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Could Zach Wilson throw for 4,000 yards as a rookie? Examining a bold prediction

ESPN’s Rich Cimini called for the New York Jets rookie to accomplish a feat only four other NFL rookie quarterbacks have ever done

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New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson warms up before an NFL preseason game.

New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson warms up before an NFL preseason football game against the Philadelphia Eagles Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, in East Rutherford, N.J.

Noah K. Murray, Associated Press

Since being selected No. 2 overall in the 2021 NFL draft, Zach Wilson has had plenty of lofty expectations thrust upon him.

One of the latest projections, though, is certainly interesting in its own right, as ESPN made bold predictions for each of the NFL’s 32 teams

For the New York Jets, ESPN’s Rich Cimini called for the former BYU quarterback to accomplish a feat, as a rookie, that only one other Jet has ever accomplished: a 4,000-yard passing season. 

Former Jets great Joe Namath, a Hall of Famer, reached the 4,000-yard passing mark once in his career, in 1967 during his third NFL season.

Wilson has something in his favor to reach that mark: This year, the NFL added a 17th game to the regular-season schedule, giving him one extra game to reach that mark.

“Disclaimer: Namath had 4,007 yards in a 14-game season, Wilson will have 17 games. Yes, he’s a rookie, and rookies tend to struggle, but it’s not unreasonable to think he can end the 53-year drought,” Cimini wrote. 

How many passing yards per game would Wilson need to reach 4,000?

As Cimini explains, with the additional game in the regular season, Wilson could hit 4,000 passing yards with an average season, and the expectation that the rebuilding Jets could be in catch-up mode in many games might play into Wilson’s statistical favor.

“All it takes is 235 yards per game, close to the 2020 league average (240),” Cimini wrote. “The plan is to be balanced on offense, leaning on the running game more than most, but the Jets figure to be in a lot of late-game, catch-up situations. The kid can definitely sling it. If he stays upright and healthy, he will join Broadway Joe as the only two quarterbacks in team history to reach the elusive 4,000-yard milestone.”

This all, of course, assumes that Wilson doesn’t miss a game — due to injury or a positive COVID-19 test, for instance — during his rookie season. 

Wilson is also taking over for a Jets offense that was among the worst in the NFL last season. While New York has made several offseason moves to bolster its offensive attack, the team was last in the league in total offense in 2020 (279.9 yards per game), and second-to-last in passing (174.8). If Wilson were to average the same passing yards per game as Jets quarterback in 2020, he would finish this year with just under 3,000 passing yards at 2,971.

How many NFL rookies have passed for 4,000 yards?

While 4,000-yard passing seasons have become commonplace among the game’s best quarterbacks, it’s still rare for a rookie to reach that mark. It’s only happened four times in history, per StatMuse

  • In 2012, the Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck threw for 4,374 yards.
  • In 2020, the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert threw for 4,336 yards.
  • In 2011, the Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton threw for 4,051 yards.
  • In 2015, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Jameis Winston threw for 4,042.

Rookies have been accomplishing greater passing numbers, though, in recent years: eight of the top 10 rookie seasons by passing yards have happened since 2011, per StatMuse.

If Wilson were to accomplish 235 yards passing per game, as Cimini predicted he could to reach last year’s average, that would be the seventh-best per-game passing average from a rookie ever. It’s even better than what Hall of Famer Peyton Manning accomplished in 1998 (233.7), according to StatMuse.

Wilson and the Jets open the 2021 season at the Carolina Panthers this Sunday.