The New York Jets saw two different versions of Zach Wilson in his rookie year
No position in football has as steep of a learning curve as the quarterback position. Even the most pro-ready prospect will struggle with the speed and complexity of the professional game.
Still, New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson struggled more than most rookies to begin his NFL career, throwing seven interceptions in his first three games. Wilson’s rookie year was a roller coaster with many highs (like his Titans and Buccaneers games) and many lows (like the Patriots and Broncos games).
Against the Patriots in Week 7, Wilson suffered a PCL sprain that knocked him out for four weeks. While Wilson was sidelined, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur began calling plays from the booth and watched his offense take off.
Unfortunately, by the time Wilson finally returned in Week 12, the Jets’ offense was decimated by injuries. Wilson was able to keep the offense moving but it was far from explosive.
Heading into a crucial second season, Wilson needs to be significantly better. To analyze his rookie year, it’s easiest to break the season into two halves divided by his injury.
Wilson started the season as a gunslinger who consistently pushed the ball down the field, sometimes to disastrous results. Following his injury, Wilson was far more careful and embraced the game-manager role that Mike White succeeded in.
Neither version of Wilson was good enough for the Jets to win in 2022 or beyond. But in each half of the year, Wilson showed a different set of unique skills, which gives him an exciting ceiling in Year 2 if he can put everything together.
Weeks 1-5: Zach Wilson’s bumpy start
To say the start of Wilson’s career was a disappointment would be an understatement. In his first three games, Wilson threw seven interceptions. For reference, there were six quarterbacks in 2021 who threw at least 350 pass attempts and had seven or fewer interceptions throughout the entire season.
Wilson’s debut was relatively encouraging. Despite suffering five drops and being sacked six times, Wilson threw for 258 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception.
What did you think of Zach Wilson's debut?
Stats vs the Panthers:
⬇️All completions vs the Panthers⬇️ pic.twitter.com/1nv02ak45J
— Dynasty Nerds 🤓 (@DynastyNerds) September 16, 2021
Wilson got off to a poor start but brought the Jets within one score of mounting a comeback in the second half.
However, the areas to improve were already evident. Wilson was pressured on 22 of his 43 dropbacks (51.2%), sacked six times at a high conversion rate (27.3% pressure to sack rate), and had three turnover-worthy plays according to Pro Football Focus (6.5% of all dropbacks).
Wilson held the ball too long, made poor decisions, and overall struggled with touch and accuracy.
While it wasn’t pretty, the Panthers game was still his second-best performance among his first six games. Unfortunately, all of the issues present in Week 1 would become more prevalent over his next two games.
Against the Patriots and Broncos, Wilson hit rock bottom. In these two games, Wilson threw six interceptions and zero touchdown passes.
The first three weeks of Wilson’s career were among the worst seen by any of the top quarterback prospects.
Wilson wasn’t solely responsible for his struggles, however. While Wilson made plenty of mistakes over his first three weeks, the rest of the team failed to do anything to support him.
The run game struggled as the Jets’ running backs totaled 219 yards on 57 attempts (3.84 yards per attempt and 73.0 yards per game). The Jets’ interior pass blocking was horrible with 31 pressures allowed in three games between both guards and the center.
Drops killed several drives as well. Wilson’s 15.9% drop rate was the worst in the NFL by an enormous 3.3% compared to the second-ranked quarterback!
Wilson also suffered from some bad luck against the Broncos and Patriots, throwing six picks despite being credited with only three turnover-worthy plays. The most obvious bad-luck play was a drop by Braxton Berrios (his only one of the season) that turned a first down into an interception. You can see it at the 0:29 mark in the video below.
Zach Wilson's rookie highlights: but only drops
— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) January 15, 2022
The coaching staff was also rigid. It wasn’t until the bye-week that the Jets’ started to adjust their scheme to their players’ talents, as the Jets were running a lot of 12 personnel early in the year despite not having the talent to do so. They later adapted and began running more 11 personnel.
The Jets’ inexperience on and off the field also contributed to a brutal start for the offense.
Wilson desperately needed to turn things around fast. Thankfully, he did just that in Week 4.
Against the Titans, Wilson had a career day throwing for 297 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception in a dazzling performance. The Titans game was littered with plays that showed the playmaking ability that made him the second overall pick.
Throwback to Zach Wilson’s electric performance against the Titans.
1 INT (from Davis slipping)
11.4% Big Time Throw Rate (T-15th highest single game mark among 436 QBs in 2021)
— Stefan Stelling (@li_jets) May 26, 2022
Still, it was far from perfect.
At the end of the game, Wilson missed several opportunities to seal the win. A missed pass to Ryan Griffin in overtime that would have been the game-winning touchdown was the most painful.
While a field goal ended up being enough to get the win, this game shouldn’t have even gone to overtime.
With the opportunity to build on this performance against a struggling Falcons team in London, Wilson had one of his most concerning performances of the season.
While Wilson struggled in the other games, the game in Atlanta was the first one in which he clearly held the team back. Despite only one turnover, Wilson missed easy passes, held the ball too long, and failed to maximize some of the good opportunities he was presented with.
Wilson flashed his tantalizing potential but also raised several concerns
Wilson’s first five games were a complete mixed bag. Wilson had the fourth-highest turnover-worthy play rate among qualified quarterbacks (4.8%) but was also a top 10 deep passer. From Weeks 1-5, Wilson ranked eighth among qualified quarterbacks with a 52.0% adjusted completion percentage on deep passes.
Wilson’s 11.4% big-time throw rate against the Titans (per PFF) ended up tying for the 15th-highest rate of the season among 436 qualifying quarterback performances.
Throughout his first five games, Wilson showed the arm talent that made him the second overall pick, but the mental aspect of his game had a long way to go. He struggled to quickly go through his progressions and had far too many passes that were off-target or lacked touch.
The most concerning part about Wilson’s accuracy issues was that they weren’t present in college. While transitioning out of a BYU offense that gave him a ton of time to throw was a known concern, Wilson’s accuracy, touch, and decision-making were some of his best traits in college.
An injury against the Patriots in Week 7 gave Wilson the opportunity to settle down and reflect on his mistakes. After returning from injury, Wilson was a very different player.
Weeks 12-18: Game manager Zach Wilson
After returning from his knee injury, Wilson had a very different approach to the offense. Instead of pushing the ball downfield, Wilson finally started going through his reads and taking checkdowns.
Over the final seven weeks of the season, Wilson threw an interception on 0.99% of his attempts, ranking fourth-best behind only Aaron Rodgers (0.0%), Matt Ryan (0.95%), and Patrick Mahomes (0.96%) among 33 qualified quarterbacks.
Protecting the football is one of the most important things a quarterback must do and this was a massive improvement.
This improvement was partially due to Wilson improving his accuracy and touch. Two of Wilson’s first seven interceptions came on passes that bounced off his receiver’s hands, but two more could’ve been avoided with better placement or an earlier delivery.
Wilson also made marginal improvement in his quickness to get rid of the ball, although he was still among the slowest in the league. From Weeks 12-18, Wilson had the second-longest average time to throw at 3.00 seconds. From Weeks 1-5, his average of 3.11 seconds was the longest in the league.
Wilson at least showed promise with three above-average games in time to throw (faster than 2.7s), including his first two games back in the lineup, when Corey Davis and Elijah Moore were healthy.
Unfortunately, injuries on offense were a common theme as the season came to a close. However, the lack of weapons helped unlock Wilson as a dual threat.
Offensive injuries spur Wilson to do it himself
Once he was without his top two receivers, Wilson decided to do it himself.
Despite dropping back 273 times, and being pressured 108 times (39.6% pressure rate), Wilson only scrambled four times in his first eight games. Over his last five, Wilson would scramble 12 times for 157 yards, including this electric touchdown.
— John Breech (@johnbreech) December 26, 2021
Overall, Wilson’s four rushing touchdowns over the final seven weeks of the season ranked first among all quarterbacks. He also had the second-highest rushing grade at PFF (86.6) and was fifth in rushing yards (163).
Unfortunately, this development was the result of a lack of talent around him.
Wide receivers Elijah Moore and Corey Davis only played one and two games, respectively, after Week 12. Running back Michael Carter missed most or all of four games. Even tight ends Ryan Griffin and Tyler Kroft missed significant time. The offensive line struggled with injuries too as tackle Morgan Moses was the only player to play all seven games with Wilson.
Despite improvements, Wilson’s return was still imperfect
Between injuries and Wilson being more careful with the football, the offense lacked explosiveness following Wilson’s return. Over the final seven weeks, Wilson threw for a pitiful 166.6 passing yards and 0.71 touchdowns per game. An improved run game helped keep the Jets’ offense alive but the passing game was at its lowest output of the season.
The most concerning decline was Wilson’s big-time throw rate at PFF. While an imperfect metric, it does a good job of measuring the relative explosiveness of NFL quarterbacks. This is why it’s a concern that Wilson had the second-lowest rate at 0.9% among 28 quarterbacks from Weeks 12-18.
Michael Nania’s QB Grades for each half
Jets X-Factor’s own Michael Nania disagrees with some of PFF’s rankings.
Nania’s QB Grades breaks down and grades every play by every Jets quarterback in every game since 2018.
From his film review, Nania had a far more encouraging review of Wilson’s second half. This is largely due to him accounting for the situation and support from the players around the quarterback. While Wilson’s numbers didn’t reflect it, he was playing at a far higher level in the final seven weeks than he was in the first five.
These are the three metrics from Nania’s grading system I will be discussing:
Overall grade: 0-to-100 grade based on the average score of all plays analyzed. An estimation of individual performance quality. (Average: 50, Great: 60+, Elite: 70+, Poor: <40, Bad: <30)
Positive/negative ratio: Ratio of positive plays to negative plays. Defines the quarterback’s consistency level. (Average: 1.70, Phenomenal: 3.00+, Poor: <1.00)
Wow Factor: Combination of average positive and average negative. An indicator of the combined ability to avoid big mistakes and produce outstanding moments. (Average: 9.70, Phenomenal: 10.00+, Poor: <9.40)
The positive/negative ratio and wow factor need to be combined together to get an accurate picture. The ratio provides his consistency while the wow factor indicates whether he was able to create big-time plays and avoid big-time mistakes.
In Weeks 1-5, Nania’s average overall grade for Wilson was 39.34 which is a poor rating. His positive/negative ratio was 1.27 and his wow factor was 9.59 (both poor). Wilson’s impressive throws against the Titans helped save him from a completely terrible grade over this span. Outside of that, his highs weren’t very impressive and he was almost more likely to hurt the team than help them on a given play.
This wasn’t the case in the second half of the season.
In Weeks 12-18, Nania scored Wilson with a far more respectable overall grade of 57.06. Wilson’s wow factor had a less significant change to 9.73 reflecting his steadier but still not overly impressive play. The most significant progress for Wilson was his positive/negative ratio, which nearly doubled to 2.20. Wilson erased the mistakes from earlier in the season and started to execute at a much more consistent level even if he wasn’t incredibly explosive.
Two of the most encouraging games for Wilson in Nania’s grading system were his performances against the Jaguars and Buccaneers in Weeks 16 and 17. Wilson’s 74.1 and 76.2 overall grades against Jacksonville and Tampa Bay were the fourth-highest and highest grades Nania has given a Jets quarterback since 2018.
While Sam Darnold didn’t set the highest benchmarks, he did have a handful of impressive games in his career, so it’s encouraging to see Wilson finish his second season by putting up two of the best games by a Jets quarterback in the last four years.
Related Article: Grading every Zach Wilson throw vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Jets need the best versions of Zach Wilson and more in 2022
While I’ve spoken a lot about the positives of Wilson’s season, the moral of the story is that a stat-line of 2,300 yards, 9 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in 13 games is not nearly good enough.
However, in a tumultuous rookie year, Wilson flashed the tools he will need to succeed in the NFL. We just saw them at different times.
The Jets need Wilson to keep the magic that he displayed at the start of the season. His deep passing and playmaking ability are the characteristics that drew comparisons to Aaron Rodgers.
It’s nearly impossible to win in the NFL with a passing attack that can’t stretch a defense. Wilson’s 9.3-yard average depth of target from Weeks 1-5 was tied for 11th in the NFL and is a good benchmark given his playstyle.
Meanwhile, the Jets also need Wilson to be the decision-maker that he was from the second half of 2021 when he was among the league’s best at protecting the ball. It was obvious that he processed the game significantly better and improved at taking what the defense gave him. He also established himself as a legitimate rushing threat.
By cherry-picking Wilson’s explosiveness as a passer in Weeks 1-5 with his improved decision-making and rushing in Weeks 12-18, we can get a reasonable prediction for Wilson’s 2022 stats.
From these numbers, a possible 2022 season by Wilson could include 3,800 passing yards, 400 rushing yards, 23 total touchdowns, and 8 total turnovers.
The pieces are in place for Wilson to have that type of season. Joe Douglas has done an excellent job of surrounding Wilson with talent.
Now it’s time for Wilson to take flight and get the Jets back to the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.