With New Targets, Jets Hope Zach Wilson Can Thrive Under Pressure

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — One scene grew more and more familiar as the second day of Jets training camp wore on last week: quarterback Zach Wilson’s scrambling.

The defensive line pressure consistently got to the backfield — some of those pressures might have resulted in sacks in live games if laying a finger on the quarterback in an N.F.L. practice were allowed — often forcing Wilson out of the pocket and out of bounds.

But on one play, he rolled to his right and, with the defenders surrounding him, effortlessly launched the ball downfield to receiver Corey Davis, who snagged the ball over the outstretched hands of a defender. The play was a glimpse of the skill that propelled Wilson to the No. 2 overall pick in last year’s draft.

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

At Jets camp, Coach Robert Saleh raved about young quarterbacks, including Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, who he said were “so hard to defend” because of their ability to make plays outside of the pocket and escape defenders when under pressure.

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

Wilson proved to have that ability in college at Brigham Young University, where he rushed for 10 touchdowns alongside his 33 passing scores in 2020. But, in his first N.F.L. season, he struggled to respond to pressure and make plays on the fly.

Wilson completed just 24 percent of his passes when under pressure and 30 percent while on the run, which both ranked last among quarterbacks who started at least five games, according to N.F.L. Next Gen Stats. So Saleh pointed to the off-script playmaking in training camp as a chemistry builder for Wilson and his receivers, a way to turn broken plays into a sort of organized chaos rather than simple disarray.

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

It took a season or two for many of the league’s top quarterbacks to develop into superstars, and the addition of skilled offensive players often helped improve their play. Allen vaulted into the N.F.L.’s elite in his third season thanks to an increase in accuracy that coincided with the arrival of receiver Stefon Diggs. Joe Burrow led the Bengals to the Super Bowl in the 2021 season, his second, after Cincinnati drafted his college teammate, Ja’Marr Chase, who was named an All-Pro as a rookie.

The Jets signed tight end C.J. Uzomah, left, earlier this year. He joined Wilson and other members of the offense on a trip to Northern Idaho in July.Credit…Frank Franklin Ii/Associated Press

The Jets invested in offensive talent in the off-season, upgrading the players around Wilson to help accelerate his progress. They selected Garrett Wilson, a dynamic receiver from Ohio State, tenth overall in the N.F.L. draft; traded up in the second round to take running back Breece Hall of Iowa State; and signed the former Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah in free agency.

Since joining the Jets, Uzomah has grown impressed with Wilson, having gone on a July trip Wilson hosted for the team’s tight ends, receivers and quarterbacks in Northern Idaho. On the first day of training camp last week, Uzomah wore a T-shirt that featured Wilson photoshopped onto a Time magazine person of the year cover.

“He’s got a hell of an arm,” Uzomah said. “He’s going to be able to make the tough throws. It’s just a matter of him slowing the game down.”

Even if Wilson is able to utilize his new coterie of pass catchers, his success will rely heavily on protection from the Jets’ inconsistent offensive line and how 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 the third highest in the league, according to N.F.L. Next Gen Stats.

Last season, the Jets were without Mekhi Becton, who was drafted 11th overall in 2020 to be the team’s long-term starting left tackle. Becton suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1 last season, and Saleh announced on the first day of training camp this year that Becton would be moving to right tackle. But Becton, who is listed at 6-foot-7, 363 pounds, has been maligned this off-season for his lack of conditioning and his weight, which reportedly reached nearly 400 pounds when he arrived to mandatory minicamp in June. Saleh said Becton had been training to get into “football shape.”

Still, Becton looked exhausted through the first days of camp as he worked through a limited snap count, and defensive ends blew by on many of his reps on the field. But, if Becton can return to his rookie-year form, when N.F.L. executives ranked him as the sixth-best tackle in the league, Wilson should be standing upright a lot more than he was last season.

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

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