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Scouting Jets quarterback Zach Wilson

2021 NFL Draft Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Over the next few months, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at each of the Jets’ rookies. We begin today with quarterback Zach Wilson.

Wilson was the 2nd overall pick in last month’s draft having started 28 games in three seasons at BYU. He rocketed up draft boards in his senior year after he was second in the nation with a completion percentage of 74 and threw 33 touchdowns with just three interceptions.

Background

Wilson wasn’t heavily recruited as a high school player, but was listed as a three-star recruit following a solid senior year. He turned down an offer from Cal and de-committed from Boise State before eventually deciding to attend BYU.

As a true freshman, he started seven games but his numbers were modest. However, in his team’s bowl game against Western Michigan, he had the first 300-yard game of his career, completing all 18 of his passes with four touchdowns.

Optimism gave way to concern after the end of the season, though, as Wilson’s arm had been bothering him and an MRI revealed that he’d require surgery on his throwing shoulder.

Wilson battled to get healthy in time to start the season opener in 2019 but the season was ultimately a major disappointment as he lost five of his nine starts and missed time in the middle of the year with another injury.

He had a couple of 300-yard games and was the team’s MVP again in their bowl game loss, but he ended up with a career worst completion percentage of 62 and a career high nine interceptions with just 11 touchdown passes.

Finally healthy in 2020, Wilson was able to take his game to the next level as he not only threw for 33 touchdowns but also rushed for 10 more. He had two 400-yard games and another four 300-yard games as BYU went 11-1 and ended the season with Wilson’s career-high 425 passing yards leading them to a bowl game win over UCF.

Having opted to enter the 2021 draft early, Wilson reportedly convinced the Jets that he was their guy at his pro day and they made him the second pick in the draft last month.

Now let’s take a look at what Wilson brings to the table, divided into categories.

Measurables/Athleticism

One concern about Wilson is that he lacks ideal size, but he’s not as small as some feared at just over 6’2” and 214 pounds. His hand size is below average but within the acceptable parameters at 9.5 inches.

Wilson’s shoulder issues have prevented him from lifting in the past, but he’s likely to add weight in an NFL lifting program. He had a similar issue in high school where he played his junior year at 170 pounds and obviously wasn’t recruited much at the time. He bulked up to 195 during that offseason.

As an athlete, Wilson doesn’t stand out, but he’s quick enough to elude defensive linemen or beat pursuing defenders to the edge on scrambles. He didn’t work out at his pro day but his 40-time is estimated to be in the 4.7 range or thereabouts. He was also a good basketball player in high school.

Usage

While Wilson has only ever played the quarterback position at the college level, he did line up out wide on a few snaps in 2019. He has caught three passes, all for first downs, on gadget plays in his career.

Arm Strength

Wilson obviously has a strong arm, can make all throws and exhibits zip when throwing into tight windows.

He had much better success on deep balls in 2020 than 2019, presumably because he wasn’t fully recovered from his shoulder surgery yet in 2019. He puts good air under the ball and rarely underthrows the deep pass.

The one criticism here is that Wilson may rely on his arm a little too much, making some risky throws when off-platform or not able to step into the pass. This leads to some amazing highlights, but you’d be concerned that NFL safeties might have greater range to break up some of these passes if they get held up in the New Jersey winds.

Accuracy

As noted, Wilson was second in the nation in completion percentage in 2020, improving by 12 percentage points over his 2019 output.

There’s of course more to accuracy than just completion percentage but Wilson usually does a good job of hitting receivers in stride and doesn’t pad his numbers with a high number of short throws.

He displays good touch on this throw, dropping it in the bucket where only the receiver can make a play on it.

One thing that stands out about his film is his ability to get the ball away on time. That’s somewhere previous Jets’ quarterbacks have struggled, either because they don’t trust their receivers to throw them open or simply see it too late.

Since his anticipation and timing are good, Wilson has the ability to throw to a spot, safely away from any defenders and where his receiver can make a play on it.

Under pressure

One concern with Wilson is that when you watch his film, he never seems to be under pressure. There’s no doubt that BYU’s offensive line did a good job of protecting him and also that they didn’t face many top pass rushing talents. However, maybe the fact that he didn’t see that much pressure is a positive sign that he’s setting his protection correctly and anticipating when pressure is coming to get rid of the ball early.

Much of this concern is probably because people associate the Jets with having a bad offensive line and the quarterback being forced to “run for his life” but realistically that’s usually been exacerbated by a lack of pocket presence from the quarterback themselves.

So, while we’ve never seen Wilson in that kind of situation and it’s difficult to know how he will handle it, it’s possible he can just neutralize the issue with his quick release. For what it’s worth, he saw less pressure in 2020 and improved his efficiency by improving his completion percentage when under pressure from 40 to 48 percent and his touchdown/interception ratio from 1:3 to 5:1 when pressured.

On this play, from 2019, he uncharacteristically forces a throw under heavy pressure and is almost intercepted, which is the kind of play he avoided in 2020.

There are some highlights on film of him avoiding pressure or making throws with pressure in his face but ideally you don’t want to place your quarterback into these situations and that’s the goal of the team in bolstering their offensive line personnel as they have been.

Wilson’s ball security has been pretty good. He only fumbled twice on dropbacks in 2020. He did have six other fumbles on running plays, but that would include fumbled snaps and handoffs.

One other good sign of his pocket presence is the fact that he only had one pass batted down at the line in 2020, after having had several in 2019.

Footwork/Technique

Wilson’s mechanics can be summed up rather simply. From the waist up, everything is good, but below the waist he has a tendency to take shortcuts or get sloppy.

One of the main traits the Jets must have been looking for to fit their system is a quick release and Wilson excels at this. He has a compact throwing style, with no wasted motion and gets the ball out quickly.

His footwork sometime looks textbook, but at other times is really concerning. He doesn’t always step in the direction of his throw and often doesn’t even attempt to reset his feet when throwing on the move. He often makes the play in spite of this which is both a sign of his natural talent and a cause for concern in terms of whether he’ll get away with the same things at the pro level.

In his preparation, Wilson has been known to obsessively watch footage of Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes and attempt to mimic exactly what they do. This replication perhaps explains some of his more unconventional highlights, as they are both adept at that sort of thing.

It’s worth noting that Wilson stands with his left foot forward in the shotgun, which is the same as Rodgers, but the opposite of Mahomes. When Wilson takes a snap from under center, he crouches down with his right foot aligned slightly ahead of him.

He can show some creativity in terms of changing up his arm angle or getting rid of the ball quickly on shovel passes. This is again reminiscent of Mahomes and Rodgers.

Wilson’s play action fakes are convincing enough but he hasn’t really mastered that action yet.

Decision Making

A 33:3 touchdown to interception ratio for Wilson in his senior year speaks for itself and he didn’t have a lot of high risk or turnover-worthy throws, although there is the occasional highlight where he makes a tight window throw and you wonder if he would have got away with that against an elite defender.

One thing to look for when assessing a quarterback’s film is whether open receivers aren’t being seen or if the quarterback makes a low percentage throw when a much easier short pass was available to keep the chains moving.

This isn’t something that happens too often with Wilson, but here’s one example.

It is encouraging to see from his film that he regularly looks at multiple options before making his throw. This shows he can get through his progressions.

Mobility

Wilson moves well within the pocket, anticipating where the pressure is coming from and giving himself some clean passing lanes. He also displays some escapability and even has the ability to slip out of tackles in the pocket.

When Wilson steps up, he will generally do a good job of keeping his eyes downfield as he scrambles to look for open receivers.

As a runner, Wilson rushed for about a thousand yards in three years in college, bearing in mind that the official numbers are much lower than this because negative sack yardage is included. Wilson averaged about six yards per carry and approximately half of this yardage was on designed runs with the balance on scrambles.

He has adequate speed to elude defensive linemen and can get downfield if taking off and breaking into the open field. He’s smart enough to slide or go out of bounds a lot of the time, but is not afraid to invite contact and has a good nose for the goal line or first down marker.

Special teams

Wilson never played on special teams at the college level, not even as a holder on extra points.

Scheme Fit

Scheme fit was a big thing for the Jets, although the Shanahan offense is viewed as extremely quarterback-friendly so you can conceivably sell almost anyone as being a good fit within it.

So, what was it that had the Jets deciding that Wilson was the best choice to run this offense? It’s likely not the crazy throw-60-yards-across-the-body type throws, but more those plays where he sees the right option and gets rid of the ball on time. The Jets aren’t looking for someone who can bail them out when things get chaotic, they’re looking for someone to operate the system functionally so that things never get chaotic in the first place. Wilson’s quick-trigger release is the ultimate weapon to enable him to do this and they clearly have faith in him to master the vagaries of the system.

Wilson was a teammate of offensive lineman Tristen Hoge, whom the Jets picked up as an undrafted free agent.

Injuries

As noted, Wilson had concerns with his throwing shoulder after an MRI revealed he had played through a torn labrum in his true freshman season.

The injury was actually suffered while he was at high school and Wilson has said it was bothered more by getting hit and driven into the ground than throwing the ball. He would generally wake up in pain on Monday and then recover during the week.

In 2019, he faced a race against time to be ready for the season, progressing quickly in the run-up to the season opener when it had looked like he wouldn’t be ready just a week or so beforehand. However, he then suffered another setback when he broke his thumb making a tackle and had to have surgery that caused him to miss a month.

Wilson has also noted in 2019 that he has had a torn labrum in his non-throwing arm and that this would also need surgery at some point, although he said it didn’t affect him.

In his final season in high school, Wilson dealt with a high ankle sprain which meant he could only throw from the pocket and this arguably cost his team a state championship and himself more interest from big schools.

Intangibles

Wilson has ADHD, but apparently this doesn’t affect his ability to understand football concepts. In fact, it may have a positive effect on his almost obsessive approach to film study and game preparation.

In addition to studying and copying footage to perfect his mechanics, as already noted, he has watched a ton of footage of NFL defenses and players. One thing he says he noticed that had a tangible effect on his junior year improvement was the fact that you could make a throw when the defender was in position but not looking back for the ball. He apparently picked that up after watching cut-ups of Joe Burrow’s final season at LSU.

Wilson is regarded as a leader and has displayed toughness in playing through some of his injuries. Much was made of the fact that he wasn’t a team captain in his junior year but BYU only names seniors as team captains before the season and Wilson was still a game captain multiple times.

Wilson doesn’t have any off-field concerns, although there was a report last December that he’s an entitled brat and a selfish know-it-all. Several media sources immediately refuted this report and said they’d heard his leadership and intangibles were outstanding.

Perhaps the biggest concern here is how Wilson will cope with the change from playing in Utah to coming to New York and dealing with the media attention and the pressure that this entails. Presumably the Jets have reassured themselves that he has the mental toughness to handle this during the interview process.

Conclusions

There’s no doubt this was a huge decision from Joe Douglas and the scouting department, although the Jets can take solace from the fact that it appears teams drafting after them also had Wilson ranked as the second best option.

While Wilson made great strides in 2020 and was far better than in 2019, there are still alarming examples of sloppy footwork or seemingly risky throws that NFL defenders might be able to make a play on. However, if he knows his limitations and is accurate and on time, then the hope would be that he’d make the adjustment at the NFL level - either by not making those throws, or by putting them further away from where the defender can make a play on it.

Sometimes you have to put your faith in the team and their process that they’ve addressed all of these concerns and satisfied themselves that they are things Wilson is capable of getting right even if he hasn’t shown much of it to date. This is one of those times.

Ultimately, Wilson has undeniable talent. Let’s hope this Jets coaching staff is much better at unlocking this talent than previous ones have been.