Zach Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, feels like the right man to take on the Jets challenge in the New York spotlight.
Nobody really knew what to expect. After all, very few people even knew the name Zach Wilson this time last year. The mere suggestion that the New York Jets would entrust its organizational future to this baby-faced kid this time last year would have been met with many concerned faces and a cold towel destined for the forehead.
Today is different. Today a new day.
Today is the day when something just feels “right.”
A breakout season featuring 43 total touchdowns to just three interceptions, and a season’s worth of film every quarterback would die for, has placed the former Corner Canyon High School gunslinger at the head of the Jets table.
It’s easy to think “bust” when thinking Wilson. Why not? Many have come and gone, attempted, only to fail, post-Joe Namath. Here comes a smaller, young-looking BYU kid who’s suddenly now the savior of a franchise that always finds itself at the butt-end of a joke.
You have to be kidding me, right?
Are there two cold towels available?
Luckily, Joe Douglas doesn’t need one of those towels right now. He’s operating on raw competitive emotion because of how his new quarterback conducted himself on Thursday night—a very specific night that should ease many concerns about the team’s future.
Once NFL commissioner Roger Goodell called Wilson’s name in the two-hole of the 2021 NFL draft, Wilson shined under the brightest lights without a hint of uncertainty.
“This is what I was hoping for,” Wilson told the media in his first-ever press conference with the tough New York crowd of reporters. “This is what me and my family were praying for, to be in this situation and go play for the Jets. We’re so excited to be here.”
Wilson, 21, suddenly and officially embarks on an impossible mission—one that turns around the Jets’ fortunes.
The kid becomes the eighth first-round quarterback—and sixth since Namath—selected by the Jets. From Alabama’s Richard Todd in the late 1970s to now-Carolina Panthers signal-caller Sam Darnold, each man has his own unique Jets story that ended up at the same disappointing place.
Just don’t tell the newest quarterback this impossible mission can’t end up where he wants it. Not only would he vehemently disagree, but he would also quickly remind you about the nature of today’s league.
“Every single team is different each year,” Wilson said. “There are some different circumstances that happen, different positions, different things that maybe just aren’t clicking, but every team can come back from that stuff.”
It’s this optimism and energy that was on full display Thursday night.
Wilson made sure to “bring it” as soon as his name was called. Slapping hands and bumping fists with every fan in sight, the kid was all smiles en route to Goodell who held his No. 1 Gotham Green jersey.
Always remember this moment, @zachkapono1.
📺 2021 #NFLDraft — NFLN/ESPN/ABC
💻 Draft-A-Thon — @NFL pic.twitter.com/EJsmGHxrgU
— New York Jets (@nyjets) April 30, 2021
One Jets-embroidered hat placement, one quick suit adjustment and a split-second moment of composure led him into the whirlwind that would be his Jets introduction.
Naturally, this simply moves us to phase No. 2 in the Wilson discussion.
Much like the decision surrounding Darnold these past several months, Wilson brings polarizing opinions. Many view him as the next bust. He simply fits the profile.
A man who’s all-too-familiar with the bust process is No. 2 overall pick circa 1998. Ryan Leaf, who recently filled in for Rich Eisen on the popular Rich Eisen Show, has seen this story before. Hell, he lived it himself.
The San Diego Chargers bust doesn’t believe it’ll work out.
“Unfortunately, these great players that are picked at the top of the draft, especially the quarterback position, historically, go to bad teams,” Leaf said. “Unfortunately, he’s going to be going to New York. … It’s a systemic problem. It has been, for a long, long time. Unfortunately, for Zach Wilson and the New York Jets fans, and our friend Rich Eisen, it’s going to be a long, cold winter everybody.”
Like I said at the top, it’s easy to predict bust.
Don’t take the easy route.
Instead, dig deeper. Don’t fall in line with the historical trends that leave you teetering on the surface level of knowledge. Instead, look at the attributes showcased film and the people involved. Compare this new Jets regime with that of the 1998 Bolts.
Once that’s done, it’s much easier to realize Wilson does feel “right” for this organization at this moment in time, especially thanks to the way Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh are approaching the situation.
The very first head coach-to-quarterback phone conversation in the official Jets-Wilson era featured a change that many fans are unaccustomed to. It featured a real football man speaking to his quarterback.
The call of a lifetime for @zachkapono1.#NFLDraft | #TakeFlight pic.twitter.com/du5rwalQva
— New York Jets (@nyjets) April 30, 2021
“The biggest thing I want to tell you is, just remember this: This organization is going to lift you, not the other way around,” Saleh told his quarterback. “It’s going to be all gas from here on out.”
Let’s not forget what Douglas has done in his short time as general manager. This man, the same guy who’s been around three Super Bowl winners in his NFL career, has put two ugly streaks to bed within the course of 13 months.
First, he ended the nonsense that was rarely drafting first-round offensive linemen. Not since 2006 had the Jets selected a first-round big heavy. Mekhi Becton a year ago and Alijah Vera-Tucker this time around—whom the Jets traded up for Thursday night in the 14-hole—now give the Douglas regime as many first-round offensive linemen (2) as the organization’s had over the previous 14 drafts (D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold in 2006). (Perhaps the historical-trend bandwagon jumpers should also peep the results that come from loading up on offensive line talent.)
Second, he brought in the team’s first legitimate edge rusher since John Abraham was traded away in 2006. Rarely does an edge rusher of Carl Lawson‘s skills become available. So, once that became a reality, Douglas capitalized.
Oh yeah, and if gas is what Saleh wants, gas is what he’ll receive from his new quarterback. The early returns on Wilson’s fit in Mike LaFleur‘s offense and his football mind are other-worldly.
The way Wilson’s football IQ shined through during one of the pre-draft Zoom meetings was something Douglas couldn’t help but note Thursday night.
“Not to get into all the nuts and bolts of our process, but a big part of it was just watching his tape with him, and him detailing and outlining all the intricate details of his offense in that specific play,” Douglas told the media. “And, coach LaFleur, coach (Greg) Knapp, coach (Rob) Calabrese did a great job running those meetings for every quarterback. But, obviously, Zach really stood out with his recall, his focus, his intensity, his passion, it all stood out.
“You could tell how intensely focused he was and then on top of it, just his mental horsepower, the recall going through these plays and knowing exactly the situation, the play call, the audibles, how the defense was going to react. So, just really impressive.”
Part of Darnold’s problem revealed itself when he was asked to read defenses, move through progressions or set things up at the line pre-snap. Then again, a major part of the Jets’ problem as a whole was how the previous coaching staff implemented things and felt disconnected from players.
It’s never about just one guy in this sport, even in the case of a second-overall quarterback selection. Nonetheless, Zach Wilson passed the public eye and New York media test on his very first night.
He was cool and calm yet enthusiastic and reality-based—similar to the very same attributes Douglas and Saleh portray when speaking.
“I’m a big family guy,” Wilson said when asked to open up about his personal life. “I would rather sit at home with my parents, a couple of my close friends, my girlfriend and hang out, go out and get a nice dinner.”
What this kid brings to the table, combined with a regime that understands football is always about the process, first and foremost, is what should have New York Jets fans hungry for the future.
We already know Zach Wilson’s hunger is real, and we already know he’s planning to work harder than everybody else—the key that elevates good players into a position to be great, all while playing in a league where everybody is ultra-talented.
“Someone that’s going to give everything they have,” Wilson added. “I think that’s the bottom line. From day one, I know you have to work as hard as you can. You got to think you’re working harder than everybody else to get to this point. The Jets are going to get a guy that, I’m a big believer in bringing the guys around you together, having a strong connection with them. That’s a leader. I’m going to be the man that they can look up to, they can call for any advice, any help that they ever need.”
All he needed was to land in a spot that’ll allow him a chance to flourish, and that’s exactly what happened.
For all of the take-the-easy-route “bust predictors,” remember this one thing: Only true football people can identity other true football people. And the fact that the Jets have three true football people holding down the three most important jobs in an NFL organization—general manager, head coach and quarterback—is the pinnacle of breaking ground on a real organizational turnaround.
“I’m a football junkie, 24/7,” Wilson said. “I hope they (the fans) know I’m going to do give everything I have to make sure we do this thing the right way.”
The very same kid who would have prompted laughter at the suggestion he’d be the No. 2 overall pick a year ago, now has a chance to prove them all wrong, yet again. Only this time he’ll have that opportunity alongside Joe Douglas, Robert Saleh and the new New York Jets.
This is the time of year when its easy to be excited for the Jets, as I can attest from > 50 years of experience, but this year feels different. This off-season has had a plan driven by a vision, and that plan was prosecuted with focus and determination. The offense is gong to be fun for a change, with Zach on the move distributing the ball to all 3 levels to guys who can make a man miss and gain YAC. The D will have it’s moments. Fierce 4-man pass rush, 7 rangey guys behind that front filling the zone, making tackles and ballhawking.