As all eyes turn to Zach Wilson, the New York Jets’ youngster is showing progress in an area that has long plagued him
Going forward, Wilson’s progress is by far the most vital factor in the team’s success. The Jets are praying that their former No. 2 overall pick can finally start showing signs of the tantalizing talent that prompted the team to draft him so highly. At the very least, they are hoping Wilson can provide competency, which, despite being such a low bar, was still unattainable for Wilson over his first two seasons.
But after a year of learning under Aaron Rodgers, the Jets are optimistic that Wilson is a different quarterback than the one Jets fans got used to watching in the past.
There’s still an extremely long way to go, but so far, we have seen some signs that Wilson is indeed on the right path.
In particular, I’ve noticed one area of Wilson’s game where he has shown major progress throughout 2023, both in the preseason and in his season debut against Buffalo. It’s an area that was arguably Wilson’s most problematic issue over his first two seasons: the ability to make layups.
Over his first two seasons, Wilson had a frustrating tendency to whiff on extremely easy throws. Whether it was a dump-off in the flat or something as simple as a screen pass, Wilson would botch freebies on a frequent basis. It was nearly impossible for Wilson to get into a groove when he couldn’t even execute the simplest stuff with consistency.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, in his rookie year, Wilson completed only 73.6% of his passes that were thrown under 10 yards downfield to a receiver who had at least three yards of separation from the nearest defender (we’ll refer to these as “layups”). That ranked last out of 33 qualified quarterbacks (min. 80 layup attempts) by a wide margin. The league average was 86.0%.
To show how far behind the rest of the league Wilson was, his 73.6% completion rate was 2.9% behind 32nd-ranked Justin Fields. That was the same gap between eighth-ranked Tom Brady (89.2%) and 19th-ranked Matthew Stafford (86.3%). Even more shocking, Wilson was 7.6% behind 26th-ranked Sam Darnold (83.0%) – a larger gap than the one between Darnold and second-ranked Tua Tagovailoa (90.4%).
Despite improving significantly in his second year, Wilson was still brutal since his rookie-year floor was so low. While his completion rate on layups jumped all the way to 79.3%, that remained the second-worst rate among 33 qualifiers, surpassing only Justin Fields (78.3%). They were the only two qualified quarterbacks under the 80% mark. The league average was 85.9%.
So far in 2023, we’ve seen Wilson continue to show steady progress with his consistency on easy throws.
In the preseason, Wilson completed 83.9% of his layups (26-of-31). Wilson kept it going in the season opener, completing 87.5% of his layups against Buffalo (7-of-8).
Overall, between the preseason and the season opener, Wilson has completed 84.6% of his layups in 2023 – not far off from the typical league average of approximately 86%.
Wilson started his career at an absurdly low point in this category. But with enormous steps forward in two consecutive seasons, he is on the verge of reaching league-average consistency when it comes to completing layups. Two years ago, that seemed almost unfathomable.
Wilson improved his layup completion rate by 5.7% from the 2021 regular season (73.6%) to the 2022 regular season (79.3%). From the 2022 regular season to 2023 (including preseason and regular season), he’s improved it by another 5.3% (84.6%).
The Jets would love for Wilson to become the superstar they thought he could be when they chose him second overall. For now, though, the realistic goal for Wilson is to simply perform at or close to the level of a league-average starter. That’s nearly impossible to do if you can’t even hit four out of every five layups.
Now, Wilson looks like he is capable of executing the simple throws at an adequate level of consistency. Of course, he needs to keep this up for more than just a few preseason games and one regular season game, but the early returns are promising.
There are still many other things Wilson must improve to become a league-average starting quarterback. Nonetheless, his gradual progress in the layup department is a strong foundation to build off of. If Wilson continues to convert the freebies at a solid rate, everything else will become much easier for him.