The central figure in the success or otherwise of the Jets’ offense over the next few years is certain to be Zach Wilson. The quarterback enters his second season after a rocky first year which saw him win just three starts. His numbers improved down the stretch, but mainly because he played more conservatively. The Jets will be banking on an improvement from Wilson but how much of an improvement can we realistically expect?
One interesting way to look at this is to compare Wilson with the other top quarterbacks in Jets history and to look at where they were at that stage of their career (even if they weren’t with the Jets at the time) and if they made any improvements. For this study, we will look at the 10 all-time franchise leaders in passing yards.
The first interesting thing to note is that nearly all of the top-10 were either 24 or 25 in their second season. The two exceptions to this are Sam Darnold and Joe Namath, who were younger. That’s not surprising for Darnold, who entered the draft after his redshirt sophomore season, but is interesting to note in Namath’s case.
Wilson will turn 23 in camp, so in this regard he compares most closely to Namath and Darnold. That’s not exactly helpful because these players basically represent the two extremes in terms of their long-term success. It therefore doesn’t really serve to narrow the field of potential outcomes.
If you were to compare Wilson to any of the other players, you might consider that he was younger, so it might actually be more equitable to compare his third season to the second season for these players.
Another interesting factor in terms of comparing Wilson to these other Jets passers is that many of them barely played during their first two seasons. So, in addition to being older, they also didn’t begin their playing career until they’d had a few seasons to learn behind the scenes.
Of course, the game has changed a lot over the years and it’s now become the norm for quarterbacks that get selected high to get their opportunity either in their rookie year or in year two.
Ken O’Brien didn’t play at all as a rookie, and only started five games in his second season. Chad Pennington only threw 25 total passes in his first two years. Ryan Fitzpatrick didn’t play at all in year two, having made just three relief starts as a rookie. Others, like Richard Todd, Vinny Testaverde and Boomer Esiason only started a handful of games as rookies.
Of those that were basically full-time starters in year one and year two, we have Darnold and Namath again. The only other two were Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith.
Year Two Improvements
How much, if at all, did the above-named players improve by in their second season?
Let’s start with Namath. His stats weren’t really any better in year two, but he definitely made strides in terms of being a gunslinger. His passing yards increased from 171 to 241 per game but his interception total almost doubled. Perhaps the biggest strides he made were in terms of being clutch as he led four fourth quarter comebacks. As a result, his win-loss record improved to 5-6-2.
Darnold, who was better down the stretch in his rookie year, much like Wilson, saw modest improvements pretty much across the board. His record as a starter improved from 4-9 to 7-6, completion percentage and yards per game improved slightly and he had two more touchdown passes and two less interceptions.
Smith improved his TD/interception ratio from 12:21 to 13:13 but he only improved his completion percentage slightly and his yards per game average actually went down. He also lost 10 of 13 starts having gone 8-8 in his rookie year.
Sanchez made perhaps the biggest jump in year two, but only because his stats were so bad in his rookie year. His yards per game average jumped from 163 to 206 and his TD/int ratio went from 12:20 to 17:13 as the team won three more games. His completion percentage barely increased though. This doesn’t take into account either of his postseason campaigns though.
Year two for non-rookie starters
How did year two go for those Jets passers who weren’t full time starters as rookies?
Let’s start with Todd. He started six games in his rookie year but obviously struggled badly with 12 interceptions to just three touchdown passes and only 67 yards per game. Despite winning just three of his 11 starts in year two (all on late drives), Todd made some progress as his yards per game jumped to 155 and he had 11 touchdowns to 17 interceptions.
Testaverde, who was a first overall pick for the Bucs in the late eighties, started just four games as a rookie before becoming a full-time starter but he struggled badly with a league-high 35 interceptions and a 5-10 record.
Esiason started four games as a Bengals rookie and posted modest stats, but made a good jump in year two with 27 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 7-7 record as a starter. He averaged 230 yards per game, which may not sound like much but if Wilson was to play 17 games and average 230 yards, this would give him 3,910 for the season - the second most in franchise history. In fact, this might represent a realistic best-case scenario for Wilson.
As noted, Pennington, Fitzpatrick and O’Brien didn’t really play in their first two years, although Pennington and O’Brien were eventually very good in their first full season as a starter. Fitzpatrick didn’t really enjoy much success until later on in his career, though.
It’s always difficult to compare quarterbacks across eras. As pointed out in the article, quarterbacks typically enter the league at a younger age and become starters earlier these days, so suggesting Wilson is further along than some of these players because they hadn’t played yet would be overly optimistic.
It also requires the addition of context to some of the numbers. For example, Ryan Fitzpatrick set a Jets record for touchdown passes with 31 in 2015, but only ranked 10th in the NFL. By comparison, Chad Pennington had 22 in 2002 and was 8th. Ken O’Brien had 25 in 1986 and was 2nd.
Nevertheless, we do generally observe a pattern of statistical improvement from year one to year two and it’s not unrealistic to expect the same from Wilson.
The extra pieces they’ve put around Wilson should aid him in this effort, although that’s presumably something a lot of teams look to do to make their quarterback’s life easier for him after his first season.
Unfortunately, there’s such a variety of factors that go into a quarterback’s success, that it is impossible to predict how a quarterback will develop from year to year. If anything, the range of outcomes here just reinforce the notion that anything is possible.