The New York Jets are hopeful that rookie quarterback Zach Wilson is going to be able to hit the ground running as their starting quarterback in 2021. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft doesn’t have competition in the quarterback room, making him the de facto starter and immediate source of hope for the Jets and their fans. Saturday afternoon against the Green Bay Packers offered the first true look at enthusiasm for what Wilson can be with time, patience, and continued investment in surrounding him with talent.
Wilson’s preseason debut was evidence that he could crawl in his NFL infancy—he was 6-of-9 for 63 yards on 10 designed passing plays. But Saturday against the Packers? Wilson walked.
Was it perfect? No. He short-hopped a shallow throw to wide receiver Corey Davis while moving to his right for an obvious misfire. And his process at times wasn’t necessarily crisp, including on the 3rd-and-4 conversion in which he tagged Davis out of a mesh concept despite having the running back available running the rail earlier in the play for what would have been a less dramatic drop. And the Jets helped Wilson out, too. They dialed up a nice receiver screen on one play to get a pitch-and-catch scenario for Wilson and also had at least one RPO look that involved Wilson taking a quick hit to Davis on the perimeter while facing 10 yards of cushion in coverage at the snap.
Wilson got a little help from his friends, too. Tight ends Trevon Wesco and Tyler Kroft each rolled up significant yards after the catch on their respective receptions; Wesco rumbled for 17 out of the flat while coming free out of play-action and Kroft punched in the exclamation point for Wilson’s night with his second score of the game—slipping inside of a tackle challenge on the perimeter to pick up his second 18-yard score of the day.
But the chunk throws shined bright for Wilson.
Like Wilson’s 3rd-and-8 conversion to Davis on what appeared to be a post route against first-round cornerback Eric Stokes. Wilson showed eye discipline to not tip off the throw, keeping his helmet aligned right on the high safety in the middle of the field before snapping himself to throw to Davis, leaving enough of a window to confidently slot the throw.
One of the final plays of the first quarter provided another highlight, with Wilson working out of play-action to try to find tight end Chris Herndon working the middle of the field. The linebackers didn’t vacate, however, forcing Wilson to slide right and eventually work his eyes to the sideline downfield for Davis, who had uncovered as a part of a switch release on the perimeter to the backside of the play. Wilson casually flipped his wrist and quickly delivered the strike to Davis downfield for a 27-yard gain.
In rhythm? No. But certainly a good effort by Wilson with both the throw and not dropping his eyes as the rush uncovered in front of him to force him off his spot.
Quickly thereafter, Wilson dropped a throw overtop of an underneath linebacker to Kroft for the Jets’ first touchdown on what appeared to be a “stick-nod” concept out of an empty formation.
Madden players likely know the concept well. Kroft ran a vertical stem and flashed his eyes outside before sticking his foot in the ground and driving across the face of the linebacker in zone coverage and attacking the middle. If the linebacker chased, Wilson would have had an easy completion underneath. But instead, the linebacker squatted and Wilson got it up and over the second-level defender but down quickly enough to prevent the deep safety from meeting the ball at the catch point.
Was it a perfect showing? Of course not. The rookie’s process wasn’t always efficient. That is to be expected. But Wilson created enough chunk plays with his arm and execution that this game should serve as an exciting showcase for Jets fans everywhere. And if Wilson doesn’t play another snap this preseason, the team put together a strong outing and opportunity to have their rookie quarterback roll into the regular season with a lot of confidence at his disposal.
Now comes the fun part: translating that to regular-season success.