NFL News & Analysis

NFL Sources Buy or Sell: Zach Wilson's fatal flaw, Patriots' QB situation, Vikings' hot start

East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) runs with the ball against the New England Patriots during the first quarter at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

• Vikings’ 6-1 start: A conservative approach has worked for Minnesota, but their schedule gets more difficult down the stretch.

• Zach Wilson’s red flag: An AFC pro scout believes the Jets quarterback is a “trainwreck” while escaping pressure.

• Patriots QB situation still unsettled?: Mac Jones continued to struggle in Week 8, but an AFC analytics executive doesn’t believe it’s time to bench him for Bailey Zappe.

Estimated Reading Time: 7 mins

MINNESOTA VIKINGS‘ 6-1 START

NFC scout: Buy

Just a few weeks ago, the New York Giants were the least talked-about one-loss team in the NFL. Well, everyone started writing about them, and they lost to the Seattle Seahawks this weekend. So, they passed that torch to the Minnesota Vikings, who (very) quietly have the second-best record in the NFL and are one of just three teams — along with the 7-0 Philadelphia Eagles and 6-1 Buffalo Bills — with fewer than two losses.

It’s fair to wonder if Minnesota’s start is legitimate. The team's one loss was a trouncing on Monday night in front of a national audience to the Eagles in Week 2. After beating the 3-5 Green Bay Packers in Week 1, they’ve strung together wins over the 1-6 Detroit Lions, 3-5 New Orleans Saints, 3-5 Chicago Bears, 5-3 Miami Dolphins (with Skylar Thompson and Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback) and, most recently, the 3-5 Arizona Cardinals in Week 8. To date, they have only the 27th-hardest strength of schedule, per PFF’s power rankings.

Still, at least prior to Sunday’s win, it’s surprising that nearly no one was talking about the fact that the Vikings are running away with the NFC North with a four-game lead in the loss column.

“I’m surprised like you are,” an NFC scout said Monday. “Solid offensive line, great playmakers, and their offense does a great job staying on schedule. Defensively, they have a strong front seven. They’re well-coached across the board.”

Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell, who was hired this offseason, has the third-best odds to win Coach of the Year (+800), behind the Eagles' Nick Sirianni (-110) and the Giants' Brian Daboll (+325).

The Vikings are currently 14th in expected points added (EPA) per play and 16th in EPA per play against. They’re 17th in EPA per passing play and third in EPA per run play. They’re 14th in EPA per pass against and 15th in EPA per run against.

So, the Vikings’ strength is definitely their running game, but they don’t necessarily have a major weakness. They’re middle-of-the-road in most other categories.

“They aren’t flashy, but they get the job done because they’re playing conservative ball and don’t make many mistakes,” an NFC analytics executive said Monday.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins’ average depth of target (ADOT) is way down this season at 7.1 yards, which ranks 35th among 38 qualified passers. He came into the season with a career ADOT of 8.7 yards. On third and long, only 32.4% of Cousins’ passes are past the first-down marker, which also ranks 35th. Over 60% of Cousins’ passes are nine yards or less downfield.

Minnesota also ranks fourth in fewest penalties per game and fifth in fewest penalty yards per game, so they’re well-disciplined, too.

The Vikings' schedule does get more difficult over the second half of the season. They have the 16th-toughest remaining strength of schedule with upcoming contests against the Buffalo Bills, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. Their current win total is set at 11.5 on BetMGM. Their win total entering the season was 9.5, so they are exceeding expectations and certainly are on pace for a playoff berth in O’Connell’s first season at the helm.


NEW YORK JETS’ SUSTAINABILITY

AFC pro scout: Sell

There was a two-week stretch when Jets quarterback Zach Wilson looked like he might have turned the corner on some early-career struggles and got back on the right track following a preseason knee injury. In Weeks 4 and 5, Wilson earned a 72.2 passing grade and a 77.4 offensive grade. It’s been all downhill from there, however. Over the past three weeks, Wilson ranks dead last among quarterbacks with a 37.6 offensive grade and third-worst with a 38.2 passing grade.

Injuries have not helped. The Jets lost running back Breece Hall and offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker for the season in Week 7. Wilson was without his favorite target, wide receiver Corey Davis, for Week 8 and most of Week 7 with a knee injury.

But there are bigger issues afoot.

“He's a trainwreck under pressure,” an AFC pro scout said. “They pretty much kept the game out of his hands during their win streak. But if you can stop the run and make him beat you, it'll be a long season for them.”

Wilson ranks dead last in PFF’s passing grade under pressure, with a 22.0 mark. His 84.5 passing grade in a clean pocket ranks ninth. His passing grade drops from 72.4 to 38.4 when he holds the ball for more than 2.5 seconds, and he does it on 58.8% of his dropbacks, which ranks seventh in the NFL.

Wilson has a tendency to drop way back in the pocket and roll to his left or right. He has 45 non-straight dropbacks since his season debut in Week 4. And his passing grade on those plays is 28.3 with just two big-time throws, five turnover-worthy plays and four sacks. He’s completing just 20.6% of his passes on non-traditional dropbacks. Wilson has been pressured on 63 dropbacks this season. He’s rolled or scrambled out on 32 of them.

The Jets are currently in second place in the AFC East with a 5-3 record, and they’ve had the ninth-toughest schedule to date. They have the 13th-most difficult schedule remaining.

The Patriots presented a blueprint for beating the Jets in Week 8. We’ll see if other teams can replicate it with more regularity moving forward. 


MAC JONES’ HOLD ON STARTING JOB

AFC analytics executive: Buy

Wilson isn’t the only second-year quarterback in the AFC East who has failed to take a significant step forward this season. New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones was far and away the best rookie passer in the NFL last season, earning a 78.5 grade. He currently holds the lowest passing grade among his draft class, with a 50.6 mark this season, as he’s dealt with the departure of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the introduction of new scheme elements installed by Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge this offseason, a high ankle sprain and some relative issues along the offensive line.

The Patriots are 2-3 in games Jones has started this season, though he played only one quarter of New England’s Week 7 loss to the Chicago Bears before giving way to rookie Bailey Zappe. The Patriots lost in overtime to the Green Bay Packers in Week 4 when Brian Hoyer started but suffered a concussion early in the game, leading Zappe into the game. They were 2-0 with Zappe as the starter.

With Jones’ struggles, Zappe’s team-led success in his absence and Belichick’s odd handling of the quarterback position, there has been some speculation locally whether the team would be better off with Zappe as the starter. Jones’ performance in New England’s Week 8 win over the Jets didn’t quiet any skeptics. He earned a 52.6 overall PFF grade thanks to a 76.7 rushing grade, but that overall mark was dragged down by a 45.7 passing grade. He finished with one big-time throw and two turnover-worthy plays. Among those turnover-worthy plays was a pick-six that was erased due to a roughing the passer penalty. 

He also was strip-sacked. His one actual interception came when he was hit while throwing, so that did not count as a turnover-worthy play.

“Mac's been trying to hold on to the ball longer and push the ball downfield more, and the results have been awful against blitz,” an AFC analytics executive said. 

Still, he wouldn’t advocate turning to the rookie backup.

“Starting Zappe would probably be overreacting to a small sample against bad defenses,” he said. “No one in our building was impressed by his preseason and thought he would get exposed in time.”

Zappe earned a 77.1 passing grade in his first three games, but that dropped to a 59.5 in the loss to the Bears.

Jones ranks 37th out of 39 qualified quarterbacks with a 49.4 offensive grade when blitzed. He’s second-to-last, just above Wilson, with a 22.1 offensive grade when under pressure.

The Patriots are 4-4 and have faced the 24th-toughest schedule to date. They have the most difficult schedule remaining, however, with games still to play against the Vikings, Bengals and Dolphins and two against the Bills. So, things are not getting easier for New England, no matter who is at quarterback.

There’s seemingly nowhere to go but up for Jones, who is currently PFF’s second-lowest-graded passer — above only the Washington CommandersTaylor Heinicke. And if Jones doesn’t improve, then New England might have no choice but to see what it has once again in Zappe. But it’s certainly worth staying patient with last year’s 15th overall pick after a win against New York and an upcoming game against the 3-4-1 Indianapolis Colts, who are starting another member of the 2021 quarterback draft class, Sam Ehlinger.

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