The Jets felt they had drafted their franchise savior at the quarterback position when they selected Zach Wilson with the second overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. Wilson had big expectations coming into his rookie season, as the team had traded former number three overall selection, Sam Darnold, to the Carolina Panthers. When he finally took the field, it was not pretty, at least early on.
Wilson started the first six games for New York before going down with an injury in week seven against the New England Patriots. In those six starts, the team had a record of 1-5, and he tossed four touchdowns to nine interceptions. The game was clearly too fast for the young signal-caller out of BYU. He also dealt with poor offensive line play and numerous drops by receivers.
The Jets relied on Wilson too much way too early into his rookie season. Due to their poor offensive line play, they were never able to establish the run game, forcing Wilson to throw more than they would have liked. They also trailed in many games, forcing the offense to become pass heavy while the other team’s defensive line teed off, knowing the pass was coming.
Wilson was able to flip the script after returning from injury, as in his last seven games, he accounted for nine touchdowns and just two interceptions. It was evident that he was more comfortable in the offense and that he was learning how to read the field better. This improvement came without his starting weapons, which makes it all the more impressive. Top pass catchers Corey Davis, Elijah Moore, and Braxton Berrios all missed time due to injury during that seven-game stretch.
His strong finish to the season left many fans optimistic he could make a year two leap and become the franchise quarterback. This leap would quickly be put on hold, as Wilson went down with a knee injury during the team’s first preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles. This injury kept Wilson sidelined for the remainder of the preseason and the first three weeks of the regular season. The reins of the offense were handed to veteran quarterback Joe Flacco, who has led the team to a 1-2 record despite his inconsistent play.
Revisiting the Injury
The play that got Wilson injured started with his right tackle, rookie Max Mitchell, getting beat. This led to Wilson scrambling to his right, looking to pick up the first down with his legs. He had the option to go out of bounds short of the first down marker, but opted to stay inbounds and try to make his defender miss. Wilson proceeded to try and juke out his defender, but quickly fell to the ground, as his knee moved in an uncomfortable manner. He tried to get up and walk off the pain, but fell seconds later when trying to go back to the huddle. This would force the Jets to send out their medical staff and the former number two overall pick would be evaluated for a potential knee injury.
The medical staff would find that the young quarterback had a bone bruise and a meniscus tear, which would sideline him for four to six weeks. Although this injury was not ideal for anyone involved, it was the best case scenario fans and the coaching staff could have hoped for. Wilson seems to be fully healed from his injury and is expected to suit up for New York for their week 4 matchup in Pittsburgh. It has been well over 7 weeks since the injury, so Wilson is a little behind schedule, but the team could not do anything about it as he had to be cleared by the medical staff in order to play.
How the Jets Have Fared Without Wilson
As mentioned before, the Jets have relied on quarterback Joe Flacco to lead the offense ever since Wilson went down early in August. Flacco has been a competent starting quarterback throughout his career, but it is clear his age has caught up to him. Out of the three games Flacco started, he only performed well in one, where he led an improbable comeback victory over the Cleveland Browns. In the other two contests, Flacco struggled to get into a rhythm against the Ravens and the Bengals. His immobility limited the Jets offensively, as defenses did not have to worry about designed rollouts, quarterback runs, and extended plays outside the pocket. Flacco took many sacks that Wilson would have been able to avoid with his mobility and struggled to find the open receivers on numerous occasions.
New York’s promising second year wide receiver, Elijah Moore, has yet to have a big game offensively, but that is no fault of his own. When rewatching the tape, there have been many times where the receiver was wide open, but Flacco either did not see him, or opted to throw to another player. Despite Moore’s slow start, New York’s other promising young receiver, Garrett Wilson, has had a very strong start to his rookie campaign. In his first three games, Wilson has caught 18 passes for 214 yards and 2 touchdowns, which puts him within the top receivers in the league. Despite his strong start, there have been many opportunities where Wilson was not thrown to when open, or missed when open, which has caused his stats to not be as good as they should have been.
Despite Flacco’s poor performances, New York is still ninth in the league in yards per game with 370, but they only score an average of 17.3 points per game. There have been many missed opportunities which could have caused these numbers to be even better. The Jets hope their young signal-caller will be able to come in and fix these issues.
What Fans Should Expect in Wilson’s Return
Wilson coming back into the lineup should open up the playbook for New York, and allow offensive coordinator, Mike LaFleur, to run his offense the way he would like. New York can implement more roll-outs and bootlegs with Wilson, as his athleticism will allow these plays to be successful. On plays where there is nobody open downfield, Wilson will be able to take off and scramble for yards, which is something that was not present with Flacco in the lineup. Wilson was a more willing runner during the second half of his rookie season and has stated that despite his injury, he will not change the way he plays the game. Wilson ran for 185 yards as a rookie, which included a 92-yard rushing performance against the Jaguars during their week 16 matchup last season.
Looking at the defensive side of the ball, I would expect teams to play less man coverage against the Jets for a variety of reasons. To start, if Wilson is able to escape the pocket, there will be many running lanes as the defenders in the secondary will be occupied with guarding their matchups. Teams will also likely attempt to confuse the young quarterback with complicated zone coverages to force incompletions and potentially interceptions.
Wilson is not the same quarterback he was at the beginning of his rookie season. He made major progressions down the stretch last season. He saw the field much better and turned the ball over less. With the offensive additions the Jets have made, and as long as Wilson is able to read the field correctly and deliver accurate passes, there is no reason they can’t takeoff and be among the top half of the league.