Zach Wilson’s progress can be seen in the details
On the surface, Zach Wilson‘s statistical production in 2023 has not changed much compared to his first two seasons. Take a look at this comparison of Wilson’s standard box-score stats:
- 2023: 4 TD, 5 INT, 182.8 YPG, 73.4 passer rating, 6.0 Y/A, 9.7% sack rate
- 2021-22: 15 TD, 18 INT, 182.8 YPG, 70.9 passer rating, 6.4 Y/A, 9.5% sack rate
Insert the Spider-Man meme.
While it’s indisputable that Wilson remains one of the league’s least productive starting quarterbacks until he proves otherwise, the eye test has shown definite signs of progress. Those who have watched Wilson’s entire career have seen a different and improved quarterback in 2023 compared to the one who was benched twice in 2022. Perhaps those improvements have been subtle, but they are improvements nonetheless. Wilson seems to be trending in a positive direction even if the box score doesn’t show it.
Wilson has looked particularly improved over his past three games. After his first three games of the season, many people (myself included) were begging the Jets to find somebody – anybody – to replace Wilson. I went so far as to suggest Trevor Siemian would be an upgrade. At the time, it was a feasible argument.
But ever since his Week 3 debacle against the Patriots, Wilson has displayed newfound competence. No, he hasn’t been great or anywhere close to it. However, Wilson’s three-game body of work from Weeks 4-6 can be argued as the best three-game stretch of his career. For the first time, it feels like Wilson is meeting the very simple “game manager” expectations that have been laid out for him ever since the Jets’ roster revealed itself as playoff-caliber in early 2022.
The box score production still hasn’t been there. Over his past three games, Wilson is still throwing for only 6.4 yards per attempt (same as 2021-22) with just 0.7 touchdown passes per game (same as 2021-22) and a sack rate of 10.1% (higher than 2021-22). Overall, the Jets are averaging a lowly 185.3 passing yards per game over this stretch.
We can’t excuse the brutal box-score production forever. At some point, Wilson has to start putting up better numbers and generating more points.
There are legitimate reasons to believe he will begin doing those things soon. When you dig deeper into Wilson’s advanced metrics, you can see tangible evidence that backs up the improvements shown by the eye test.
These improvements provide hope that Wilson may be on the verge of pushing his production from a bottom-5 level to, potentially, somewhere around the top 18-22 range among starters. That level of production would be enough for the Jets to make a serious playoff push with their defense and run game. Heck, you could argue at least three of the Jets’ losses with Wilson in 2022 (Lions, both Patriots games) would have been wins if Wilson played at a top 18-22 level – giving New York 10 wins and a playoff appearance.
Here are three specific areas where Zach Wilson has shown definite improvement compared to his first two seasons. The hope is that Wilson’s progress in these areas will soon translate to better overall production.
Overall accuracy (Adjusted Completion Percentage)
PFF’s adjusted completion percentage metric is a solid tool for evaluating overall accuracy, as it adds context that is ignored by the standard completion percentage metric. It accounts for drops, throwaways, batted passes, spikes, and passes altered by a QB hit.
Wilson’s accuracy was terrible over his first two seasons. In 2021, he ranked 32nd out of 33 qualified quarterbacks (min. 250 dropbacks) with a 69.9% adjusted completion percentage. In 2022, he dropped to 65.9%, which ranked last out of 33 qualifiers.
Here in 2023, Wilson has taken a major step forward with his overall accuracy. Among 32 qualified quarterbacks (min. 100 dropbacks), Wilson ranks 18th with a career-high adjusted completion percentage of 74.7%.
Part of this is due to the fact that Wilson’s ADOT (average depth of target) is a career-low 7.8 yards, but that’s only 0.2 yards behind his rookie-year mark of 8.0. In 2022, he was at 9.4.
And even if you break down Wilson’s adjusted completion percentage by target depth, you can see that he has improved in every part of the field:
- Deep (20+ yards downfield): 40.0% in 2023 (17th of 30) – 33.3% in 2022 (31st of 35)
- Intermediate (10-19 yards): 52.8% in 2023 (26th of 31) – 51.0% in 2022 (34th of 35)
- Short (0-9 yards): 83.3% in 2023 (12th of 30) – 78.0% in 2022 (31st of 35)
- Behind LOS: 96.3% in 2023 (14th of 31) – 86.1% in 2022 (32nd of 35)
The greatest progress can be seen in the shallow part of the field. Wilson used to be frustratingly prone to missing easy throws, but in 2023, he has been far more consistent at hitting the layups. He went from a bottom-5 quarterback in both short accuracy and behind-LOS accuracy to an above-average quarterback in both categories.
While some of Wilson’s improvements have primarily manifested themselves over the past three games, this is one area where Wilson has looked better throughout the entire season. Wilson’s best adjusted completion percentage of the season came in Week 1, a career-high 88.2%. This came on the heels of a four-game preseason run where he had an 80.8% rate on 56 attempts.
If there’s one area where Aaron Rodgers has clearly had a positive effect on Wilson, it’s in the accuracy department. Rodgers has surely helped Wilson make the necessary mechanical tweaks to stabilize his accuracy and remove the occasional “yips” he used to be infamous for. Wilson’s mechanics and play style were frequently compared to Rodgers even before they became teammates, so it makes sense that Rodgers would be an ideal person to help Wilson figure out his mechanical issues.
Getting the ball out quicker (Time to throw)
Holding the ball too long has always gotten Wilson into trouble. This problem carried over into his first three games of 2023. However, over the past three games, his progress in this department has been a driving force behind why it looks like he is playing more competently based on the eye test. He has appeared less reckless because he is releasing the ball faster.
Wilson averaged 3.05 seconds from snap to throw in 2021, ranking fourth-longest out of 33 qualified quarterbacks. He rose to 3.07 seconds in 2022, placing third.
This issue was particularly frustrating because Wilson has never done anything to justify holding the football for so long. Most of the quarterbacks in Wilson’s range of time-to-throw are elite rushing threats, so it’s understandable why they tend to hang onto the football – they are capable of making things happen with the ball in their hands. Wilson is not.
The only quarterbacks with a higher time-to-throw than Wilson in either 2021 or 2022 were Lamar Jackson, Jalen Hurts, and Justin Fields. With nowhere near the same athleticism as those players, Wilson should not be in their company when it comes to holding the football. His high placement on the time-to-throw list despite his subpar playmaking (both rushing and off-schedule passing) is a sign that he was creating a ton of negative plays by trying to do too much instead of releasing the ball quickly.
This is backed up by the fact that Wilson has always been far better on quick plays than long-developing plays, which is another reason his insistence on holding the ball was frustrating. In 2022, Wilson had a 90.2 passer rating and a 75.5% adjusted completion percentage when releasing the ball in under 2.5 seconds. When holding the ball over 2.5 seconds, Wilson had a 56.2% adjusted completion percentage and a 57.6 passer rating, both worst in the NFL among 33 qualifiers.
Over the first three weeks of 2023, Wilson was averaging a career-high 3.15 seconds from snap to throw, ranking third-highest behind Fields and Bryce Young. However, something clicked starting with the Kansas City game in Week 4. Since then, Wilson has finally started to get the football out in rhythm on a consistent basis.
From Weeks 4-6, Wilson averaged 2.72 seconds from snap to throw, ranking 21st out of 36 qualified quarterbacks over that span. In 2022, it would have ranked between 16th-ranked Justin Herbert (2.74) and 17th-ranked Kirk Cousins (2.70) out of 33 qualifiers.
Wilson averaged 2.73 seconds against Kansas City, 2.81 against Denver, and 2.62 against Philadelphia. It’s the first time in his career that he has been under the 3.0-second mark in three consecutive games.
When getting the football out fast, Wilson has been very good this season. On passes thrown in less than 2.5 seconds, Wilson has an 86.6% adjusted completion percentage (sixth-best out of 32) and a 102.6 passer rating (11th-best).
At the same time, he is still horrendous when holding the ball too long. On passes thrown more than 2.5 seconds after the snap, Wilson has a 62.5% adjusted completion percentage (28th) and a 48.8 passer rating (worst).
Wilson is at his best when he plays with confidence and whips the ball out within the rhythm of the play call. Over the past three games, he’s been doing that on a more routine basis than ever before. The more consistent Wilson gets at releasing the ball quickly, the better he will play.
Protecting the ball (Turnover-worthy plays)
Wilson’s overall interception rate in 2023 isn’t much different than it was in his first two seasons. He’s thrown five interceptions on 182 passes, an interception rate of 2.7% that currently ranks 11th-highest out of 33 qualifiers. He had a 2.9% rate in each of his first two seasons.
However, when applying context, Wilson’s ball security has actually been much better.
First off, it’s worth mentioning that three of Wilson’s five interceptions occurred in the fourth quarter of the Cowboys game when the Jets were trailing by three scores. That doesn’t excuse those plays, as each of them was faulty on Wilson’s part even when considering he was probably forcing the issue because of the score. Still, outside of that one quarter, Wilson has two interceptions on 167 pass attempts, an excellent interception rate of 1.2%.
Even if you include that quarter, Wilson’s overall turnover-worthy throw rate (via PFF) has improved significantly compared to his first two seasons. This tells us that not only is he throwing fewer interceptions, but he’s also throwing fewer dangerous passes, which maximizes his chances of avoiding interceptions in the future.
Wilson has been credited with six turnover-worthy throws on 225 dropbacks this season, giving him a turnover-worthy throw rate of 2.7% that ranks 12th-lowest out of 32 qualified quarterbacks. That’s less than half of his 2022 rate of 5.9% (17 on 290 dropbacks), which ranked second-worst. His rookie-year rate was 3.8% (eighth-worst out of 33).
It’s worth noting that Wilson has been slightly more fumble-prone this year after doing a good job of limiting fumbles in his first two seasons. While it is a tiny sample, Wilson has three fumbles in six games this year, which is 0.5 per game. Over his first two seasons, he had six fumbles in 22 games (0.27 per game). He only had one in 2022.
At his current pace, Wilson would finish with 8.5 fumbles in 17 games, which is about four more than his 17-game pace from 2021-22 (4.6). This is something he needs to clean up.
Overall, though, Wilson’s drastic reduction of turnover-worthy throws outweighs the slight uptick in fumbles. Wilson is on pace for 17 turnover-worthy throws in 17 games, which is 10 fewer than his per-17-game average from 2021-22 (27.0).
If we assume Wilson stays on this pace and hurls 11 more turnover-worthy throws this season, with around half of those getting picked off (5 or 6), that means he would finish the year with only 10 or 11 interceptions. And, remember, that’s with three interceptions in one quarter against Dallas, so Wilson is on pace to have about seven or eight interceptions all season outside of that one quarter. Wilson averaged 13.9 interceptions per 17 games from 2021-22.
Of course, “on pace” is one thing and reality is another. Wilson has to keep this up. But he is clearly doing a much better job of avoiding interception-worthy passes so far this season, and it cannot be understated how important that is for a Jets team that can win games on the strength of an elite defense as long as the offense doesn’t throw the game away. Wilson’s ball security has already been essential in facilitating multiple victories for the Jets this year.
The Jets offense has the 13th-lowest turnover rate this season (10.3% of drives resulting in a turnover), and overall, the Jets are tied for the sixth-best turnover differential at plus-5. Wilson deserves a lot of credit for these rankings. Across three games against Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, and Jalen Hurts, there were nine interceptions thrown and just one of them was thrown by Wilson. Winning the turnover battle was vital in defeating Allen and Hurts, and it nearly led to a win over Mahomes.
If Wilson protected the ball at his 2021-22 level in either of those wins, the result would have flipped. Even just one more Wilson turnover against Buffalo or Philadelphia would have been enough to cost New York the game. The Jets were plus-4 in the turnover margin against Buffalo and plus-3 against Philadelphia – they needed every one of those to pull off each victory.
Wilson still isn’t dominating games. But he’s finally not losing games. If Wilson simply didn’t lose games last year, the Jets would have made the playoffs. And if he keeps doing it this year, the Jets might get over the hump this time around.
The key for Wilson is figuring out how to continue protecting the ball while simultaneously increasing his aggressiveness. It’s great that he is protecting the ball better, but it could become counterproductive if he sacrifices his playmaking potential because he is being overly cautious in fear of turning the ball over. Wilson needs to start producing more big-time plays and putting more touchdowns on the board. Can he do that while still keeping the football safe?
If he maintains his improved accuracy and release speed, then yes, he can definitely strike that balance. Wilson is finally throwing the ball with league-average accuracy and getting the ball out at a league-average speed. With his progress in those areas, Wilson should be able to attack tight windows without giving it away too often. Plus, with the knowledge that he is doing better in these areas, Wilson himself should have the confidence to believe he is capable of taking more chances without putting the ball at risk.
That self-confidence is the biggest key to ensuring Wilson can push the ball downfield more aggressively without sacrificing his ball security. If Wilson second-guesses himself, then yes, being more aggressive will lead to a huge uptick in turnovers. But this year’s version of Wilson has shown he can be surgical when he throws with confidence – just watch the Kansas City tape.
And even if Wilson does throw an extra pick every once in a while because he is playing aggressively, so be it. The Jets need Wilson to fully unleash his game now that he has cleaned up his throwing mechanics and begun to master the art of releasing the ball quickly.
In the meantime, though, Wilson’s ball security is helping the Jets win games in spite of his overall lackluster production. If he continues to provide the same level of ball security, that alone will make him a better quarterback than he was in the past, even if nothing else changes.
But Wilson has made the necessary developments to finally start becoming a better overall playmaker while still keeping the ball safer than ever before. The eye test shows an improved quarterback and the advanced metrics support that hypothesis. There is real hope that he is close to becoming the average-ish starting quarterback New York needs to make a playoff push.
Now it’s time for Wilson to start turning the hope into real results.
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