It is easy to underestimate the impact of going from small-town Provo, Utah to the bright lights of the New York media. However, once again, considering what we’ve seen in the NFL regarding Zach Wilson’s mental makeup, it’s fair to wonder if this is another factor that the Jets should have flagged or at least considered more strongly prior to picking Wilson.
Again, Wilson’s top season occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic. He had never succeeded to the level of an NFL quarterback with fans in the stands. Though the other quarterbacks in the draft had also played in empty stadiums in 2020, they had also previously shown the ability to succeed with the bright lights and the pressure on.
This is not to say that anyone could have predicted what has happened with Wilson in the NFL. His tendency to completely melt down the second he makes one bad play shows that he does not have the mental makeup to play the quarterback position in the league at all, not just in New York. One of the most crucial characteristics of a quarterback is a short memory—the ability to quickly recover from mistakes and move on. Wilson, on the other hand, turns one bad play into a terrible game on a regular basis.
The most classic examples are his two losses to the Patriots and one to the Lions this season. In each game, he had a period of decent-to-stellar play early in the game, made one bad mistake, and then completely melted down afterward.
Yup. Mental is the thing here: Wilson just doesn’t seem to have It. Whether if it is just a general lack of leadership vibe or the fact that he completely falters after every mistake… QB position is about short memory and ability to make people rally around you. https://t.co/PLfPXS4srD
— Vitor (@VitorPaivaM) December 23, 2022
Still, a New York team may need to take additional aspects into consideration before drafting a quarterback. The pressure of the New York media is a real thing and should not be taken lightly. Not everyone can handle it. Zach Wilson clearly cannot, and there were some ways to take an educated guess at that fact during his draft evaluation.
Arm vs. footwork
The biggest reason that Zach Wilson was the No. 2 overall pick in 2021 was his raw arm strength. The Jets imagined Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes when they selected him. His ability to throw off-platform and throw the ball 50 yards downfield with a flick of his wrist had scouts salivating.
However, this took the focus off the traditional things that scouts look for in quarterback evaluations, namely footwork. Re-watching Wilson’s college film, you can see that most of the footwork issues he has faced in the NFL are not new. They may have been obscured by the wide-open receivers he was throwing to, but they were still there. Wilson never sets his front foot, rarely brings his body forward through his throws, and rarely rotates his hips in the direction that he is targeting.
For all that Mahomes and Rodgers throw off-platform, they still can and do set their feet more often than not. Their footwork is not perfect, but they both improved it enough to allow their smarts, arm strength, and athleticism to do the rest. Wilson has never done that.
The hire of Robert Saleh as the Jets’ head coach was universally lauded around the NFL. Lost in the shuffle was that the team hired a defensive coach while carrying the No. 2 overall pick with the intent to draft a quarterback. While it’s not impossible to groom a QB under such circumstances, the success of such a plan is usually contingent upon hiring experienced and creative offensive coaches to tutor the rookie.
The Jets did hire Gregg Knapp to be their passing game specialist, and Knapp was supposed to be their quarterback whisperer. A tragic car accident in 2021 resulted in Knapp’s death and the need to turn to Plan B. However, because all the Jets had behind Knapp was rookie offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur and rookie QB coach Rob Calabrese, Wilson’s development suddenly went sideways. Bringing in his personal QB coach was a temporary solution, but this situation did not put Wilson in the best position to succeed.
Year 1 plan
In the NFL of Aaron Rodgers’s draft day in 2005, highly drafted quarterbacks often did not start from Day 1 in the league. The consensus was that most young quarterbacks were not NFL-ready and needed some seasoning. Rodgers was blocked by Brett Favre but likely would have sat regardless. Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick that year, did start pretty quickly with predictable results.
Since the 2011 CBA changed the salary structure of draft picks, though, the financial implications of drafting a first-round quarterback have changed everything. One of the primary ways to win in the league is to build a team when the star quarterback is still on a rookie contract. Considering that quarterbacks seem to demand that renegotiation after three seasons, it is that much more crucial to develop them immediately and win a championship within those first three years.
Once the Jets decided to move on from Sam Darnold, it was clear that whoever they drafted would start from Week 1 of the 2021 season. It was a mistake not to have a semi-viable alternative on the roster, though. When an injury forces you to trade for the 36-year-old quarterback you just let go in free agency, you know things are tough. The Jets should have kept a competent veteran behind Wilson to start the season if things were too fast for the rookie in the NFL.
Year 2 lack of contingency plan
Once the Jets saw Zach Wilson’s play in his rookie season, leaving Joe Flacco and Mike White as Wilson’s sole backups was a daring and potentially disastrous move on Joe Douglas’s part. The way we at Jet X viewed the move was that if Wilson wasn’t the answer, it didn’t matter who their backup quarterback was since the Jets weren’t going anywhere. Perhaps that was Douglas’s rationale, as well.
Douglas certainly did everything he could to try to give Wilson the weapons to succeed. He brought in Laken Tomlinson, Tyler Conklin, and C.J. Uzomah and drafted Garrett Wilson and Breece Hall. Before the Mekhi Becton drama ever took place, though, there was significant concern about the Jets’ tackle position. Becton and George Fant were both injury-prone prior to the season. Not doing more to solidify the tackle position before Becton went down for the year was an error. The fact that Tomlinson has been perhaps the biggest free-agent bust of 2022 is a separate story.
Once Wilson got hurt in preseason, the Jets doubled down on their position by not trading for a veteran backup or bringing in someone other than Flacco to start the season. However, it has appeared all year that the coaching staff slammed the brakes on Wilson’s athleticism unless it’s Wilson himself who simply does not want to run.
It’s clear that the Jets did not consider Mike White a legitimate backup, as he was the QB3 until Week 9 and was inactive from Weeks 4 through 8. What we’ve seen on the field from him this year is a wildly different player than the QB who couldn’t hit a pass against third-stringers in the preseason.
Mike LaFleur has tried at times to run mesh and other concepts that Wilson succeeded with in college. However, he has been uneven with regard to designing bootlegs and getting Wilson to use his legs in general.
It does seem that LaFleur is insistent on doing things his way rather than Wilson’s way. That being said, Wilson makes it difficult by being bad at pretty much everything. The only times we have seen flashes are in the two-minute drill or in a seemingly hopeless situation in which Wilson can just rip the ball without worrying.
Is it possible that a different play-caller could get more out of Wilson? Perhaps Andy Reid or Kyle Shanahan could. But would even they be able to get enough out of him to make him a starting-caliber QB? I don’t think even Mike McDaniel, with his high-flying receiver weapons, could do so. McDaniel can do it with Tua, he might be able to do it with a guy like Jimmy Garoppolo or even Mike White, but someone who cannot operate within the basic structure of an offense is not an NFL-caliber QB in today’s day and age.
Could Zach Wilson have thrived in a 1960s-style, chuck-and-pray league? Perhaps, if he could stay healthy long enough to play at all. (I’m imagining Cleon Jones taking a crack at Wilson.)
In the long run, is it possible that Wilson has a Geno Smith turnaround? Maybe, but it’s going to take an awful lot of work on his part. Sitting behind top QBs, taking copious notes, working on footwork and timing, and the willingness to play within the structure of an offense are all things that Wilson would have to do.
The worst part of whiffing on a high first-round pick is the difficulty in moving on from them. Zach Wilson has a $20.8 million dead cap number for next season, while his cap hit is $9.6 million. If he’s cut post-June 1, that 2023 cap hit goes down to $15 million.
Trading Wilson pre-June 1 would cost the Jets $11.5 million in dead cap, while trading him post-June 1 would carry a dead cap hit of $5.7 million in 2023 and 2024.
Though trading Wilson with a post-June 1 designation seems the most appealing, the question is if anyone would be willing to take on his remaining salary. Perhaps a team without extensive needs would take a flier on him, betting on their ability to coach him up and utilize his high-level arm and athleticism.
Unless Joe Douglas can pull a Blake Cashman or Jamal Adams rabbit out of his hat, though, the overwhelming likelihood is that Zach Wilson remains on the Jets’ roster in 2023. Considering that Douglas does not have a lot of cap space to work with, and clearing space (by releasing Carl Lawson or Corey Davis, for example) will create other roster needs, the ability to sign two competent QBs to compete for the starting spot will be challenging.
The other possibility is that Douglas works out some sort of deal in which he retains some of Wilson’s salary but still receives some cap relief, similar to the Baker Mayfield trade from Cleveland to Carolina.
For the good of the Jets’ locker room, it is certainly best if Zach Wilson is not on the 2023 roster. However, whiffing on a first-round QB has significant consequences.
Is there anything the Jets can learn?
Ultimately, drafting a quarterback is really tough. Taking a chance on a toolsy, high-ceiling, low-floor guy wasn’t a terrible idea after the Sam Darnold experiment failed. However, the questions surrounding Wilson combined with the unfortunate lack of anyone with QB development experience derailed any chance the Jets had of success.
If the Jets are in a position to take another QB in the near future, they need to bring in a better supporting cast to develop that quarterback. Other than that, it’s possible that looking at a QB from a small school warrants more careful scrutiny of his footwork and ability to read a defense.
When it comes down to it, though, Wilson joins a long line of quarterback busts. Knowing that they are not alone does not give any comfort to the Jets or their fans. The best the team can hope for at this point is quality play from a guy they’re paying very little to make up for the sunk cost.
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Originally posted on Jets X-Factor