Zach Wilson, Titans, Bucs, NY Jets
Zach Wilson, New York Jets, Getty Images, Jet X Graphic

The New York Jets are hoping Zach Wilson can blend two different kinds of potential greatness he displayed as a rookie

Overall, Zach Wilson‘s first season with the New York Jets was a roller coaster – one that featured more valleys than peaks.

Though the peaks of that roller coaster did not show up as frequently as Wilson probably wanted, the ones that did show up were very high.

And the Jets are hoping those peaks can become the standard for Wilson in 2022.

Interestingly (in an encouraging way), there was a lot of stylistic variance among the peaks Wilson displayed in his rookie year. Many different styles of play are featured within his best games and best moments. It’s not as if Wilson only flashed in one way. He proved that he has the capability to perform at a high level in various facets of the quarterback position.

If you ask Jets fans which game from Wilson’s rookie year they considered to be his “signature” performance, you will get two common answers: his Week 4 game against the Tennessee Titans and his Week 17 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Both of these games were impressive displays from Wilson. But what’s intriguing is that he played a drastically different brand of football in each game.

That’s what should excite Jets fans the most about Wilson. This is not a player who has shown he can only thrive if he plays a certain style or is placed in a certain environment. Rather, Wilson’s body of work suggests he has the talent to succeed in all sorts of ways. And that’s an essential trait among great quarterbacks. In a league where there is so much variety in how teams play defense, quarterbacks have to be able to succeed in any situation.

Wilson clearly has the potential to do that. Now, it’s all about fulfilling that potential.

On that note, let’s take a look back at those aforementioned signature performances from Wilson: the Titans and Buccaneers games.

Each performance showed a completely different side of Wilson’s game. If Wilson can combine what he showed against the Titans with what he showed against the Buccaneers, he could become a fantastic all-around quarterback.

Week 4 vs. Tennessee Titans

Wilson’s Week 4 game against the Titans was his coming-out party. After averaging 209.3 yards for 0.7 touchdowns over his first three games (all losses), Wilson went off for 297 yards and two touchdowns in a highlight-filled performance to earn his first career victory.

Looking back, the Titans game really wasn’t one of Wilson’s cleanest performances. He did miss some gimme throws, especially a couple of opportunities late in the game that could have sealed the deal. There were also some ill-advised decisions. I would say that Wilson had multiple games in the second half of the year that were cleaner and more consistent than this one.

Regardless of its imperfections, what Wilson’s Tennessee game represents is a dazzling showcase of the unique, exciting traits that raise his ceiling to a superstar level. If you want to know why he was a second overall pick and why there is a chance he could be something truly special, this is the game to watch.

Wilson’s improvisation, mobility, and deep passing were the highlights of this performance. He made off-schedule plays when things broke down. When throwing on the move, his accuracy was excellent. Above all, Wilson showed off a Howitzer of an arm when throwing deep, with feathery touch to boot.

On throws for 20+ air yards, Wilson went 4-of-5 for 165 yards, 1 touchdown, and 0 interceptions (perfect 158.3 passer rating). Wilson registered a passing EPA (Expected Points Added) of +13.3 on these passes, which was the best mark of any QB in Week 4.

Many of Wilson’s deep passes were delivered while on the move. His mobile passing in this game was tremendous. In fact, it was one of the best mobile passing performances of the entire 2021 NFL season.

On throws from outside of the tackle box, Wilson went 5-of-9 for 147 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a +11.6 EPA. The yardage and EPA totals each ranked as the third-best single-game total for a quarterback in 2021, trailing only Russell Wilson’s Week 14 game (175 yards, +12.8 EPA) and Dak Prescott’s Week 6 game (165 yards, +13.2 EPA).

Unfortunately, throughout the remainder of his rookie year, Wilson could not muster up another performance quite as explosive as this one. A fully-developed Wilson should be able to accrue at least three or four explosions of this caliber each season.

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Week 17 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

While the Titans game showed off the flashy traits that put Wilson’s ceiling over the top, the Bucs game showed off the subtler traits that raise Wilson’s floor. He proved he is capable of mastering the minutiae of quarterbacking.

Wilson was erratic for much of his rookie season. He missed a lot of high-percentage throws and often did not seem comfortable operating from the pocket. His timing, rhythm, and decision-making were inconsistent at best.

Promisingly, Wilson started to correct those issues in the second half of the season. No game displayed that progress more than the Tampa Bay game.

Wilson’s Bucs game was a clinic. It showed that he can be a professional pocket quarterback – the kind of guy who can sit back in the pocket and carve up a defense with precise accuracy in the short-to-intermediate range, smart decision-making, and a quick release.

Quarterbacks can use their special physical traits for more than just on-the-move playmaking or heaving the ball deep. Wilson’s Buccaneers tape showed that his gifts can also be used to deal damage from the pocket in a methodical fashion.

Wilson’s fast throwing motion, ability to throw from unique arm angles, and high velocity were all displayed against Tampa Bay.

Overall, this was a surgical pocket performance. When throwing from the pocket, Wilson went 19-of-29 (65.5%) for 234 yards, 1 touchdown, and 0 interceptions – with two passes dropped that would have yielded at least 20 more yards combined. Throw those in and he really went 21-of-29 (72.4%).

Still, with a mark of +0.49, Wilson generated the fourth-most passing EPA per dropback from the pocket of any quarterback in Week 17, trailing only Justin Herbert, Russell Wilson, and Joe Burrow.

Wilson did this with a makeshift supporting cast. The Jets were without Elijah Moore, Corey Davis, and Connor McGovern while George Fant and Michael Carter each left the game early.

It felt like Wilson carried the Jets in this game. His weapons did not create much separation and his offensive line was a patchwork unit, but he hung tight in the pocket and consistently fit the ball into small windows. The poise, confidence, and rhythm that Wilson displayed was truly admirable, especially considering the talent around him.

Blending the Tennessee and Tampa Bay games

When people think of the league’s best young quarterbacks – Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson, for example – the first thing that usually comes to mind is that particular player’s signature “special” trait; the thing you see most often on their highlight reels.

But that’s not what makes the aforementioned quarterbacks so successful. Sure, those special traits are what push them from “really good” to “phenomenal”, but to become a quarterback who can consistently win games, you have to master the boring stuff.

Mahomes, Allen, and Jackson always had unique gifts. Everyone knew that when they were coming out of college. What we didn’t know was whether those guys could become consistent enough as all-around quarterbacks to allow those gifts to shine.

Can they accurately deliver the routine throws on a consistent basis? Can they command an offense? Can they make good decisions? Can they get the ball out quick? Can they keep turnovers to a minimum?

Those three quarterbacks have answered all of those questions since entering the NFL, and that’s why they win games and produce great numbers. Without mastering those minute details of the position, their physical talents would be nothing more than mere flashes of what could have been if they actually learned how to be an NFL quarterback.

A lot of quarterback prospects enter the NFL with great traits every year. But only the ones who perfect the nitty-gritty stuff get to show off those traits in full force. (Looking at you, Sam Darnold.)

Wilson has plenty of ceiling-raising skills that are rare for the position. The Titans game made that clear. Because of these skills, the best version of Wilson can be better than the best version of most other quarterbacks.

But to become that best version of himself, Wilson must learn to be a steady professional quarterback. That’s exactly what he was against the Buccaneers.

If Wilson can blend the explosiveness, improvisation, and mobility of the Titans game with the consistency, smarts, and accuracy of the Buccaneers game, he will become one heck of a quarterback.

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Michael Nania is one of the best analytical New York Jets minds in the world, combining his statistical expertise with game film to add proper context to the data. Nania scrapes every corner, ensuring you know all there is to know about everyone from the QB to the long snapper. Nania's Numbers, Nania's QB Grades, and Nania's All-22 give fans a deeper and more well-rounded dive into the Jets than anyone else can offer. Email: michael.nania[at]jetsxfactor.com - Twitter: @Michael_Nania
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Barney Miller
Barney Miller
2 months ago

Great piece Michael.