Zach Wilson added something new to his weaponry in the latter half of his rookie year
New York Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson enjoyed a solid finish to his rookie year after a tumultuous start. After returning from a four-week absence in Week 12, Wilson showcased tangible progress in many areas over his final seven starts, including poise, confidence, decision-making, and accuracy.
Wilson did not only improve the aerial aspects of his game. He progressed on the ground, too.
Rushing was a minimal part of Wilson’s game at the beginning of the year. Wilson rushed eight times for 22 yards and no touchdowns over his first six starts, ranking 38th among quarterbacks in rushing yards and 33rd in rushing attempts. He did have one two-point conversion rush, but that was about it in terms of notable rushing production.
Once Wilson returned, he added his rushing ability into the mix as a dangerous secondary weapon.
Over his final seven games, Wilson rushed 21 times for 163 yards and four touchdowns. He led all quarterbacks in rushing touchdowns from Weeks 12-18 while placing seventh in rushing yards, 15th in rushing attempts, and first in yards per rushing attempt (7.8) among qualifiers.
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It is worth noting that Wilson racked up much of that production in a 91-yard outing against the Jaguars in Week 16, highlighted by a 52-yard touchdown run that is the longest rush by a quarterback in Jets franchise history. However, his rushing improvement is still remarkable even when you account for the outlier nature of that one game.
Wilson rushed for a touchdown in four of his seven post-injury games and rushed for at least 20 yards in two of the three games where he did not score on the ground. That’s six of seven games in which he rushed for either a touchdown or 20+ yards (or both). Prior to his injury, he did not score a rushing touchdown or rush for 20+ yards in any of his six games.
The most impressive aspect of Wilson’s rushing resurgence is that he created much of the production on his own through his solid speed and excellent elusiveness.
Wilson averaged 4.19 yards after contact per carry over his final seven starts, ranking third-best among quarterbacks over that span behind only AFC East rival Josh Allen (4.21) and fellow BYU alum Taysom Hill (4.58).
To boot, Wilson ranked second-best behind Allen when it came to evading tacklers. Wilson forced six missed tackles on 21 carries, an average of 0.286 per carry that trailed only Allen’s rate of 0.344 (21 on 61) among qualified quarterbacks.
Wilson was still an effective tackle-evader even when you take out the Jaguars game. Outside of that contest, Wilson forced four missed tackles on 18 carries from Weeks 12-18. That’s an average of 0.222 per carry, which is still more than double the 2021 league average for quarterbacks (0.110).
It seemed unlikely that Wilson’s rushing production would change following his mid-season return from a PCL injury. After all, if he wasn’t running a lot when he was at full health, why would he start running with his knee possibly at less than one-hundred percent?
Wilson wasted no time showing the world that he had full confidence in his knee. Any doubts regarding Wilson’s health were quickly erased thanks to his prowess on the ground.
Not only did Wilson’s scampering surge inspire confidence in his recovery, but it served as a reminder of how athletic Wilson really is.
Wilson showed during his BYU career that he is a legitimate great athlete and can be an effective rusher when he needs to. He ranked fourth among all FBS quarterbacks with 10 rushing touchdowns in 2020. Wilson rushed for 353 yards on 66 carries in 12 games, averaging 29.4 rushing yards per game and 5.3 yards per rush attempt.
How much will Zach Wilson use his legs going forward?
Will Wilson’s second-half rushing production in 2021 be maintained? Or will he find a middle ground between that explosive seven-game stretch and his non-existent rushing production at the start of the year?
Over the coming years, it will be interesting to watch how much or how little Wilson decides to use his legs.
It is not absolutely necessary for Wilson to run wild if he is to fulfill his potential and become a great quarterback. Plenty of great NFL passers never have run plays called for them and only scramble once in a blue moon.
Not to mention, it is often more beneficial for a quarterback to use his athleticism to extend plays and create passing opportunities rather than to take the ball and run with it himself. Wilson consistently used his mobility to make explosive passing plays in improvised situations. That right there is what he needs to do in order to fulfill his potential, not rack up rushing yards.
However, when you have as much athletic ability as Wilson does, it makes sense to emphasize using your legs more than most other quarterbacks. That does not mean he has to take off the frequency of guys like Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen, but he should feel confident in his ability to pick up a healthy chunk of yardage if all passing options are covered.
The key to becoming a truly effective running quarterback is mastering the ability to know when to run. You never want a quarterback who is so run-happy that he passes up on open targets down the field so he can pick up a few easy rushing yards himself. That’s how meat gets left on the bone.
It felt like Wilson did an excellent job in this area during his rookie year. On most of his scrambles, there were no passing options available that Wilson clearly should have thrown to.
Wilson was also forced to break the pocket on most of his runs, rather than choosing to break the pocket. He ran when the pressure forced him to and rarely broke the pocket too early. Leaving too early renders the called passing concept useless and could lead to open receivers being missed. Scrambling should only be done when necessary. It felt like Wilson adhered to that.
When it comes to scrambling, it feels like Wilson’s second half of 2021 was right where he needs to be. Any more could be a bit too much, and any less would be too little for a runner as talented as he is.
Perhaps it is in the designed running game where Wilson’s legs could be utilized more.
Wilson got only 12 designed rushing attempts (mostly coming on sneaks and option plays) in 2021, tying for 34th among quarterbacks. Nine of those came from Weeks 12-18, ranking him 17th among quarterbacks over that span.
A few more option plays opportunities for Wilson could do the trick. Even just one more per game on average could be a good balance to maximize his running ability without getting too cute and taking away from his passing ability.
All in all, regardless of how much or how little Wilson uses his legs going forward, it was still a major positive for the Jets to see Wilson add the run game into his arsenal as just one more weapon at his disposal.