Somewhere in the past few months, the Jets decided they were all in on BYU’s Zach Wilson as their next franchise quarterback and the latest savior of their star-crossed franchise. They decided he was the savior they’ve seeking for 50 years and counting — the quarterback that could make them a Super Bowl team again.
Of course, it’s only been three years since the previous Jets regime thought the exact same thing about Sam Darnold, who was traded off to the Carolina Panthers on Monday afternoon. Darnold was the third overall pick back in 2018, a player some thought was the best quarterback prospect in that draft. Then, he spent three years in New York never fulfilling expectations and doing almost nothing but losing.
So why should anyone believe things will be different with Wilson?
The answer is, it won’t be. Not unless the Jets do what they never did with Darnold: Surround him with a better team.
That’s really the bottom line on this deal. It’s a trade the Jets never should have been in a position to have to make — and wouldn’t have made if they built properly around Darnold. Ideally, the 23-year old would have showed enough progress and talent over the last couple of years to make the Jets believe his full potential was just around the corner. Then they could’ve used their No. 2 pick as trade bait to get a haul of picks in return, while still using a high first-round pick to select a No. 1 receiver, tight end, or whatever they decided was the missing piece to their puzzle.
But for three years, Darnold never had a chance. Maybe it’ll turn out that he just wasn’t as good as the Jets once hoped. But there’s no way anyone could possibly know that. He showed occasional glimpses of his potential over the last three seasons, but he spent most of that time running for his life behind what had perennially been one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines, and throwing to a cast of receivers often headlined by undrafted rookies and free agents plucked off the street. Any semblance of a running game imploded under the weight of the mistake of Le’Veon Bell’s contract. It’s also not like he had help from a tight end who could actually hold onto the ball.
And who knows how much damage was done by what became two lost years under the “brilliant offensive mind” of former Jets coach Adam Gase – a man who never could quite figure out how to best use what might have been the best player he had.
The result was this: Darnold at times looked more like a mess than a top prospect. His great moments were tantalizing, but there weren’t enough of them for the Jets to be sure they weren’t just being teased. So with his financial clock ticking towards May 3, when the Jets were facing a decision on his $18.8 million fifth-year option for 2022, and with New York sitting on the No. 2 pick in a quarterback-heavy draft, they had backed themselves into a corner.
But make no mistake: They did this to themselves.
Now, maybe Wilson will turn out to be a better quarterback than Darnold. He dazzled everyone last season at BYU, albeit against a marshmallowy soft schedule of mid-major competition. The scouts and NFL talent evaluators who study this stuff believe he’s got the arm, the mobility, the brains and everything else to be a great NFL quarterback. History is littered with quarterbacks lauded by the experts and drafted high who ended up going bust. But there’s still a pretty good chance that the overwhelming consensus on Wilson will turn out to be right.
But it won’t matter if the Jets don’t do better by him than they did by Darnold. They’re off to a good start by adding receivers Corey Davis and Keelan Cole in free agency, and the early reviews have been raves about new head coach Robert Saleh. Even new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur is highly regarded, and the 49ers system he’s bringing has been proven to work.
They need more, though. They are still currently set up to return the same starting offensive line they had a year ago – a line that was terrible and kept Darnold on the run or on his back. Their running game seems to be anchored on the idea that the newly-signed Tevin Coleman will stay healthy or second-year pro La’Mical Perine will exceed expectations – a dangerous bet while installing an offense centered around the run.
Wilson still needs more reliable weapons around him. He needs a much-improved line that includes some young talent that will be blocking for him for years. And it can only help if the Jets also fix the defense that let the entire team down last year.
Maybe that’s a lot to ask, but even the best quarterbacks can’t do it alone. The Jets are taking a risk with this quarterback switch, as they become the first team in history to draft a quarterback in the Top 3 twice in a span of four years. Yes, they have to be right about Wilson’s ability for this to work. But they also have to make sure he’s got a better supporting cast around him.
Otherwise this just won’t work at all no matter how good Wilson is. And if that happens, a new GM and head coach will be right back in this spot pondering another quarterback switch in a few years.