Analysis

3 NFL Teams That Would Be Good Fits to Rehabilitate Zach Wilson

A couple of big-picture questions are looming large over the New York Jets this week. 

Will they make the playoffs? Well, their path is at least clear: Wins at the Seattle Seahawks and Miami Dolphins combined with one loss from the New England Patriots would get them in. It’s also clear which quarterback they believe in most. Robert Saleh announced this week Mike White has not only been cleared to play but has been chosen to start the rest of the way. Maligned second-year quarterback Zach Wilson won’t even be active at Seattle.

For all intents and purposes, Wilson’s season is over, which sets up the big question: Is his career in New York finished, too?

The Jets have lost six of their last eight, punctuated by their current four-game losing streak, at a time when Wilson’s regression into a lower-tier NFL quarterback can’t be ignored. 

His performance in last week’s 19-3 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars was a low point, but it wasn’t too far off-brand, and that’s the issue. In late November in their 10-3 loss at New England, he struggled the entire game, but especially lately. He went 4-of-11 for 12 yards in the second half, a level of offensive ineptitude that’s hard to wrap your mind around. Yet, he might have hit an even lower point after the game when asked if he felt bad for letting the defense down. “No,” was his reply.

That was just one afternoon, but it’s a fair snapshot of his season. Below-average play on the field and interaction off of it has led many to wonder: “Does this guy get it?”

Fans and media alike have pounced on the idea of the Jets parting ways with last year’s No. 2 overall draft pick, and internally they have to at least kick the tires on the idea, if not wholly buy into it.

For as much as it would be admitting failure, and cutting against the grain of traditional first-round quarterback patience, I wouldn’t argue with starting over. It might be the best way for both the Jets and Wilson, and there will be suitors; I have three in mind, but more on that later.

First of all, this Jets team isn’t on the brink of greatness, but it is a legitimate wild-card team. Even mediocre QB play would have them at 9-6 instead of their current 7-8. Other areas of the team are a couple of laps ahead of its young quarterback, waiting for him to catch up, and worse, wondering if he ever will.

How long do they have to slow down and hope, just because they used the second-overall pick on him less than two years ago? Old-school wisdom would say at least a season longer, but I don’t know if it has to be the way. Teams are now more willing to trade valuable draft picks for a chance to win right now. Look at the Los Angeles Rams’ moves to get Matthew Stafford and Von Miller. I believe teams are more willing to admit mistakes with high selections, and instead of being burdened by them, just shake hands and go their separate ways.

When quarterback production and confidence lag this far behind the rest of the team, non-traditional solutions are in play. 

I also believe the general manager-head coach combo of Joe Douglas and Saleh have enough goodwill equity in the bank to make this difficult move and keep their jobs. They could take the massive “L” that comes with such a move, and survive it. But now’s the time, because the same terms would not likely apply at this time next year. 

Douglas has hit on a number of his high-profile moves, including the selections of cornerback Sauce Gardner and wide receiver Garrett Wilson in the first round of the past draft, and running back Breece Hall in the second. The Jets have a top-10 defense in most ways you can measure. And the optics are usually right there, as the team competes with high energy, plays like it wants to be there, and plays like it belongs. I see all of that as a nod to Saleh. In many ways, the Jets’ GM-HC tandem, in only their second season together, is already a strong one.

Is Wilson Salvageable?

So, if the Jets decide Wilson is no longer their quarterback, or no longer their problem, here’s the next question: Is he salvageable? 

I do see physical evidence he is fixable. It was hiding in plain daylight as recently as two weeks ago against the Lions, where he threw for more than 300 yards, and made a remarkable 20-yard pass on the game’s second-to-last play to give his team a chance at a game-tying field goal.

Check out this three-play sequence early in the second quarter of that game:

On second-and-5 from the Jets’ 27, Wilson drops back and feels pressure, breaks contain to his right, while on the run spots Garrett Wilson down the near sideline, and without breaking stride, he effortlessly flicks the ball 30 yards with pretty touch and accuracy for a big gain. 

Next play, he fakes a handoff to the right, rolls out left and sets up outside the tackle box. He throws all the way back across the field to the right to find an out-cutting C.J. Uzomah inside the 10-yard line for a touchdown. A 50-yard throw, made with ease and accuracy, on a cleverly designed play for an athletic quarterback.

First play of the next series, off play-action, Wilson sets up deep in the pocket, feels the edge rush closing in from his right, innately climbs the pocket and fires a dime to Elijah Moore on a 15-yard curl route. 

Three consecutive plays, three types of QB success:

  • Improvising from outside the pocket while on the move
  • Executing a design that relies upon athleticism and arm strength
  • Delivering on a routine call from a traditional pocket, with a hint of pocket savvy

All three were done with ease and a nice amount of style points. But bouts of inaccuracy cloud those pockets of flash. He’s in this phase where pretty execution gets overshadowed by all the missed throws. However, the talent we saw and loved at his pro day in the spring of last year does show up on Sundays at times. 

So in this big game of “what if,” I do think If he’s made available, there would be interest. Probably more skeptics than believers, but I don’t doubt there would be a taker or two – those who would want to see if his talent can flourish in a new system, with new coaches and new teammates, in their building.

Recipe for Success

So what type of situation could work for this type of rehab project? I’d look for three things a potential new team would have to have in order to better support the young QB. 

He needs an offensive-minded head coach who prides himself on QB development. One who’s not only directly involved with the game plan and the play-calling, but interacts with and coaches the quarterbacks every day. He’s invested in him over the entire season.

A veteran quarterback as its starter. Not a second or third-year player who might view Wilson as a threat, and who Wilson might see as his peer. An older, established, confident veteran who is comfortable in his place as the man and a couple of standard deviations ahead of Wilson in experience and success. One who would show Wilson, with or without actually embracing the “mentor” role, the way a pro handles the job of being an NFL starter and everything that comes with it.

He needs a competitive situation where he’d have to beat someone out for a backup job. The benefit here would be two-fold. He would earn the trust of the coaches this way, and he would earn the respect of his teammates. He will have a lot of eyeballs on him in any building he walks into, with both coaches and players thinking, “Alright, second-overall pick, what you got?”

Making him roll up his sleeves and take the blue-collar route to win a job would be the best way for him to spend the offseason and training camp. It would be a useful tool to regain confidence, both in himself and from his teammates.

So which teams meet these criteria? Here are three that make sense: 

Minnesota Vikings

Time around Kirk Cousins and Kevin O’Connell would do any young quarterback well. The backup right now is Nick Mullens, a journeyman with some respectable experience along the way, but someone Wilson could potentially overtake. Wilson’s potential versus Mullens’ experience would be a fair fight. If it clicked, who knows, maybe he could be a candidate down the road to replace Cousins, whose contract expires after next season. 

Los Angeles Rams

Baker Mayfield has played well enough in his short stint in Los Angeles to warrant plenty of interest elsewhere. He should have more attractive options in 2023 than being Matthew Stafford’s backup. It’s also worth noting one reason Sean McVay made the move for Stafford was because his raw talent is significantly better than Jared Goff’s.

Plain and simple, Stafford allowed McVay to use the whole field in his passing attack. In this way, he could view Wilson as a blank canvas, a unique talent for a backup project. Wilson would have a lot to prove, but his physical gifts and upside could make him more attractive to McVay than current backups John Wolford and Bryce Perkins

Kansas City Chiefs

There’s no long-term future here, as Patrick Mahomes’ MVP-caliber play has no end in sight. But this would be an ideal place for Wilson to learn and get well, as he’d be getting coached by the best in the business, and practicing alongside the league’s gold standard.

Here are the dots I’m connecting to this unlikely but tempting scenario: Andy Reid is attracted to high-end talent, no matter their past, at any position, and loves a quarterback project. Current backup Chad Henne is in his 15th season. If the Chiefs brought Wilson in to compete, maybe they like him enough to keep him as a No. 3 before they move on from Henne.

There’s not a great chance for Wilson to start – or play – in the near future, but there are places he could land and come out on the other side as a much better quarterback, and much more prepared to go win a starting job elsewhere.

I liked Wilson coming out of BYU, and nearly two arduous NFL seasons later, I’d like to see an upswing in his career. Whether New York is the best place for that to happen, and whether the Jets want to give him that runway, remains to be seen.

Paul Burmeister, a former starting quarterback at Iowa, is a studio host with NBC Sports and the radio voice of Notre Dame Football. For a decade he worked as a studio host at NFL Network. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulWBurmeister.

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