With new targets, Jets hope Zach Wilson can thrive under pressure

FLORHAM PARK, NJ — One scene became increasingly familiar as the Jets’ second day of training camp progressed last week: quarterback Zach Wilson’s scramble.

Defensive line pressure constantly reached the backfield – some of that pressure could have resulted in sacks in live games if laying a finger on the quarterback in an NFL practice was allowed – often forcing Wilson out of the pocket and out of bounds.

But on one play, he rolled to his right and, with defenders surrounding him, effortlessly tossed the ball to receiver Corey Davis, who hooked the ball over a defender’s outstretched hands. The play was a glimpse of the skill that propelled Wilson to the No. 1. 2 overall pick in last year’s draft.

And yet, these pieces were rare last season. The Jets’ offense struggled, finishing near the bottom of the league in points per game, and Wilson finished with just nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He was the third-most sacked starter (44 times in 13 games) in the league in 2021, when the Jets finished with a 4-13 record.

At Jets camp, coach Robert Saleh praised young quarterbacks, including Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, who he said were “so hard to defend” because of their ability to play outside the pocket and evade defenders under pressure.

“If you have the ability to do both like these guys, you become a very dangerous individual,” Saleh said.

Wilson proved he had that ability while in college at Brigham Young University, where he rushed for 10 touchdowns alongside his 33 passing scores in 2020. But, in his first season in the NFL , he struggled to respond to pressure and make plays on the fly.

Wilson completed just 24% of his passes under pressure and 30% on the run, both of which ranked last among quarterbacks who started at least five games, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. So Saleh pointed to off-script play in training camp as a chemistry builder for Wilson and his receivers, a way to turn broken plays into a kind of organized chaos rather than just a mess.

“He looks a lot more comfortable doing this than he did a year ago,” Saleh said.

It took a season or two for many of the league’s best quarterbacks to become superstars, and the addition of skilled offensive players often helped improve their game. Allen entered the NFL’s top flight into his third season thanks to an increase in accuracy that coincided with the arrival of receiver Stefon Diggs. Joe Burrow led the Bengals to the Super Bowl in the 2021 season, his second, after Cincinnati drafted college teammate Ja’Marr Chase, who was named an All-Pro as a rookie.

The Jets invested in offensive talent this offseason, improving players around Wilson to help accelerate his progress. They selected Garrett Wilson, a dynamic receiver from Ohio State, tenth overall in the NFL Draft; traded in the second round to take running back Breece Hall from Iowa State; and signed former Bengals tight end CJ Uzomah in free agency.

Since joining the Jets, Uzomah has become impressed with Wilson, having continued a July trip organized by Wilson for tight ends, receivers and team quarterbacks in northern Idaho. On the first day of training camp last week, Uzomah wore a T-shirt which featured Wilson pictured on a cover of Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

“He’s got one hell of an arm,” Uzomah said. “He’s going to be able to make the hard throws. It’s just a matter of him slowing down the game.”

Even if Wilson is able to use his new coterie of wide receivers, his success will hinge heavily on protecting against the Jets’ inconsistent offensive line and how well he improves as a decision-maker. Of the 44 sacks Wilson had last season, 32 came when he had more than four seconds to kick the ball — both third-most in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

Last season, the Jets were without Mekhi Becton, who was drafted 11th overall in 2020 to be the team’s long-term starting left tackle. Becton suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1 last season, and Saleh announced on the first day of training camp this year that Becton would move to right tackle. But Becton, who is 6-foot-7 and 363 pounds, you have been slandered this offseason for his lack of conditioning and his weight, which reportedly reached almost 400 pounds when he arrived at the mandatory minicamp in June. Saleh said Becton trained to get into “football shape”.

Still, Becton looked exhausted during the early days of camp as he worked on a limited count, and defensive ends exploded on several of his reps on the field. But, if Becton can regain his rookie form, when NFL executives ranked him as the sixth-best tackle in the leagueWilson is expected to stand taller than he did last season.

“I think Zach will be a lot better,” Saleh said, noting the addition of Becton and others up front. “It’s a young group, but what’s going to be fun is watching this group solidify.”