What is the future of Zach Wilson? That is one of the topics du jour in the NFL.

He will finish his second NFL season in street clothes Sunday — a healthy scratch. A little over a year ago he was one of the league’s promising young rookies; this season, the media and fans have turned on him, and he lost the locker room (code for teammates) and his starting job.

Wilson of course was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, and that brings with it great expectations and attention. He has not come close to meeting those expectations. He has been benched not once, but twice, in six games; actually, it’s worse than that — he was deactivated.

Why Steve Young says he was wrong about Zach Wilson
Zach Wilson was booed and then benched on Thursday. Here’s what he and his coach said about it

A week ago, Jay Glazer of Fox Sports reported that the Jets were expected to dump Wilson in the off-season and move on, casting yet another quarterback aside on a trail littered with them (they’ve drafted 12 quarterbacks in 17 years, not to mention signing a parade of free agents who have passed through town). But Ian Rapoport reported a couple of days ago that Jets general manager Joe Douglas “does not plan to shop Wilson” in the offseason.

That would support the public stance taken by Jets coaches.

“He’s a New York Jet and that’s not changing,” offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur told reporters. “... he’s got to be prepared to not just get better, but prepared to play.”

Head coach Robert Saleh, who has defended his embattled quarterback for weeks, also insisted that Wilson is part of the team’s future.

“The frustrating thing is that this kid is going to be a good quarterback, but the NFL and this new instant-coffee world that we’re in just doesn’t want to give people time,” he said. “So, we look at him and he’s just nitpicked with a fine-tooth comb.”

Saleh is spot-on. It’s the era of Instagram and instant everything, including instant starting quarterback. People roll their eyes if an internet search takes more than 2-3 seconds. Fans boo and reporters grumble if quarterbacks taken in the first round don’t produce in a year or two. 

For Wilson’s sake, it might be better if the Jets waived or traded Wilson. The atmosphere in New York is toxic for the young quarterback. He will have an even smaller margin of error and little room to grow with the Jets after what has happened this season. Jets coaches will be under the same pressure. And, let’s face it, the Jets have a poor record with quarterbacks, as has been noted here several times.

So trade Wilson to a quarterback-friendly team and a patient, nurturing, knowledgeable coach. Unfortunately for Wilson, Doug Pederson has his starting quarterback in Jacksonville, Sean Payton is retired (at least for now), Frank Reich was fired and the 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan might have already found his quarterback of the future.

Any team that signs Wilson should immediately plant him on the sideline, give him a headset and a clipboard and leave him there for a year, or even two or three. These days rookie quarterbacks are immediately thrown into the starting lineup and expected to perform, but many of the game’s top quarterbacks spent a year or more on the sideline before they were handed the keys to the offense.

Aaron Rodgers pulled clipboard duty for three years before he became a starter. Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Drew Brees and Brett Favre all served a one-year apprenticeship. Steve Young was inserted in the starting lineup during his first four years as a professional — with the L.A. Express of the USFL and the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL —  and was an average quarterback. The 49ers made a trade for Young and put him on the sideline behind Montana for four years while he was tutored by the wise, patient Bill Walsh. It made all the difference. Young had a Hall of Fame career.

Mike White, who has replaced Wilson as the Jets’ starter, was drafted in 2018 but didn’t see the field until 2021. He has clearly outplayed Wilson. Jordan Love, a 2020 first-round pick,  has played three years for the Packers and is still waiting for his turn, but in the few appearances he made this year he looked much improved.

Then there’s Geno Smith, whom the Jets took with the 39th overall pick of the 2013 draft. The Jets made Smith their starter during his first two years in the league, and it did not go well. He was demoted to backup duty for seven years, playing for three other teams. Now with the Seahawks, he became a starting quarterback this season for the first time since 2014 and has become one of the top performers in the league at the age of 32.

There are plenty of exceptions (Peyton Manning played immediately, for instance, but threw more interceptions than touchdowns as a rookie), but most young quarterbacks would benefit from an apprenticeship.

Wilson was part of a deep, talented quarterback class in 2021, which has added to the pressure on him to perform. Trevor Lawrence, Wilson and Trey Lance were taken with the first three picks of that year’s draft, followed by Justin Fields at 11 and Mac Jones at 15. Four of them were thrown into the starting lineup as rookies. Since then, there has been a steady stream of news stories, comparing the progress of each quarterback against the other.

Lawrence, after enduring a turbulent rookie season under the brief, messy reign of head coach Urban Meyer, has thrived this season under Pederson, Meyer’s replacement. After a disappointing rookie season, Justin Fields has played well this season — as a runner (he’s set quarterback rushing records). He remains a below-average passer.

Jones, the best performer as a rookie among the group, has regressed this season. Lance played only two games before an injury knocked him out for the season, but if that short appearance is any indication then he will also have to rely on his running, and that’s not a recipe for a long career.

Wilson has shown the least progress of the group (although Lance hasn’t played enough to evaluate). He has by far the worst career passer rating of them all at 70.9 (if the rating doesn’t mean anything to you, simply look at yards per attempt — 6.4 — and the touchdown passes-to-interceptions ratio — 15:18). He has the worst passer rating of any starting QB in the league this season.

Wilson’s play looked all the more disappointing when supposedly lesser players outplayed him. White, a fifth-round draft pick in 2018, transformed the Jets’ offense when he replaced Wilson as the starter. Wilson has been outplayed by every quarterback on his own team — Joe Flacco, White and someone named Chris Streveler. Even the last player taken in the 2022 draft, 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, has been brilliant since stepping in for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo.

It only serves to reinforce the belief that evaluating quarterback talent is a roll of the dice.

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From start to finish, Wilson’s second season has been rocky. He missed the first three games with an injury. He played the next seven games and the Jets won five of those games, but largely because of the play of the defense.

He reached rock bottom in week 11, when he completed just 9 of 22 passes for a paltry 77 yards in a 10-3 loss to the Patriots. The Jets benched him, supposedly for the rest of the season. The Patriots’ game wasn’t an anomaly. He has had five games this season in which he threw for less than 160 yards.

White played well in the starting role, but after three games he was forced to miss two games with an injury. The Jets then gave Wilson another chance. He threw for a season-best 317 yards in a loss to the Lions, but a week later he made a miserable showing in a 19-3 loss to the Jaguars, completing just 9 of 18 passes for 92 yards. He was booed by the fans and then benched in the second half in favor of Streveler, a practice squad player.

Wilson might yet become a good quarterback in the NFL, but starting over with another team might be the best thing for him.

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