With new targets, Jets hope Zach Wilson can thrive under pressure

FLORHAM PARK, NJ — One scene became more and more prominent as the second day of Jets training camp unfolded last week: quarterback Zach Wilson’s scrimmage.

The defensive line’s pressure consistently went into the backfield — some of that pressure could lead to sacks in live games if quarterbacks were allowed in NFL practice — often forcing Wilson out of the pocket and out of bounds.

But on one play, he rolled to his right and with defenders around him, effortlessly fired the ball downfield to wide receiver Corey Davis, who scooped the ball over the defender’s outstretched hands. The play represented the kind of skill that made Wilson the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft.

Still, those performances were a rarity last season. The Jets’ offense struggled, finishing near the bottom of the league in points per game, and Wilson finished with just nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He was the third-most sacked starter (44 in 13 games) in the league in 2021 as the Jets finished with a 4-13 record.

At Jets camp, coach Robert Saleh touted young quarterbacks including Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, who he said were “very hard to guard” because of their ability to play outside the pocket and get away from defenders under pressure.

“If you have the ability to do both like these guys do, you become a very dangerous individual,” Saleh said.

Wilson proved that ability in college at Brigham Young University, where he rushed for 10 touchdowns along with 33 passes in 2020. But in his first NFL season, he struggled to respond to pressure and make plays on the fly.

Wilson completed just 24 percent of his passes under pressure and 30 percent when running, both of which ranked last among quarterbacks who started at least five games, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. And so Saleh pointed to a play-by-play scenario for creating chemistry in training camp as a way for Wilson and his receivers to turn broken plays into a sort of organized chaos rather than mere chaos.

“He looks a lot more comfortable than he did a year ago,” Saleh said.

It took a season or two for the league’s best quarterbacks to become superstars, and adding experienced offensive players often helped them improve their game. Allen became elite in the NFL in his third season thanks to an increase in accuracy that coincided with the arrival of receiver Stefon Diggs. Joe Barrow led the Bengals to a Super Bowl in the 2021 season, his second since Cincinnati drafted college teammate Ja’Mar Chase, who was named an All-Pro as a rookie.

The Jets invested in offensive talent in the offseason, upgrading players around Wilson to help accelerate his progress. They selected Garrett Wilson, a dynamic receiver from Ohio State, tenth overall in the NFL draft; trade for Iowa State’s Brice Hall in the second round; and signed former Bengals CJ Uzomah in free agency.

After joining the Jets, Uzoma impressed Wilson on a July trip Wilson hosted for the team’s tight ends, receivers and quarterbacks in North Idaho. On the first day of training camp last week, Uzoma was wearing a T-shirt which Wilson photoshopped into Time magazine’s cover of the year.

“He’s got a hell of an arm,” Uzoma said. “He’s going to be able to make tough shots. He’s just going to slow the game down.”

Even if Wilson can make use of his new pass catchers, his success will depend largely on protecting the Jets’ inconsistent offensive line and how he improves as a decision maker. Last season, 32 of Wilson’s 44 sacks came when he had more than four seconds to throw the ball — both league highs, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

The Jets didn’t last season without Mech Becton, who was drafted 11th overall in 2020 to be the team’s long-term starting left tackle. Becton suffered a knee injury in Week 1 last season, and Saleh announced on the first day of training camp this year that Becton would move to right tackle. But Becton, listed at 6-foot-7, 363 pounds, has been maligned this season for his lack of conditioning and his weight, which reportedly reached nearly 400 pounds when he arrived at mandatory minicamp in June. According to Saleh, Becton was training to get into “football shape.”

Still, Becton looked exhausted in the early days of camp as he worked on a limited number of plays and the defensive ends took many of his reps on the field. But if Becton can bounce back from his rookie year, when NFL executives ranked him as the league’s sixth-best running back, Wilson should have more upside than he did last season.

“I think Zach is going to be a lot better,” Saleh said, noting the addition of Becton and others on offense. “It’s a young group, but it’s going to be fun to watch this group gel together.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.