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Was Zach Wilson’s NFL trajectory sacked the night the Jets drafted him?

The former BYU star had a rough go of things before getting injured. He’ll be back in action Sunday, hoping for better results.

New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson warms up before a game against the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, in East Rutherford, N.J.
Adam Hunger, Associated Press

The New York Jets have this knack — no, it’s a gift — for chewing up quarterbacks, which is why I begged them in the spring not to draft Zach Wilson.

Did they listen?

No, they did not.

They made him the second pick of the draft. Then they threw him into the lineup on opening day, and the mayhem commenced.

The Jets said they would protect Wilson. They did not. Wilson was a human Whack-A-Mole. He was battered and didn’t play well. A month ago he sprained the posterior cruciate ligament and has missed four games waiting for the knee to heal.

Wilson, who is scheduled to return to the lineup this week, was sacked 19 times in the first 5½ games. It would’ve been 40 if not for the kid’s mobility. There were times it looked like he was trying to set up for a pass in the middle of I-15 at rush hour.

Fifteen of those sacks came in the first three games. During that stretch he was pressured on 38.5% of his drop-backs. According to ESPN, six of Wilson’s seven interceptions during those games and 11 of his quarterback hits came against mere four-man rushes. The protection improved the next three games — Wilson was sacked only four times — but for the season he still has a sack percentage of nearly 10% (frequency of sacks when he drops back to pass). And then of course he was injured.

Maybe things will be better when he returns to the lineup.

“We said we’re gonna make sure we protect this young man, so when he is fully healthy and he feels like there’s no limitations in his ability to play football where he’s not thinking about that knee, we’ll get him out there,” first-year Jets coach Robert Saleh told the New York Post.

The Jets are hard on quarterbacks. As noted last spring, they have drafted 12 quarterbacks since 2006, six in the first two rounds. They didn’t hang around long.

It doesn’t bode well for Wilson.

The protection of Wilson can’t be put entirely on the offensive line. He has four touchdowns passes and nine interceptions. He holds the ball too long. A league-leading eight of those 15 sacks occurred at least 4.5 seconds after the ball was snapped, according to NextGenStats.

“It’s OK to play a boring game of football. That’s really it,” Saleh told ESPN after one game. “He’s an electric dude. He’s competitive … and he wants to win so bad, but sometimes it’s OK to be boring.”

In Wilson’s absence, Mike White, the Dallas Cowboys’ fifth-round draft pick in 2018 who was signed to the Jets practice squad and waived briefly in 2020, threw for 405 yards and three touchdowns in a win over front-running Cincinnati — easily the best performance by a Jets quarterback in a long time. That amps up the pressure on Wilson, as if he needed any more of that in New York. Headline in this week’s New York Post: “Time for Jets’ Zach Wilson to justify his pick over Mac Jones.”

Jones was the fifth quarterback taken in the 2021 draft (by the Patriots), and, so far, easily the most successful. The success of a quarterback depends greatly on the team that selects him and almost always affects the trajectory of his entire career. Where one player might succeed in, say, Green Bay, that same quarterback might be a flop in, say, New York.

That’s why Eli Manning told the Chargers not to draft him years ago. He was concerned about the organization and the team’s failures with young quarterbacks — Drew Brees had been beat up and Ryan Leaf famously became one of the biggest NFL busts ever. Manning threatened to sit out the season if the Chargers drafted him; they made him the first pick of the 2004 draft anyway and then traded him within an hour. Manning won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants.

John Elway did much the same thing for similar reasons in 1983 when the then-Baltimore Colts made him the first pick. He threatened to skip the season and play Major League Baseball instead. The Colts relented and traded him to the Denver Broncos, where Elway won two Super Bowls.

The way the draft is constructed, with losing teams getting the first picks to promote parity, quarterbacks are bound to get stuck with bad teams. But Jones hit the jackpot when he was drafted by the Patriots, where he could be coached by Bill Belichick and his great offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels. Meanwhile, Trevor Lawrence and Wilson were the first two picks and landed with the lowly Jaguars and Jets.

All of the rookie quarterbacks except Jones have had a rough season. Their collective won-lost record is 12-24 — but if not for Jones it would be 5-20. Wilson probably doesn’t take comfort in the fact that he is not alone with his rookie struggles.


NFL rookie QBs by the numbers

Quarterback — Pass yds. — TDs — Ints. — YPA — Comp % — Won-lost

Mac Jones — 2,540 — 14 — 8 — 7.3 — 70.2 — 7-4

Trevor Lawrence — 2,141 — 8 — 9 — 6.0 — 58.4 — 2-8

Justin Fields — 1,361 — 4 — 8 — 6.9 — 58.1 — 2-6

Zach Wilson — 1,168 — 4 — 9 — 6.5 — 57.5 — 1-5

Trey Lance — 354 — 3 — 1 — 7.4 — 52.1 — 0-1