Sunday’s performance against New England showed a QB both literally and figuratively moving backward
You can be the biggest Wilson lover in the world. You can have the No. 2 jersey in every uniform combination possible. You can have your eye paint and sweatband on weekly to mimic his every move.
But you cannot deny what is in front of your eyes: the Jets’ QB is looking more and more like a first-round bust.
Even if Sunday’s game against New England was technically the first game of his second season (after all, it was the 18th start of his career), the performance Wilson put up is unacceptable for a second-year QB.
I’m sure that I’ll get all the Wilson lovers in the comments calling me a hater, someone who looked to see Wilson fail and was blind to the fact that his offensive line is killing him. That could not be further from the truth, but saying it won’t convince anyone.
What I’m going to try to do is detail, by the numbers, why Wilson’s performance against the Patriots caps the legitimate red flags in Zach Wilson’s game that are now flashing in neon colors. Wilson is not only failing to progress; he is going in retrograde.
The argument: Zach Wilson can progress like Josh Allen or other QBs who struggled earlier in their careers.
The facts: any QB who struggled early and then went on to succeed in some way reduced their turnover-worthy play rate in Year 2.
Josh Allen is the poster boy for a QB early-failure, late-success story. Right now, every single first-round QB from the 2021 draft is being compared to Allen by desperate fan bases in whatever way possible, no matter how big of a stretch it is.
Interestingly, other than Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson probably has the most in common with Allen among all of those QBs. His arm strength, while not quite as impressive as Allen’s, is superior. He has strong escapability and throws well on the move. However, besides the ludicrousness of comparing a 6’5″, 237-pound QB to a 6’2.5″, 221-pound-soaking-wet guy, the numbers don’t support that argument.
In 2018, Allen’s rookie season, his turnover-worthy play rate was 5.1%, the third-highest among 37 QBs with at least 200 dropbacks. In 2019, he reduced it to 4.0%. While that was still the eighth-highest among 35 qualified QBs and above the league average of 3.3%, it represented noticeable progress.
Zach Wilson, on the other hand, has actually increased his turnover-worthy play rate from his rookie season.
Fans had pointed to Wilson’s lack of interceptions over the past three weeks as proof that he was protecting the ball better, but even before the three-interception debacle on Sunday, he had been lucky not to turn the ball over in the previous games. His near-fumble and near-interception against Denver and his ill-advised lob to Corey Davis in the end zone against Green Bay are three clear turnover-worthy plays that come to mind.
In Wilson’s rookie season, his turnover-worthy play rate was 3.8%, above the league average of 3.3%. Still, he seemed to have shown improvement following a return from injury: from Weeks 1-6, his TWP rate was 5.0%, while from Weeks 12-18, it was 2.8%. That was something to build on for this season.
However, after five games in 2022, Wilson’s TWP rate is a whopping 6.0%, the highest mark among all QBs by a significant margin. Even in Weeks 5-7, when he didn’t actually have any turnovers, Wilson had a 3.7% TWP rate, above league average. In Weeks 6-7, it was 5.4%. Against the Patriots, we saw the actualization of the turnover potential that Wilson had in the previous weeks (albeit worse, as his TWP rate against New England was 7.0%).
Let’s look at the TWP rates of some other young QBs who have struggled early on.
- Jalen Hurts: 2020 – 4.6%; 2021 – 3.3%; 2022 (to this point) – 1.5%
- Daniel Jones: 2019 – 5.5%; 2020 – 3.1%; 2021 – 2.5%
- Jared Goff: 2016 – 4.7%; 2017 – 3.1%
- Derek Carr: 2014 – 3.9%; 2015 – 3.8%; 2016 – 2.6%
- Lamar Jackson: 2018 – 4.6%; 2019 – 1.8%; 2020 – 3.6%
Obviously, this is not the only number that matters. Tua Tagovailoa has actually increased his turnover-worthy play rate this season, but he’s playing by far the best ball of his career. Lamar Jackson’s TWP rate went back up in 2020 after his MVP season in 2019, and he was still a good quarterback.
But for a QB who’s not putting up big stats, the TWP rate is one way to see whether a quarterback is improving. We’re not seeing that at all with Zach Wilson.
The facts: Zach Wilson doesn’t have the big plays to offset his turnovers, unlike other QBs who went on to improve.
Good quarterbacks whose turnover numbers tick up are usually taking risks. The classic example of a “struggling rookie QB” is Peyton Manning, whose 28 picks from 1998 remain a rookie record.
However, what’s forgotten is that Manning also threw 26 touchdowns that season and had 3,739 passing yards. Manning made big plays. Yes, that was not enough to coronate him the next great QB, but it showed that he could become great if he could limit the turnovers. Indeed, Manning did just that.
Josh Allen is a different animal than most other quarterbacks. After his second season, questions still abounded about his ability to develop as a quarterback. What was undeniable, though? His running ability, which allowed him to help the Bills make the playoffs despite mediocre-to-poor passing numbers and lackluster skill position players. Allen had a 20:9 TD:INT ratio in 2019 with 510 rushing yards and nine rushing TDs. 29 total TDs from a second-year QB is something to build on.
Derek Carr, meanwhile, always had some big plays to fall back upon. Carr threw 21 touchdowns against 13 picks in 2014 and then improved to 32 TDs vs. 13 INTs in 2015. Jared Goff went from 5:7 to 28:7.
It’s difficult to find a quarterback who had a 3:5 TD:INT ratio five games into their second season and then suddenly flipped the switch, especially with a 6% turnover-worthy play rate. You can cherry-pick other numbers, and it was okay to give Wilson the benefit of the doubt coming into this season, but his chances are quickly running thin.
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The argument: the lack of continuity and below-average play along the offensive line has completely removed Wilson’s ability to gain rhythm.
The facts: quarterbacks who are going to develop into solid NFL players manage to overcome their line by taking the plays that are there, gaining time to make plays, and making quick decisions.
Zach Wilson is hardly the first highly-drafted quarterback to have a bad offensive line. Why do you think he was drafted that high? Rarely does a quarterback get the luxury of a line like Patrick Mahomes, Trey Lance, or Carson Wentz have played behind early in their careers.
Quarterbacks who are going to develop still show their ability to work around their offensive lines. They do so by taking opportunities on plays that they are not pressured and getting the ball out quickly. Alternatively, they make plays with their legs to keep the plays alive and then make off-schedule big-time plays.
Joe Burrow is the poster boy for sacks: He had a 7% sack rate in his rookie season that increased to 8.6% in his second year. He was pressured on 32.2% of his dropbacks in 2020 and 33.3% in 2021. Despite those numbers, Burrow managed to show some potential by getting the ball out quickly: his time-to-throw (TTT) of 2.60 and 2.63 in his first two seasons were both quicker than average, and this season, he’s getting it out quicker than ever at 2.47 seconds.
Last year, you could argue that Wilson’s offensive line was worse, as his 10.1% sack rate and 38.5% pressure rate would seemingly indicate. Those numbers are at 6.2% and 37.5% this season, which means his pressure rates are somewhat higher than Burrow’s, but his sack rates are lower. On the surface, that would indicate that Wilson evades sacks better than Burrow, but their pressure-to-sack rates are comparable (26.3%/25.9% last season). Furthermore, Wilson’s 3.05 TTT as a rookie and 3.19 this season indicate that some of his sacks, at least, come from holding the ball too long.
You can blame Mike LaFleur for running longer-developing routes, but we haven’t seen that over the last few games. Wilson has simply missed his receivers or run around like he’s playing backyard football to try to evade rushers and make a play. His indecisiveness is leading to pressure.
In Wilson’s rookie season, he was to blame for 19.7% of the pressure he faced, the sixth-highest number among 40 QBs, and 38% of the sacks he took. This season, He’s responsible for 18.9% of the pressures and 50% of the sacks. In Burrow’s rookie season, he was responsible for 15.3% of his pressures (14th-highest) and 28% of the sacks, and that went all the way down to 9.0% and 15.7% in his second year.
Besides the actual pressure and sack numbers, though, what’s far more revealing is the actual stats when the quarterback is under pressure. Last season, when under pressure, Zach Wilson had a 29.3% completion percentage (worst among 40 QBs), 5.0 YPA (33rd), a 5.5% TWP rate (28th), 48.6 passer rating (34th), and a 3.97 average time to throw (third-highest).
This season, he’s gotten even worse. Under pressure, Wilson is completing just 19.1% of his passes (40th out of 40 QBs) with 3.0 YPA (40th), 1 TD, 5 INT (second-worst despite missing three games), a 14.3% TWP rate (40th), a 7.1 passer rating (that’s not a typo – 40th), and a whopping 4.39 seconds to throw (tied for highest).
Compare that to Burrow’s numbers from his rookie season: 37.3% (36th), 4.2 YPA (37th), 4.6% TWP rate (18th), 52.3 passer rating (29th), and 3.31 TTT (22nd). None of these numbers are great, but the lower TWP rate and time-to-throw made all the difference. Burrow wasn’t putting the ball in harm’s way as often as Wilson does while under pressure.
By his second season, Burrow drastically improved his performance under pressure despite facing a lot of it. In 2021, Burrow had a 60.9% completion percentage (1st among 40 QBs), 8.6 YPA (1st), 9 TDs (2nd), 4.1% TWP rate (16th), 3.32 seconds to throw (15th), and a 92.4 passer rating (1st).
That mirrors the pressure numbers of other young starting QBs who played behind porous lines and developed into solid-to-great starters:
|Deshaun Watson (2018)||Russell Wilson (2013)||Jalen Hurts (2021)||Alex Smith (2006)||Aaron Rodgers (2009)||Joe Flacco (2009)|
|Percentage of dropbacks pressured (ranked highest to lowest)||44.9% (1st)||43.8% (4th)||36.9% (13th)||36.9% (11th)||30.9% (16th)||28.7% (26th)|
|Completion percentage||57.9% (5th)||49.3% (11th)||43.1% (30th)||47.4% (22nd)||54.3% (2nd)||52.1% (4th)|
|Yards per attempt||7.9 (3rd)||6.6 (8th)||6.8 (8th)||4.9 (31st)||8.0 (3rd)||6.4 (11th)|
|Touchdowns||9 (2nd)||10 (1st)||6 (15th)||4 (13th)||7 (3rd)||6 (5th)|
|Turnover-worthy play rate (used in place of interceptions)||5.2% (18th)||5.0% (23rd)||3.4% (7th)||4.1% (13th)||3.8% (15th)||1.7% (4th)|
|Average time to throw (seconds)||3.84 (35th)||3.91 (39th)||4.02 (39th)||3.40 (32nd)||(not tracked)||(not tracked)|
|Passer rating||88.2 (2nd)||79.1 (6th)||74.7 (13th)||62.6 (19th)||95.8 (1st)||78.8 (2nd)|
|Pressure-to-sack percentage||21.6% (29th)||20.0% (31st)||13.3% (5th)||18.9% (23rd)||25.9% (37th)||23.4% (11th)|
|Sacks (highest to lowest)||61 (1st)||44 (3rd)||25 (28th)||35 (10th)||50 (1st)||37 (6th)|
All of these QBs were either pressured or sacked (or both) pretty often. They had different ways of overcoming the pressure, and each one was not necessarily elite in every single category. But most of them took care of the ball at an above-average or even excellent rate when under pressure, and almost all had a good passer rating in that situation.
Additionally, the ones who have longer times to throw are running QBs whose elusiveness enables them to make plays. While Zach Wilson has that elusiveness, he has not made the plays with his legs, making his extended time-to-throw unacceptable. He needs to get the ball out.
The argument: Mike LaFleur has not utilized Zach Wilson’s strengths in passing concepts.
The facts: Zach Wilson has not allowed his strengths to be utilized by missing the opportunities that are there.
I reviewed Mike LaFleur’s play-calling from last week’s game and showed how Zach Wilson did not take the opportunities in front of him. The All-22 film is not publicly available in the tristate area yet, but a thorough review of this game will be forthcoming.
However, there were opportunities for Wilson to make plays using his legs (including the fourth down miss to Tyler Conklin late in the game, in which he had at least 20 yards of open space while needing only five) and his arm (think: Garrett Wilson jumping up and down in dismay, wide open).
While I agree that the Jets could and should have run the ball more this week a la the Pittsburgh game, the fact remains that Wilson still has a tendency to short-arm short passes (see: Ty Johnson INT), double-clutch, and bail the pocket at the first sign of a defender beating a block instead of stepping up in the pocket.
Just want to see the kid, step up into the pocket, this isn't a beat Zach up session. pic.twitter.com/c1VpswMrsy
— Leger Douzable (@LegerDouzable) October 31, 2022
Those tendencies limit what Mike LaFleur can actually do with Wilson. Rolling Wilson out gives him a half-field read, and if his receivers don’t get open immediately, that’s where Wilson gets into big trouble. Here are Wilson’s stats on designed rollouts this season: 4-for-11, 70 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT, 35th in QB rating (21.0), 34th in EPA (Expected Points Added)/play (-0.85).
Should the Jets really be running more of these plays?
I agree that LaFleur can improve his play-calling at certain times; he’s only a second-year play-caller. I don’t agree that it’s his fault Wilson has struggled.
For those who bring up the work Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka have done with Daniel Jones, one of Jones’s biggest traits this season is that he steps up in the pocket. Wilson does not do that, and unless the coaches have not tried to work on that (which is hard to imagine), it’s difficult to work with a QB who’s constantly running backward.
The argument: Zach Wilson’s escapability is a big strength.
The facts: the minute Zach Wilson turns his back to the play, he reduces the chances of a positive play to near zero.
Speaking of running backward, all talk of the positive aspect of Wilson’s maneuverability and elusiveness needs to take into account the results of such plays. It’s great to be able to avoid sacks, but if you’re going to throw picks or near-picks on such plays, is it really better?
Wilson’s default is to turn his back to the play when he runs around a la Patrick Mahomes. Besides the fact that Mahomes has gotten himself into trouble at times when doing that, Wilson is no Mahomes, as is abundantly clear by now. Turning his back to the play means he’s losing track of his receivers and space on the field and allows defenders to catch up both to him and his receivers.
Wilson’s stats in various metrics of quarterback scrambling and elusiveness are all near the bottom of the NFL, per Next Gen Stats (all out of 35 qualifiers):
- Scrambling: 3-for-24, 85 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT, 7.1 QB rating (33rd), -0.87 EPA/play (28th)
- Running 8+ MPH: 7-for-25, 143 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT, 34.3 rating (34th), -0.42 EPA/play (23rd)
- Outside the tackle box: 6-for-31, 140 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT, 19.0 rating (34th), -0.85 EPA/play (31st)
In other words, the Jets may be better off with Wilson taking the sack than rolling around and around in circles, looking to make a play that isn’t there. What’s even more worrisome is that Wilson doesn’t seem to understand this.
Zach Wilson: “It just gets frustrating to throw the ball away.”
Knows he has to be better. Said he was trying to throw the ball away on the second interception. #Jets
— Zack Rosenblatt (@ZackBlatt) October 30, 2022
If Wilson had just thrown the ball away against New England, the Jets may well have come out on top. Besides his three inexcusable picks, including two on balls that should have been thrown away, he also nearly took a safety while running around the end zone instead of unloading the ball.
The Jets were tantalized by Wilson’s escapability when they drafted him. Little did they know that it would end up as one of the focal points of a QB whose play is in tatters.
Zach Wilson has been a polarizing figure since the Jets drafted him with the No. 2 overall pick last season. However, that polarization is rapidly moving to the side of “he can’t play.” While Robert Saleh insists that Wilson will be the starting quarterback for the rest of the season (and that makes sense given what the Jets have behind him), barring a dramatic turnaround, the Jets may need to look at other options come the offseason.
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