Zach Wilson, NY Jets, Stats, Bench
Zach Wilson, New York Jets, Getty Images

The New York Jets must end the Zach Wilson experiment once and for all

As the New York Jets‘ promising season quickly vanishes in a puff of Zach Wilson smoke, fans are understandably outraged. Robert Saleh has fanned the flames by insisting that Wilson gives the team the best chance to win. It begs the question of whether Saleh genuinely believes what he’s selling since that level of blindness alone is a firable offense.

However, there are still some holdovers who continue to believe in Wilson. There’s something about a quarterback who looked so good in college that makes it very hard to give up on him. That same something makes even more experienced executives dig their heels deeper into the sunk-cost fallacy. Joe Douglas has been loath to give up on his draft picks, and the No. 2 pick in the draft just two years ago fits squarely into that category.

Wilson has now played 25 games in his career (24 starts). It took less than that for the 49ers to give up on Trey Lance, for both the Cardinals and Dolphins to eschew Josh Rosen, and roughly the same for the Raiders to dump the JaMarcus Russell experiment. Wilson’s statistics are either the same or worse than all of those passers, yet he is somehow still employed in the NFL.

Here’s the reason why those other teams gave up on talented passers. It’s the same exact thing that shows up on Wilson’s film time and time again. Nothing has changed in this area from Year 1 to Year 3. Even if he makes the occasional “wow” throw, his arm talent will never compensate for what’s not going on upstairs.

Zach Wilson cannot read an NFL defense

Recently, Alex Rollins put out a video on YouTube titled “Justin Fields can’t read NFL defenses.” He thoroughly explains why Fields has struggled so mightily this season despite all the expectations hefted upon him after an explosive finish to 2022. The issues that he describes in Fields’ tape fit Wilson like a glove, primarily the inability to read the defense pre-snap and route elimination post-snap.

Here is a classic example that Rollins points to: a halfback seam play that is designed to pressure the Buccaneers’ Cover 3 look by overloading one side. The coverage unfolds just as expected, with the safety taking the post (from the No. 1 receiver to the boundary side) and the outside cornerback taking the wheel route from the tight end. This left Roschon Johnson, the running back, wide open on the seam. Fields should know exactly what’s going on.

This struck a chord when I saw it because it’s the same issue we’ve seen with Wilson over and over again. As Michael Nania demonstrated, Wilson missed open throw after open throw against the Patriots. While it may seem as if these open receivers were on Wilson’s later reads, that’s the case because he read the wrong side of the field to begin with. Here is a classic example.

Wilson to Lazard over Wilson

Note to Zach Wilson: when Allen Lazard is running an out-breaking route against a defensive back with outside leverage, do not even glance that way. Lazard is 6-foot-5 and lumbering. He takes a long time to get out of his breaks. His skills are primarily in finding the hole in a zone and boxing out a defender on deep balls. Out routes are not his specialty, especially to the boundary side against a cornerback with leverage.

Meanwhile, Garrett Wilson runs a similar route to the field side and cooks his man, forcing him to speed-turn and leaving Wilson with a wide-open lane to throw. But Zach fixated on Lazard, resulting in a pass breakup.

Both receivers were facing outside leverage on out-breaking routes. However, Christian Gonzalez’s leverage is not as heavy outside, and he is also closer to the line, making him more susceptible to the outside break based on Wilson’s stem. On Lazard’s route, the bailing cornerback already has a couple of steps, making it even more difficult for Lazard to beat him outside.

Additionally, Wilson’s route is reminiscent of one he ran against the Buffalo Bills in 2022 when he cooked Tre’Davious White. On that play, Mike White found him in rhythm for an easy reception. It’s different leverage and a different split, but the result is the same.

Wilson too late to Wilson

Here’s another example where Wilson should have known where to go with the football.

The Patriots have only one defender in the middle of the field, and he’s underneath. The minute Wilson sees the middle linebacker (Ja’Whaun Bentley) blitz, he should know that Garrett Wilson’s drag route to that area should be wide open. With the switch release the Jets ran, the defender in that area matches Conklin’s route, leaving Wilson with extended open space.

The Patriots pass off Wilson’s route, but it’s to a safety coming down from deep. Hit this route on time and Wilson is running with the (strong) possibility of breaking a tackle and notching plenty of YAC. Instead, Zach is late to recognize the drag route.

Wilson to Lazard over Wilson again

Here’s a very similar example of Wilson reading Lazard on an out-breaking route against outside leverage. Predictably, Lazard does not get open.

Wilson doesn’t see Cobb

Garrett Wilson comes in motion, and a cornerback follows him, tipping a man coverage look. With Wilson coming across, the short-area middle of the field is quite open, making Randall Cobb an attractive option pre-snap. Cobb needs to beat his man, but it’s the most obvious read here. With Wilson breaking outside against off coverage, it’s going to be harder for him to get the first down; if Cobb wins, it will be a much easier throw past the sticks.

Off the snap, Cobb wins and freezes the defender’s feet. He has clear inside leverage, and there’s a wide-open throwing lane. But Zach instead throws it to Garrett short of the sticks. Admittedly, it’s possible that Garrett ran his route too shallow, as we saw from time to time in 2022. Perhaps Garrett could have created more space if he threatened the cornerback for an extra step or two before breaking outside. Still, Cobb’s route was the more attractive one pre-snap and confirmed post-snap, but Zach didn’t read it that way.

It’s easy to say that it’s a pure progression read and not Wilson’s fault. Still, even quarterbacks given progressions are usually given options of where to start their read based on where the defense presents. Even half-field reads leave it to the quarterback to determine which side to read. Wilson consistently does not read the right things.

Wilson fixates, misses Lazard

In this case, it’s understandable why Wilson would look toward Garrett Wilson first. The Patriots appear to be running man coverage once more, and Garrett is the Jets’ best (and possibly only) receiver on the field who can beat that look. Still, post-snap, Jabrill Peppers (No. 5) bails out of the blitz and runs to double Wilson, and it’s very clear that Wilson’s route is going nowhere.

Zach should eliminate the route and quickly progress to Cobb, but that route is taken by a defender with clear underneath leverage over the middle. A quick read would then progress to Lazard—who, incidentally, is running an out-breaker against a heavily inside-leveraged defensive back—and find him open. If you watch the play, there is plenty of time for Zach to go “no-no-throw” while Lazard is still open.

Roll the tape

Here’s Wilson doing the same thing over and over again in 2022. What we’re seeing now is no different. I pulled all of these clips from Nania’s QB grades, and each received a grade of 3.0 (out of 10) or lower specifically because of field vision. Wilson has plenty of other bad plays due to inaccuracy, but these highlight the primary issue that makes him unplayable as a passer. It’s not even about the eventual result of the play so much as what he passed up or did not look at based on defensive alignment and leverage of his receivers.

The larger picture

Yes, you’ve seen all of these film clips in Nania’s article about Wilson. The point is to extend these issues a step further: they are symptomatic of a problem that goes far beyond his mechanics or even his skittishness in the pocket. Wilson has no clue what’s going on in the field.

It may appear at times that receivers get open too late or that they’re Wilson’s third, fourth, or fifth options. This is precisely the point, though: Wilson does not read the routes most likely to get open, and even when he does, he cannot progress quickly enough to the next route based on reading the defense and leverage.

Former NFL quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan broke down Wilson’s film from Week 15 of the 2022 season against the Lions. He described how many bad reads Wilson made on simple concepts, showing that he has absolutely no idea what’s going on on the field. While Rollins pointed out how Wilson crumbles under pressure and creates his own (something that showed up time and again against the Patriots), O’Sullivan demonstrated how Wilson cannot even read conflict defenders on fundamental RPO concepts.

Pass protection

It’s very easy to blame the Jets’ pass protection for some of Wilson’s issues against the Patriots. After all, per Pro Football Focus, Wilson was pressured 47.5% of the time. The problem is that the pressure was largely Wilson’s fault, as he had several clean pockets that he turned into sacks with his own inability to read the field.

Against Dallas, Wilson legitimately did not have time to throw. Against New England, though, many of his pockets were perfectly clean. In fact, three of the Jets’ five offensive linemen had average or better PFF pass-blocking grades, and only Connor McGovern had a truly awful grade.

In true pass sets, four of the five linemen were above average. PFF charged Wilson with causing 21.4% of his pressure, tied for the sixth-highest rate among quarterbacks, and that might be an undercount. Therefore, the 9.5% pressure rates yielded by Mekhi Becton, Laken Tomlinson, and McGovern can be taken with a grain of salt.

This is not a new thing, either. The Jets’ pass protection was undoubtedly poor against Buffalo and Dallas, but Wilson made it much worse. With Duane Brown out of the lineup, the Jets’ pass protection held up fairly decently against a Patriots defense that had 54 sacks in 2022. In fact, this is probably the starting five they should roll out for the rest of the season (besides inserting a healthy Wes Schweitzer for Laken Tomlinson, perhaps). Pass protection was not the chief issue against the Patriots.

Whose fault is it?

Whenever a highly drafted quarterback flames out, some will blame the player, while others point to the coaching staff. The problem is that it’s often unknown who, exactly, is to blame. JaMarcus Russell’s laziness was clear-cut, but that’s usually not the case.

One factor, though, suggests that it might be more about Wilson than his coaching staff. Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, and Sam Darnold, three highly drafted Jets busts, all became viable backup quarterbacks. So have Mitchell Trubisky, Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston, and many others. None of them are good, but they’re serviceable as second-stringers.

Wilson, meanwhile, is not even an okay backup. This is why I called for the Jets to sign Bridgewater in the offseason. Nania demonstrated that Wilson was one of the worst backups in the league. Instead, the Jets’ brain trust stubbornly held on to the illusion (or prayer?) that Wilson would turn it around. Still, it had to have been clear to them that Wilson wasn’t playable. The Jets’ players knew it last year when they saw him in practice. While Rodgers tried to encourage Wilson as his friend, he had to know it, too.

Considering just how bad Wilson is, I think it’s fair to assign much of the blame to him. He has not made any progress mentally, even on the simplest of concepts. The fact that the Adam Gase-coached Darnold is more viable is a testament to Wilson’s sheer incompetence.

While No. 2 overall picks have nine lives, I suspect the NFL has seen enough of Wilson. If the Jets cut him today, I don’t think he would ever play again, like Josh Rosen. Trey Lance has the good fortune of having been injured, resulting in a lack of conclusive game tape. Wilson’s tape is out there, and it’s ugly.

What are the alternatives?

The same Jets who played Chris Streveler over Zach Wilson in 2022 have another choice of that ilk to make. Here are the available options.

  • Colt McCoy (journeyman last on Arizona)
  • P.J. Walker (Browns practice squad)
  • Joe Flacco (last ruining the Jets’ season)
  • Trevor Siemian (remember him?)
  • Nick Foles (who was benched for Sam Ehlinger last season)
  • Chase Daniel (of the nine lives and zero ability)
  • Carson Wentz (last looked eerily similar to Zach Wilson in 2022 with Washington)
  • the ghost of Matt Ryan (recently made clear he isn’t interested)
  • Anthony Brown (last snapping defeat from the jaws of victory in the playoffs with Baltimore)
  • David Blough (helped Arizona secure the No. 3 overall pick in the draft)
  • John Wolford (helped the Rams to a 5-12 record in 2022)
  • Brett Rypien (couldn’t beat the hapless Jets offense in 2022)

Frankly, it doesn’t really matter who the Jets choose. All of these would simply be the end of the Zach Wilson experiment. That’s something the Jets need to do to get the sour taste out of their mouths. If they lose with McCoy or Walker or Siemian, so be it. Those are my preferred options of the available passers, but anyone is better than Wilson.

While it’s only three weeks into the season, time is ticking for the New York Jets. If they don’t turn away from Wilson soon, the hope that burned so brightly just a few weeks ago will recede from a flicker to ashes.

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Rivka Boord has followed the Jets since the age of five. She is known locally for her in-depth knowledge of football. She hopes to empower young women to follow their dreams and join the sports conversation. Boord's background in analytics infuses her articles with unique insights into the state of the Jets' franchise and the NFL as a whole.
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2 months ago

What was Zach’s Wonderlic score?
Just wondering if it’s as simple as “he’s not that bright”.
It looks to be Siemian, not sure when they’ll pull the trigger on replacing Zach though.

Not hindsight, I said to get Minshew…now look at him

2 months ago

Nailed it Rivka. It is truly a fireable offense to stick with a qb this bad for THREE YEARS. It’s complete ineptitude.

2 months ago

Zach’s problem is the same problem he had in year one. Mental he cannot handle the pressure. He is not able to relax and freezes up. Saleh talked about it early in his rookie year. When he relaxes he trusts his reads and just plays and suddenly becomes a much better player. It is confidence. The mental aspect of playing QB is what separates a good QB from terrible. I can’t see ever fixing the mental part. Maybe there might be instances like Geno where he sat on the bench for years and got his confidence back but that is extremely rare. Zach, like Geno and Darnold was a much better QB in year one. All 3 regressed in year 2 when they lost their confidence. Zach might work hard, might be selfless and can throw some really pretty balls but he lacks the ability to perform under pressure. Time to move on. If we want to tank the season for a top 5 pick I have no problem playing him but it will be painful to watch. Otherwise it is time to sign a QB that can play and elevate the rest of the team.