clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Word on Quarterback Ceilings and Development: Zach Wilson and Mike White Edition

A player’s ceiling might not be what it seems.

NFL: OCT 24 Jets at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Jets are coming off a big win over the Chicago Bears. Mike White, making his first start of the season at quarterback, was brilliant. White threw for 315 yards and 3 touchdowns in the victory.

Despite the victory, I have seen some uneasiness from certain quarters of the fanbase and the media. White, of course, got the start against Chicago because second year quarterback Zach Wilson was benched.

There is an argument out there winning this way is penny wise and pound foolish. The Jets might have gotten a win but at what cost? Is a victory in a season where the Jets are unlikely to go to the Super Bowl worth losing a chance to develop the quarterback the team drafted second overall last year?

There are a couple of assumptions this argument makes. First is the primary goal of this season above wins and losses is to develop Zach Wilson. A couple of extra losses is worth it because Wilson panning out will do more for the Jets in the long run.

Second and parallel to this, Wilson has a substantially higher ceiling than White. White is limited in how far he can takes the Jets.

I am here to tell you that I am uneasy with these arguments on a couple of levels.

The whole argument of Zach Wilson having a higher ceiling than Mike White seems to rely purely on physical tools. There is little doubt Wilson has a bigger arm than White.

Generally speaking, this is a pretty common method analysts use to judge a quarterback’s ceiling as they enter the league. The big armed quarterback has the most potential. Athletic ability also can factor in, another area where Wilson has an edge over White.

However, it isn’t hard to see the fallacy in this framing. Playing the quarterback position successfully is about so much more than raw arm talent or athleticism.

If you used this criteria, you could have concluded that Jeff George had more upside than Tom Brady. I can just envision analysts in 2001 going on about how much higher Michael Vick’s ceiling was than Drew Brees’. Vick was the all-time athlete with the rocket arm. Brees was the undersized passer whose arm wasn’t as strong. If you want to leave the category of immortal quarterbacks, in 2012 one could imagine hearing how Brock Osweiler had a higher ceiling than Kirk Cousins. I could go on.

The point is viewing quarterback ceilings in this context is a deeply flawed methodology. I’m not saying arm strength (or athleticism) are irrelevant. I think their role in evaluating quarterback potential is vastly overdone, however. This is probably because they are the easiest attributes at the position to quantify.

Figuring out how to evaluate skills like quick processing or sound mechanics is far more difficult.

I think it would be naive to believe Draft pedigree also doesn't play a major role in ceiling talk. If one quarterback was drafted second overall and the other was a fifth round pick, surely the number two pick has higher upside.

There comes a point where you have to let go of preexisting biases, though. If the best argument for a quarterback having a higher ceiling is a two year old scouting report from before he played a professional snap, I’m not sure how valuable it really is.

Humor me for a moment and imagine somebody was transported from 2017 to see this Jets team. Imagine he had no knowledge of where Mike White or Zach Wilson were drafted. He had never heard of either.

After we tell this guy how lucky he was to have skipped forward through the last five years, we ask him to watch these quarterbacks on film from their Jets careers.

You might disagree, but I find it kind of difficult to believe this person would tell you Zach Wilson has the higher ceiling right now. Of course players can improve. I don’t think you could rule out Zach Wilson ultimately becoming the better player.

Higher ceiling right now, though? That’s probably a different story.

Mike White has played three games in the NFL from start to finish. In two of them his passer rating was higher than Zach Wilson’s top single game passer rating. White started a fourth game. He left in the first half with an injury. His passer rating from that game also topped Zach’s single game high.

If you are scoring at home, Zach Wilson has 20 career starts. Mike White has 4. If you put their games in order by passer rating, White has the top 3.

What suggests the higher ceiling here? You tell me. You can have a high ceiling without being consistent. Maybe you play a handful of stellar games but some poor ones. That isn’t what is happening here.

This leads me to another argument I hear. The Jets can’t win a Super Bowl with Mike White this year. Maybe they can win one in the future with Zach Wilson.

Is it just me, or is this just a completely arbitrary argument? What data backs any of this up?

Granted I would bet the Jets will not win the Super Bowl this year with White. Why is that? The odds are against any individual team winning the championship. While this is difficult to quantify, Football Outsiders has Super Bowl odds based on numerous factors. Their current favorite is the Philadelphia Eagles. They give the Eagles a 22.8% chance of winning the Super Bowl.

So even the favorite has less than a one in four chance. It’s common sense. There are a number of top teams in the league, and a lot of winning a championship comes down to luck.

The NFL postseason is a bit of a dice roll. In a one game situation, anybody can beat anybody. The best team doesn’t always win the championship. Sometimes the team that wins the trophy is just a good team that got hot at the right time.

So would it make sense to hurt your odds of making the Playoffs to play Zach Wilson in hope the hope he develops? Let’s forget everything we just said about higher ceiling and assume for the sake of argument that Zach is the upside quarterback on the roster.

I now ask where the guarantee is that playing Zach Wilson will help him develop. There is an ongoing debate whether it is more helpful for a young quarterback to play or sit. I don’t know that there is a definitive answer. My guess is that each player is different.

That said, I’m not sure I see the evidence that playing in 2022 has helped Zach Wilson progress as a quarterback. Take a look at his median individual game stats this season compared to his rookie year.

2021: 57.5% completion percentage; 192 yards; 73.3 passer rating; 6.0 yards per attempt

2022: 55.5% completion percentage; 154 yards; 72.8 passer rating; 6.1 yards per attempt

Those numbers are almost identical. More playing time doesn’t seem to be raising Zach Wilson’s median performance.

If we are going to sacrifice the best possible chance of getting into the Playoffs, I think the Jets need a more compelling reason.

I also think it’s important to understand how likely the Jets are to be successful developing Zach.

Would you agree that most players cannot improve an unlimited amount? I would. I think there are reasonable expectations for just how much improvement a player can make during his career.

While 20 starts might not seem like a lot, it actually is a point where you can tell whether a quarterback has a realistic chance of being successful.

Using the Stathead database, I ran a search of quarterbacks in the last 25 years. Specifically I searched for quarterbacks who started at least 20 games in their first two seasons. In this time I found the quarterbacks who matched or produced numbers worse than Zach Wilson’s current career 55.6% completion percentage, 6.3 yard average per attempt, and 2.8% interception rate. This seemed like a good combination of efficiency and ball protection.

The only three other quarterbacks who came up were Joey Harrington, David Carr, and Kyle Boller.

This adds some historic context to the extent of Zach Wilson’s struggles. It also shows how difficult it is for a quarterback who starts his career like this to scale the Everest sized improvement mountain to find success.

Of course Zach Wilson could be an outlier. I personally think a team should dedicate a roster spot to at least one developmental quarterback at all times. Any developmental quarterback who hits it big provides outsized rewards. I am all for Zach Wilson remaining on the roster and getting work on the practice field to try and improve.

But should the Jets reduce their Playoff odds for the purposes of getting this sort of developmental quarterback game experience? I don’t think so.

Sometimes you do have to take a step back to take two steps forward in the NFL, but I’m not sure that really applies in this case.

Of course in a few weeks, Mike White might have struggled to the point where the Jets will need to consider another change. At that point they might decide Zach Wilson truly is their best option. That’s really the only rationale where I think a return to the lineup would make sense.

I think sometimes we overthink things. Sometimes the guy with the highest ceiling simply is the guy who is playing best. Sometimes the best thing for a team is simply to try and win games to make the Playoffs.

I think these are both true of the current Jets team.