NFL News & Analysis

Assessing the New York Jets and QB Zach Wilson's worst-case start to the 2021 season

Denver, Colorado, USA; New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) scrambles in the backfield under pressure from Denver Broncos linebacker Malik Reed (59) in the fourth quarter at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Let's get one thing out of the way early: The New York Jets are not a good football team.

This is not a piece on how they can eventually turn their 2021 season around with a little grit and determination. The offensive line is a mess. The receivers are not good. The running game is inept. And most importantly, their rookie quarterback is struggling right now. They’ve been blown out in three straight games to open the season despite the defense ranking ninth in the league in efficiency. Go figure.

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The offense slots into last place in the same efficiency numbers. The unit's issues start with a quarterback who is not ready to lead an NFL offense. On the few dropbacks where Zach Wilson has had time to throw, he’s either made the wrong decision or thrown the ball inaccurately to the right player. He ranks last in the league in turnover-worthy play rate from a clean pocket (5.7%). Of the 33 quarterbacks with at least 25 clean-pocket throws, he places 31st in rate of accurate throws. It’s hard to be worse than that.

One of the issues is that now that he’s running an NFL offense and can’t just dial in on the three main concepts he employed at BYU last season, he’s having problems finding receivers.

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The Cougars ran their version of “mesh” and “989” in 2020, allowing them to rip apart bad defenses. Wilson was a fine prospect within the confines of the offense but elevated his draft stock with some very fun throws after escaping the pocket. The problem, of course, is that getting to the NFL means more complex offensive concepts. It also means that those crazy plays against the Texas State Bobcats might not work in the NFL. Because Patrick Mahomes worked out in the NFL after making crazy throws against Big 12 defenses, we assumed that these specific plays automatically carry over. 

That’s rarely going to be the case. Quarterbacks need to be able to operate within the pocket, and while Wilson’s 2020 campaign was full of great production, the actual film was inconclusive. This is what we are seeing now.

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Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur hasn’t run “mesh” or “989” this year with the rookie quarterback. Would New York have more success if it looked at last year’s BYU film and copied those concepts into their offense? Possibly, but at some point, the quarterback has to grow.

Right now, Wilson is consistent in throwing one concept: the Jets' dagger concept. The slot receiver will clear space for the outside receiver to run a big in-route. Maybe this is the plan — get one concept down pat at a time while allowing the first-year signal-caller to keep his wits about him and learn as he continues to get pummeled by defenses.

A worrisome trend is Wilson’s accuracy on a couple of staple concepts from the Jets' base offense. The first is their drift concept that has become an easy completion for quarterbacks across the league. Off hard play action, a condensed outside receiver or slot receiver will run a 10-12-yard speed cut in-breaking route with the idea that the linebackers will bite on the play fake and give him enough space to operate behind them. Against the Denver Broncos, Wilson threw behind an open Corey Davis.

Unfortunately for New York, the team hasn't been able to live in a comfortable enough world to frequently run this concept. The Jets have used it less than five times so far this year. Most of that has to do with being in a negative game state — i.e., they’re behind a lot — and not feeling like they can call as much play action overall. They rank 25th in the league in non-RPO play-action rate.

Not only can the Jets not run “drift,” they also can’t boot Wilson out for easy horizontal completions. He should probably lead the league in play-action rollouts but sits 12th right now in volume of those plays. His 72.1 passing grade on such concepts ranks seventh in the league, and he places 28th on non-play action, straight dropbacks (57.5).

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan loves calling running back choice routes to make up a big part of his team's dropback offense. LaFleur made a conscious effort to try to isolate the Broncos' linebackers with these routes in Week 3. Wilson was undone by a Michael Carter drop early in the game and then responded by failing to connect with open receivers on his next two chances to make up for it.

Consistency is the main part of the game. Wilson has the so-called “arm talent” to make any throw asked of him. He passes that threshold easily. Wilson’s issue is probably going to be whether he can make those throws on every play.

Overall Grade Passing Grade Big-Time Throw Rate Turnover-Worthy Play Rate
Wilson 56.9 (29th) 53.4 (30th) 2.7% (29th) 4.6% (T-29th)

*Ranks out of 35 qualifying QBs, pending MNF

His troubles are the root of the problem, but that shouldn’t get LaFleur or the offensive line off the hook. Wilson might benefit from an RPO-based offense like Matt LaFleur runs for Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. The Jets rank 21st in the league in rate of plays involving an RPO, though. The Packers place seventh this year and were second in 2020.

The Jets — who rank 13th in shotgun rate this season — don’t want to be under center often. Being in the shotgun means RPOs, and New York isn't running them.

The offensive line has no excuses, either. Jets pass protectors allow a pressure 43.9% of the time, the third-worst rate in the league. The team ranks second in unblocked pressures allowed (16) through three games, too. The guard play has been a particular sore spot. Greg Van Roten and rookie Alijah Vera-Tucker rank 45th and 47th, respectively, in pass-block grade among 57 guards who have played at least 75 snaps in pass protection this season. The offensive line was supposed to be better with Vera-Tucker coming in, but he has played like a rookie and second-year potential breakout star tackle Mekhi Becton is injured.

The Jets' start to the 2021 season has been a worst-case scenario. They’re getting down early in games, and Wilson is having to dig them out of their own graves. Of course, one could argue that he is the one who dug the grave in the first place. The environment has been awful for Wilson, but he’s not the type of quarterback who can handle this situation. He looks more like the player who had to compete against teams that were equal or better than his cohorts in 2018 and 2019 at BYU and not the player who was allowed to bully the United States Naval Academy’s football team.

The Jets aren’t good right now, and righting this ship is going to be a multi-year deal venture.

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