Zach Wilson needs to show progress in specific areas
Zach Wilson‘s first five fully-played starts as the New York Jets‘ franchise quarterback did not go swimmingly. The rookie threw four touchdowns and nine interceptions while leading the Jets to a measly 13.4 points per game. He averaged only 6.5 yards per attempt and completed just 57.3% of his passes.
Wilson was injured during his sixth start and would miss the following four games. He is set to return to the field on Sunday in Houston, giving him seven weeks to right his wrongs and show promise heading into his second season.
Obviously, the primary goals for Wilson are simple: Throw more touchdowns. Throw fewer picks. Get more yards. Lead the Jets to more points.
But what are the specific skills that Wilson must refine to prove that he is progressing?
Aside from his overall production, fans should keep an eye on Wilson’s output in these three particular areas to gauge whether or not he is truly improving.
1. Short/intermediate accuracy
Wilson already looks like an NFL-ready deep passer. He has an adjusted completion percentage (which accounts for drops, throwaways, and other disruptions) of 52.0% on passes that traveled at least 20 yards downfield, which ranks sixth-best out of 34 qualified quarterbacks this season (tied with Josh Allen).
The issue is everything under 20 yards.
Check out Wilson’s ranks in adjusted completion percentage out of 34 qualifiers when targeting each of the other three areas of the field:
- Intermediate (10-19 yards): 55.3% (32nd)
- Short (0-9 yards): 78.0% (33rd)
- Behind line of scrimmage: 87.5% (32nd)
Relative to league average, Wilson had major trouble completing everything from 15-yard out routes to screen passes behind the line of scrimmage.
Let’s keep our goals realistic. We do not need Wilson to suddenly become a surgeon at every level of the field. We just need him to distance himself from the basement.
If Wilson can reach the top-20 in adjusted completion percentage for each of the aforementioned three ranges, that would be a good jumping-off point to enter his second season.
For reference, here are the league’s current 20th-ranked adjusted completion percentages for the three non-deep ranges:
- Intermediate: 60.8% (Dak Prescott)
- Short: 82.8% (Matthew Stafford)
- Behind line of scrimmage: 94.3% (Jimmy Garoppolo)
Those are three realistic benchmarks for Wilson: 61% on intermediate throws, 83% on short throws, and 94% on throws behind the line of scrimmage.
Hitting those numbers would require Wilson to experience an accuracy boost of about 5-7% in each area compared to his first six games. That is a fairly large leap, but it’s doable for him considering how sharp his accuracy was in college. We’re just asking him to be “okay” for now. Reaching the “elite” accuracy peaks that he hit at BYU is an expectation that can be saved for later in his career.
2. Snap-to-release time
Wilson held the ball much too long during his time on the field. He often got stuck waiting for deeper routes to develop, and as a result, would miss opportunities to hit easy underneath throws with high yards-after-catch potential.
Once Wilson went to the sidelines, it became apparent how detrimental his tendency to hold the football was. His replacements got the ball out much quicker, producing far better results.
Here is how long each of the Jets’ four quarterbacks has held the ball from snap to release:
- Wilson: 3.10 seconds (3rd-longest of 48 qualified QBs)
- Josh Johnson: 2.82 seconds (14th)
- Mike White: 2.52 seconds (36th)
- Joe Flacco: 2.30 seconds (45th)
In turn, here is where each quarterback ranks in YAC per completion:
- Wilson: 4.0 (45th of 48 qualified QBs)
- Johnson: 5.6 (20th)
- White: 6.4 (4th)
- Flacco: 6.5 (2nd)
When the Jets offense was humming without Wilson, it was not because the quarterbacks were making ridiculous plays with their arms. It was because they were getting the ball out quickly to the open man and giving him the best possible chance to make a play.
Wilson needs to trust his teammates and stop trying to do everything himself. That is the key to unlocking the full potential of his game.
If Wilson can consistently get the ball out to his playmakers in a hurry, he will be much more efficient at keeping the offense moving, creating shorter second and third-down situations that are easier to convert and provide more options for Mike LaFleur.
Then, once Wilson shows opponents that he can make the underneath game a real threat, defenders will creep closer to the line of scrimmage, and better opportunities for him to take shots will open up.
The Jets have been giving up far fewer sacks since Wilson went out, and it’s not because the offensive line magically started playing better. It is because Wilson was taking sacks he shouldn’t have and his replacements are getting rid of the football in the same situations.
Here is a look at the sack rates absorbed by each Jets quarterback this season:
- Wilson: 9.5% (19 sacks, 181 passes)
- Flacco: 4.5% (2 sacks, 42 passes)
- Johnson: 4.3% (2 sacks, 45 passes)
- White: 2.9% (4 sacks, 132 passes)
Wilson’s sack rate of 9.5% is more than double the cumulative sack rate of his teammates (3.8%).
Of course, part of that is a product of the previous weakness we discussed: his tendency to hold the ball too long.
Getting the ball out faster will not only help Wilson facilitate more YAC for his teammates and get into a rhythm, but it will also aid in preventing sacks, which is an important goal in the quests to eliminate drive-killing losses and to preserve his health.
In addition to creating a higher volume of pressured plays for himself by holding onto the ball too long, another one of the big issues for Wilson is that he often fails to mitigate the pressure when it does arrive. It would be more acceptable for Wilson to hold the ball for a long time if he knew when to get rid of it, but he is not doing that.
Wilson has been sacked on 23.5% of his pressured dropbacks this season, which ranks seventh-highest among qualified quarterbacks. This tells us that when the pressure gets home, he is trying to do too much in situations where he should admit defeat.
The Jets’ elder quarterbacks have been able to get the ball out and live to fight another day when the pressure gets home. White (8.9%), Flacco (10.5%), and Johnson (11.1%) each rank top-10 when it comes to the lowest percentage of pressured dropbacks that resulted in a sack.
Now, there is a bit of a trade-off when it comes to this statistic.
White, Flacco, and Johnson lack the mobility to create off-schedule plays at the level Wilson can, so when they see defenders coming, they will promptly chuck the ball into the dirt without giving much of any effort to move around. This will improve their pressure-to-sack rate, but that comes at the cost of a drastic decline in off-schedule productivity compared to what someone like Wilson will produce.
Wilson will always have a backyard-football element to his game. Being able to make something positive out of a play that would be dead for other quarterbacks is what makes him special. It’s the same skill that separates quarterbacks like Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes from the rest of the pack.
For every few off-schedule he and these other mobile quarterbacks make, they will take a sack or two that less mobile quarterbacks would not have taken. That is simply part of the deal – but a few bonus sacks is a price worth paying when you get plays like the improvised 53-yard touchdown bomb Wilson threw to Corey Davis in Week 4.
However, Wilson’s playstyle does not fully excuse a high sack rate. There are many quarterbacks of his ilk who have mastered the art of playing backyard football while still keeping sacks down.
Allen (11.0%) and Mahomes (11.8%) rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in lowest pressure-to-sack rate among 35 qualifiers this season. Carson Wentz (12.4%) is sixth and Jalen Hurts (13.8%) is 10th.
It is possible to be an improvisational wizard and still minimize sacks. For Wilson’s off-schedule plays to become a true weapon, he must prove that he can eliminate sacks as a price to pay for his occasional extended-play highlight. Those big plays do not have as much value when it takes an abundance of sacks for them to happen.
As a simple goal, I would like to see Wilson’s overall sack rate drop from 9.5% down to the NFL average of 6.0%. That should be achievable if he gets his snap-to-release time down.
However, I am more focused on his pressure-to-sack rate than his overall sack rate. I acknowledge that Wilson will face more sack opportunities than most quarterbacks by nature of his playstyle. The most important thing is that he learns to get rid of the ball in situations where has the opportunity to.
If Wilson can get his pressure-to-sack rate down to 15.0% – which would rank 14-best out of 35 qualifiers right now – that will prove to me that he can be trusted to play his brand of aggressive, extend-the-play football on a more frequent basis.