Zach Wilson trade: What doomed QB stint teaches Jets

FLORHAM PARK, NJ — Zach Wilson welcomes the challenge. During the run-up to the 2021 draft, he was aware of the New York Jets' questionable reputation with young quarterbacks. Those in his own camp expressed strong objections to his move to New York, sources with direct knowledge said, but Wilson told them he could overcome the franchise's star-studded history.

He was wrong about the Jets, and the Jets were wrong about him.

As expected, Wilson — that year's No. 2 pick — was traded after three disappointing seasons, swapping sixth- and seventh-round picks with the Denver Broncos on Monday. Now that he's officially gone, ending a very sorry chapter for the franchise, questions about the future arise: How will the Jets find a successor to 40-year-old Aaron Rodgers? Did they learn anything from the Wilson debacle?

Assuming Rodgers returns to health from his heel tear and completed four snaps early in his Jets debut on the season, they should feel good about their current depth chart, which includes 34-year-old backup Tyrod Taylor. But the pipeline is dry, and that's not a good situation for an NFL franchise.

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For the first time since 2017, the Jets don't have a young prospect at the position. That year, they had stopgap starter Josh McCown and 2016 fourth-round pick Bryce Petty, who was never seriously considered the “quarterback of the future.” The following year, they invested a first-round pick in Sam Darnold, beginning a six-year Darnold/Wilson run. Both started with bright lights and big dreams; Both have become cautionary tales.

Rodgers recently said he wants to play “two or three or four more years,” which would allow the Jets to find and develop an obvious successor — the ideal outcome. But his contract isn't guaranteed beyond 2024, and they could be looking at an organizational reset if the season doesn't go well.

General manager Joe Douglas, who selected Wilson, took pre-draft visits to Tulane's Michael Pratt and Florida State's Jordan Travis to the Jets on Day 2 or 3 of this week's draft (Thursday at 8 p.m. ET), shown on ESPN, ABC, the ESPN app.

“I want to be a quarterback factory,” Douglas said last week, like the Green Bay Packers of the 1990s, noting how the Packers drafted late-rounders, developed them and traded them for new draft capital.

One difference, though: The Packers were set at quarterback with Brett Favre and, later, Rodgers, so their late-round flyers were low-risk investments. With their chances of finding a quality first-string quarterback in free agency remote, the Jets may need one of their picks to be the starter one day. If it breaks with Rodgers, they'll go to next year's draft like the current Broncos and Minnesota Vikings — desperate.

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With Wilson willing to spend a couple of years learning by Rodgers' side, the Jets thought they had a succession plan. That doesn't seem realistic considering Wilson's contract expires in 2025, but that's what they were selling. After Rodgers' injury in Week 1, Wilson was exposed (again) as he stepped into the action, and the scheme was thrown into disarray anyway.

It's hard to come up with too many positives about Wilson. Since entering the league, he ranks 29th out of 29 quarterbacks in EPA/play (minimum: 1,000 dropbacks). Since 2000, he ranks 121st out of 122 quarterbacks in the same category, just ahead of Blaine Gabbert.

Wilson's worst indictment is that the Jets' offense did better with other quarterbacks, averaging more points per game when he was on the bench.

The Jets learned some hard lessons along the way. For example: Patience is very important. So is the competitive environment. If they draft a quarterback, whether it's in the first round or the seventh, that player will have the benefit of learning from the sidelines. Owner Woody Johnson recently said he felt “bad” that Wilson wasn't afforded that luxury.

Wilson was awarded the starting job without competition. In fact, there wasn't a single veteran on the roster for the early part of his freshman season. Facing a weak schedule in his only full season as a BYU starter, Wilson was overwhelmed from the start. Finally, after nearly two seasons, Jets officials admitted they cheated by not having him sit behind a veteran. They tried it in Year 3, putting him behind Rodgers, but it was too late.

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The pressure to start a highly drafted quarterback is immense, so it takes a long view and a lot of patience. The Jets, who did the same thing with Darnold in 2018, didn't show much of either.

Experienced coaching staff will also help. Robert Saleh was a first-year coach when Wilson was drafted, and he hired a first-time offensive coordinator in Mike LaFleur. This type of arrangement doesn't automatically spell doom — see DeMeco Ryans and CJ Stroud of the Houston Texans — but it's not a perfect recipe for the Jets.

The plan was to hire veteran coach Greg Knapp as their in-house quarterback guru, but he died in an accident before the start of training camp in 2021. Realizing the void, the Jets took the unusual step of adding Wilson's personal trainer, a former NFL player. Quarterback John Beck to the staff midway through the season. All he did was create the impression that he was protected by the system.

Now, with back-to-back misses on a quarterback in the first round, the Jets are left without a long-term answer and a lesson learned.

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