Jets hope with new targets Zach Wilson can thrive under pressure

FLORHAM PARK, New Jersey. One scene has become more and more familiar as the second day of Jets training camp dragged on last week: quarterback Zach Wilson wrestling.

Defensive line pressure was constantly placed on defensemen—some of that pressure could lead to sacking in live games if fingering a quarterback in NFL practice was allowed—often forcing Wilson out of the pocket and out of bounds.

But on one play, he rolled to the right and, with defenders around him, effortlessly sent the ball across the field to receiver Corey Davis, who caught the ball over the defender’s outstretched arms. The performance was a glimmer of skill that catapulted Wilson to the top of his career. 2nd overall pick in last year’s draft.

And yet such games were rare last season. The Jets offense struggled, finishing near last in the league in points per game, with Wilson finishing with just nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He was the third most sacked starter (44 times in 13 games) in the league in 2021 as the Jets finished 4–13.

At Jets camp, coach Robert Saleh was enthusiastic about young quarterbacks including Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, who he said are “so hard to defend” because of their the ability to play out of the pocket and evade defenders when they are under pressure.

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

Wilson demonstrated this ability in college at Brigham Young University, where he hit 10 touchdowns along with his 33 passing points in 2020. But in his first season in the NFL, he struggled to respond to pressure and play on the fly.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Wilson completed just 24 percent of his passes when under pressure and 30 percent when he was on the run. So Saleh pointed to unorthodox play in training camp as a means to bring Wilson and his wide receivers together, a way to turn bad games into a kind of organized chaos rather than a mere mess.

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

Many of the league’s best quarterbacks have taken a season or two to develop into superstars, and the addition of experienced hitters has often helped improve their play. Allen entered the NFL elite in his third season thanks to an increase in accuracy that coincided with the arrival of receiver Stephon Diggs. Joe Burrow led the Bengals to the Super Bowl in the 2021 season, his second, after Cincinnati selected college teammate Ja’Marr Chase, who was named All-Pro as a rookie.

During the off-season, the Jets invested in offensive talent, improving the players around Wilson to accelerate his progress. They selected Garrett Wilson, a dynamic wide receiver from Ohio State, who took the tenth overall pick in the NFL Draft; traded in the second round for running back Breece Hall of Iowa; and signed former Bengals tight end CJ Uzomah as a free agent.

Since joining the Jets, Uzoma has impressed Wilson by continuing to July trip organized by Wilson for the tight ends of the team, receivers and quarterbacks in Northern Idaho. On the first day of training camp last week, Uzoma wore a T-shirt in which Wilson was photoshopped for the cover of Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

“He’s got a damn cool hand,” Uzoma said. “He can take difficult shots. It’s just that it slows the game down.”

Even if Wilson can use his new group of pass catchers, his success will largely depend on defending against the Jets’ inconsistent offensive line and how much he improves as a decision maker. Of the 44 sacks Wilson took last season, 32 came when he had more than four seconds to throw the ball – both ranked third in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

The Jets didn’t have Mecha Becton last season, who was selected 11th overall in 2020 and became the team’s long-term starting left hand. Beckton suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first week of last season, and Saleh announced on the first day of this year’s training camp that Beckton would switch to right tackle. But Beckton, who is 6ft 7in, weighs 363lbs, was slandered this off-season due to his poor fitness and his weight, which was reported to have reached almost 400 pounds when he arrived at mandatory mini-camp in June. Saleh said that Beckton was training to get into “football form”.

However, Beckton looked jaded during the early days of camp when he practiced a limited number of snaps, and many of his reps on the field fell short on defense. But if Beckton can get back into rookie form when NFL executives ranked it as the sixth best tackle in the league.Wilson needs to stand upright a lot more than last season.

“I think Zach will be a lot better,” Saleh said, noting the addition of Beckton and other offensive players. “It’s a young band, but it will be fun to watch this band pull together.”