Crash landing: How Zach Wilson went from potential Jets savior to benched for Mike White in his second season
When the TV cameras zoom in on New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson on Sunday, standing on the sideline as a healthy scratch against the Chicago Bears following his benching for backup Mike White, it will likely look like the scene from a movie where the main character breaks the fourth wall and says, "You might be wondering how I got here."
His Broadway story started with high hopes that have slowly faded in his second NFL season as it became clear that Wilson, the second-overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft, was the anchor holding back a 6-4 Jets team. Off to its best 10-game start since its last playoff season in 2010, the team is desperate to snap its 11-season playoff drought, the longest active streak in the NFL and the longest playoff drought in franchise history.
Here's a look at Wilson's rise, fall, and what could be next for the second-year quarterback.
Breakout junior year at BYU
Wilson had a ho-hum first two seasons at BYU in 2018 and 2019, combining to throw 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions with 3,960 passing yards on a completion percentage of 63.7%. Then came his meteoric rise in 2020, his junior year: He threw for 3,692 passing yards (third-most in the FBS) and 33 touchdown passes (third-most in the FBS), totaling the best touchdown-to-interception ration in the country at 10:1 (33-3) on the second-best completion percentage (73.5%) and second-best passer efficiency rating (196.4) in the nation. Wilson's prolific numbers translated into team success, too, with BYU going 11-1 and finishing 11th in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Breathtaking pro day
He then wowed the NFL world during the pre-draft process, adding to his growing hype with his completion of a 60-yard, cross-body throw where he flipped his hips and launched a tight spiral perfectly to his receiver at BYU's Pro Day.
2021 NFL Draft day
The Jets bought into the stellar junior season and selected Wilson second overall in 2021, making him the fourth top-five selected quarterback in franchise history, putting him on a list with Hall of Famer Joe Namath (first-overall pick in the 1965 AFL Draft), Mark Sanchez (fifth overall in 2009) and Sam Darnold (third overall in 2018). The selection of Wilson second overall just three years after Darnold went third marked the shortest span by any team between selecting passers in the top three in the Common Draft Era (since 1967) and highlighted the Jets' thirst to find their face-of-the-franchise quarterback.
When Jets head coach Robert Saleh picked up the phone to congratulate his new quarterback. He made it a point of emphasis to say to Wilson that "This organization is going to lift you, not the other way around."
Wilson literally had a rough and tumble rookie season, as he was sacked on 10.3% of his pass attempts in 2021, the second-highest rate in the NFL behind only fellow rookie and Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields, the 11th-overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. That punishment led to the Jets rookie suffering a knee injury that knocked him out for four games from Weeks 8-11. However, he raised his level of play by taking much better care of the football and adding a dimension with his legs from Weeks 12-18.
The post-injury Wilson at the end of last season led Jets general manager Joe Douglas to completely buy into Wilson being the Jets' quarterback going forward.
"I 100% see greatness," Douglas said on ESPN NY's "The Michael Kay Show" in April. "I see a young quarterback that really went through the ringer to start the year. And what was most encouraging about Zach was when he came back, he maybe had one turnover over the last six games. He was taking care of the football. He was playing within the scheme."
True to Saleh's word, Douglas and the front office filled out the rest of the roster with young talent, selecting offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker 14th overall and wide receiver Elijah Moore 34th overall (second round) in Wilson's 2021 draft class. The Jets had three first round picks in the 2022 Draft -- fourth, 10th and 26th -- with the latter two coming from trades. New York selected cornerback Ahmad Gardner, wide receiver Garrett Wilson, and linebacker Jermaine Johnson II, respectively, ending up with a corner who hadn't allowed a single passing TD in college, one of the Big Ten's best pass-catchers, and the ACC's sacks and tackles-for-loss leader. In the second round, the Jets selected running back Breece Hall, who set the NCAA record for most consecutive games with a rushing touchdown (24).
A number of those picks have already hit. Gardner, the fourth-overall pick, leads the NFL with 12 pass breakups while allowing a 41.5% completion percentage against, the third-lowest of any player with 200 or more coverage snaps this season. Garrett Wilson (10th) ranks second among all rookies in catches (44) and receiving yards (533). Hall (36th) led all rookies in scrimmage yards (681) and scrimmage touchdowns (five) through the first seven weeks of the season before tearing his ACL against the Denver Broncos in Week 7.
Gang Green's defense is booming as a result of Gardner's immediate impact, the breakout of defensive tackle Quinnen Williams -- the Jets' third-overall pick in 2019 who leads the team with his career-high eight sacks -- and the return of defensive lineman Carl Lawson, a free agent the team signed to a three-year, $45 million deal in 2021 (his five sacks this season are second on the team). Lawson missed the entire 2021 season with a ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered in training camp. New York is the ninth-ranked scoring defense in the league this season, allowing 18.6 points per game after surrendering an NFL-worst 29.7 points per game in 2021. Their 11.1 points per game improvement is the largest by any defense in more than 20 years since the Rams saw a 12.3 points per game shift from 2000 (29.4) to 2001 (17.1).
The 6-4 Jets are winning in spite of their offense, as their scoring offense hasn't seen much of an uptick in Wilson's second season, improving by 1.7 points per game from 18.2 in 2021 to 19.9 this season. That offensive stagnation came to a head last Sunday in Foxborough. The Jets lost, 10-3, to the Patriots, whose only touchdown came on an 84-yard punt return score with five seconds left.
Zach Wilson's first 20 NFL starts haven't gone the way the Jets optimistically envisioned after taking him second overall: his 13 career passing touchdowns are the fewest through 20 starts among any active quarterback, he's never had more than two passing touchdowns in a game, and he has more games with fewer than 100 passing yards (three) than he does games with 300 or more passing yards (one).
He is also now part of a downtrodden club with his predecessor Sam Darnold (across his final season with the Jets in 2020 and his first season with the Carolina Panthers in 2021) as the only quarterbacks in the past 40 seasons to rank bottom-two in the NFL in passer rating for consecutive seasons.
Even though Wilson went 9 of 22 for a season-low 77 yards in the loss to the Patriots -- a team he has lost all four of his starts against -- and Saleh labeled the offense's 103 total yards "dog shit," Wilson downplayed the struggles in a tone-deaf manner. When asked if he felt that he let the Jets defense down after that side of the ball allowed only three points, Wilson replied quickly and dismissively to reporters postgame, shaking his head while saying, "No, no."
That defiant tone struck a chord with the rest of the Jets' locker room as Saleh detailed Wednesday, per SNY. "Maybe there's a little irritation at the moment ... but I don't think there's hate."
In response, Saleh benched Wilson for backup Mike White, but he said he intends for Wilson to get back on the field sometime later on this season.
"The big thing I want to make sure I address on this one, I want to make sure you listen to this one very carefully please: Zach's career here isn't over," Saleh said. "I know that's what everyone wants to shout out, but that's not even close to the case. The intent, the full intent, is to make sure Zach gets back on the football field sometime this year. When that is, I'll make that decision, and I'm going to take that day to day."
The Jets head coach went on to emphasize that the move to bench Wilson is for his second-year quarterback to have "a reset."
"The biggest thing with Zach ... is the young man needs a reset," Saleh said. "His decision-making has been fine, his practice habits and all that stuff have been fine, but there are some basic fundamental things that have gotten really out of whack for him. This is just an opportunity for him to sit back, focus on those things, and re-connect on all those things that we fell in love with during the pre-draft process. It's something I feel like he's going to be able to do. I think to ask him to do all those things while preparing for a game is unfair, but I think it's something in talking with Zach that we're excited to attack. Is it a small step back for him? Absolutely. But do I think it's going to be a great leap forward when he does get a chance to reset himself? Absolutely. This is not putting a nail in his coffin; it's not that, and it's not even close to that. I do believe at the end of this there's going to be a rejuvenated, renewed young man ... who is going to show why he was the second pick."
Wilson struck a much different, humbler tone Wednesday when addressing the media for the first time since Saleh announced his benching.
"I truly believe he has the best interest in me and the team," Wilson said of his head coach. "He does an amazing job in doing that, and I'm looking forward to the future and from this event how I can grow as a person, as a leader, as a teammate, and being there for my guys by handling things the right way. It's going to be a good opportunity, a humbling opportunity for me, to put my head down and work harder and to just be there for this team."
If Wilson takes care of business and gets back onto the football field in 2022 like Saleh said, five of the six potential opponents the 23-year-old quarterback would face from Week 13 on currently rank in the bottom half of the NFL in pass coverage, according to Pro Football Focus, meaning the opportunity for a comeback is possible. All Wilson needs to do now is put his head down and get to work. Read More