Zach Wilson is no longer showing the yips for the New York Jets
Jets fans had to be thinking that last year in every game. Wilson’s play over his first two years in the league was difficult to watch largely because he couldn’t even do the easy stuff. Dirting screen passes was the least of it.
In 2023, though, this is one area of legitimate improvement that Wilson truthers can hang their hat on. It’s not enough to say that he can be a competent quarterback, but at least it makes him less incompetent than before.
Wilson’s overall accuracy
According to Pro Football Focus, adjusted completion percentage measures the percentages of aimed passes thrown on target (completions + drops / aimed passes). It accounts for factors such as drops, throwaways, batted passes, spikes, and passes thrown while being hit.
Here are Wilson’s numbers in that area from 2021-23 among 34 qualified passers.
- 2021: 69.9% (33rd)
- 2022: 65.9% (34th)
- 2023: 76.2% (16th)
Part of this might be that Wilson’s average depth of target is down, but it’s actually not that far off from what it was in his rookie season. His ADOT has gone from 8.0 (21st) to 9.7 (3rd) to 7.8 (24th) this year. While his ADOT was very high in 2022, he was dirting many more throws as a rookie despite a similar ADOT. The improvement is legitimate in this area.
Pro Football Reference’s numbers also show significant improvement. Wilson’s “bad throw rate” has gone from 23.8% (last) to 25.2% (last) to 13.9% (23rd), which means he’s cut his bad throw rate nearly in half.
The NFL’s tracking data concurs, as well. According to RBSDM, Wilson’s completion percentage over expected (CPOE) has risen from -9.6% (last) to -5.6% (33rd) to -0.2% (25th). While that might not seem like much, it means that Wilson is getting very close to completing the rate of passes he should be expected to complete.
At every level
Here is Wilson’s 2021-23 adjusted completion percentage at each target depth.
- Behind LOS: 86%, 86.1%, 95.7%
- Short (0-9): 75.9%, 78.0%, 84.6%
- Medium (10-19): 60.8%, 51%, 56.7%
- Deep (20+): 41.9%, 33.3%, 41.7%
Once again, this supports the idea that Wilson is hitting the layups at a significantly higher rate. He’s finally at the league average (16th) in adjusted completion rate behind the line of scrimmage, and he’s actually slightly above average (12th) in the short range. He could still use work in the medium area (23rd), but he’s also near the average on his deep balls (18th).
Has anything else suffered?
Often, when a quarterback shows a sudden improvement in accuracy, there’s some sort of confounding factor at play. Did Wilson start throwing it short more often?
As partially shown by his average depth of target, the answer is “sort of.” Here is Wilson’s target distribution from 2021-23 compared to 34 qualified quarterbacks.
- 2021: 14.9% behind LOS (19th), 44.4% short (24th), 20.6% intermediate (15th), 11.2% deep (20th)
- 2022: 14.9% behind LOS (20th), 37.6% short (33rd), 21.1% intermediate (14th), 13.6% deep (13th)
- 2023: 15.4% behind LOS (21st), 43.6% short (18th), 19.4% intermediate (21st), 8.1% deep (28th)
While Wilson is throwing short more, he’s still only in the average range across the league. He’s still throwing behind the line of scrimmage at roughly the same rate. Though his distribution has declined in the intermediate area, the actual percentage change is not drastic. It’s only the deep balls that he’s throwing less of.
Interestingly, Wilson’s deep ball results have been decent. He’s 5-for-12 (41.7%, 16th) for 12.3 yards per attempt (22nd). He has thrown no touchdowns and one interception in the area, but he has four big-time throws (narrow-window, difficult completions) compared to one turnover-worthy play. Perhaps a lower volume of deep attempts where he picks his spots more effectively is a good ratio for Wilson.
Past the sticks
The biggest issue with Wilson’s drop in intermediate and deep throws is his propensity to throw the ball short of the sticks on third and fourth down. His rate of throwing to the sticks has gone from 57.3% in 2021 (23rd) to 60.5% in 2022 (9th) to 51.1% in 2023 (30th). His success rate on the money downs has gone from 39.3% (30th) to 33.3% (33rd) to 31.1% (34th).
Although the drop in ranking isn’t all that significant, he’s doing even worse on third and fourth down this year than in the past. Part of that may be due to throwing short of the marker. Fans will recall his infuriating checkdown to Tyler Conklin on 4th and 11 against the Patriots as a prime example.
In general, Wilson’s risk aversion and concentration on avoiding mistakes have led to a very conservative third-down approach. It’s been evident at times that the Jets were content to punt rather than allow Wilson to stand in the pocket and make a throw. Against Kansas City, he saw an uptick in throwing past the sticks to 58.3% of the time on third and fourth down — still not a high number by any means — and his success rate increased to 41.7%. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
It’s definitely heartening for Jets fans to see a legitimate area of improvement from Wilson. For some, it spurs hope that he can show progress in other areas.
Still, as Robby Sabo hammered home after the loss to the Patriots, the Jets and Wilson need to stop playing scared. The conservative approach appears to be working for him to a certain extent, but it’s also preventing the offense from having any sort of consistency.
A more significant improvement from Wilson would be the ability to complete passes for first downs on third and fourth down. It’s hard to see if he can even do that when he’s checking it down to Michael Carter. Nathaniel Hackett needs to hand over the keys to Wilson, especially against superior opponents like the Eagles. If he throws interceptions, so be it; the potential reward is worth the risk.
Finding a way to fix Wilson’s yips is a feat that can’t be underestimated, though. Though he’s not exactly an accurate quarterback, that mental block appears straightened out. Some combination of Hackett, Todd Downing, and Aaron Rodgers likely deserve the credit.
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