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The Thread: Why Zach Wilson is exactly what the New York Jets need
That's right. This one-of-a-kind BYU quarterback will end 50 years of misery at the position in New York. We talk to the coach who knows Wilson best in this week's edition of The Thread.
The New York Jets desperately need a quarterback and, no exaggeration, that’s been the case for exactly 50 years.
A torn bicep. A butt fumble. IK Enemkpali socking one QB in the jaw. Mononucleosis. What hasn’t a Jet quarterback endured? Honestly, just scan this sad all-time passing list. Nobody will blame you for fully expecting whoever the Jets could possibly take No. 2 overall in any draft being a bust.
There are cursed positions and, then, there’s playing quarterback for the Jets.
This is a dangerous opinion to own, but let’s do it.
Zach Wilson will succeed as a New York Jet. Zach Wilson is just what this franchise needs to exorcise those 50 years of demons.
Barring something drastic, the BYU wunderkind will be New York’s selection at No. 2 ahead of Justin Fields, Trey Lance and Mac Jones and this preference — for better or worse — will define the franchise for years. While a good chunk of the country didn’t catch Wilson’s stunning 2020 season out on the west coast, there were countless signs that he is exactly what you need in today’s game — a supremely athletic, supremely strong-armed quarterback who plays freely, who kills defenses when the pocket breaks down.
I get it. Wilson wasn’t exactly facing the SEC week-in and week-out. Still, this 43-touchdown, three-pick season was no fluke. The stunts Wilson pulled off with regularity were special and special is what the Jets need if they’ve got any hope of hanging with Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills the next decade.
The coach who knows Wilson best sure will make you believe. A conversation with Aaron Roderick, BYU’s offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, is different than the boilerplate bloviating you’ll typically get from assistants looking to boost their player’s draft stock.
Roderick doesn’t play hype man and shower Wilson with weightless superlatives.
Rather, he cites specific examples of this special inside of Wilson.
Roderick knows Jets fans have been duped before, admitting this is always a “50-50 deal.” But he also knows what they’re getting in his quarterback.
“He is 24/7 all ball, all the time,” Roderick says. “He made me a better coach because I was scared every day of showing up to work and ever being in a position where he knew more than I did about the opponent or the gameplan. He really pushed me to be a better coach, to be prepared. He’s not OK with me just saying ‘good job.’ He wants to know, ‘OK, if it’s good, why is it good?’ and ‘What could be better about it?’ He wants feedback on every single thing he does and he attacks every little drill. I don’t want to compare him to Peyton Manning as a player but he has that type of mentality. I’ve heard Peyton Manning talk about that before, where every little thing matters.
“Zach loves it. He has a thirst for the game. He’s always, always watching film. He’s always doing something. He’s not interested in anything that doesn’t make him a better football player.”
Start with the aesthetics, what everybody can see in high supply via highlight reel. It’s mesmerizing. You’re left wanting more. Roderick calls Wilson a “super athlete,” whose athleticism will undoubtedly stand out in a league full of athletes. The 6-foot-2, 214-pounder routinely threw the ball at wacky arm angles and body positions. Throwing on the move? Second nature.
And Roderick knows everything that truly went into that 73.5 completion percentage and 11 yards per pass attempt last season.
The pressure of being a BYU quarterback, he begins, is much higher than anyone realizes. Is it playing quarterback in New York? No. But he knows Wilson is not going to be fazed by that cloud hanging over the position or anything ever typed in all caps on the back of tabloids. The BYU fan base is beyond rabid. Roderick has been at the school as a player and coach himself since 1996 and supplies the quick history lesson. From Jim McMahon… to Steve Young… to Robbie Bosco… to Ty Detmer… to Steve Sarkisian… to John Beck… to Max Hall… to Taysom Hill, the expectation has always been crystal clear and, yes, a bit delusional.
Whenever a quarterback starts to struggle, just a bit, locals want that quarterback off the field. Benched. He recalls fans booing Hill and is blunt: There isn’t much patience in Provo. Fans want you to play great “from the start.”
Wilson can handle a tough crowd.
“The reason I believe most in him,” Roderick says, “is what he’s made of. The guy’s a really fierce competitor. He’s unfazed by anything.”
Especially after that rocky 2019 season. As most know, Wilson had offseason shoulder surgery that lingered right into the season.
Thinking back, Roderick says the quarterback was “barely” able to start the season opener. The week of the game, Roderick told Wilson that he absolutely could sit the season out, redshirt and get himself right because he had a future NFL career to consider. There was no doubt, though — Wilson would play. He struggled vs. Utah, was exceptional vs. Tennessee and then broke his hand. A door opened for freshman Baylor Romney and Romney took advantage with an upset win over No. 14 Boise State.
Wilson returned to start the final four games, but Roderick opened up a competition into 2020.
He told Wilson he’d need to earn his spot back.
“And there was zero entitlement from him,” Roderick says. “Even though he had been a two-year starter. He said, ‘Let’s go.’ And he practiced every day. And he made his statement in practice. No. 1, when he played injured, our players gained a lot of respect for him. They all knew he could’ve tapped out, got himself healthy and thought about himself. He was willing to play injured. He had very little dexterity in his hand after his surgery, got pins out of it and played a week later. The shoulder still wasn’t right. But he played in those games. I think our players gained a lot of respect for him for that.
“He could’ve said, ‘Screw you. I’m transferring. I can go start at this Pac-12 school. They’ll take me right now.’ He could’ve gone in the portal and would’ve been scooped up in five minutes. But he didn’t do that.”
Every practice, Wilson “made a statement” and, in 2020, he was phenomenal.
Of course, past college quarterbacks have dazzled with their creativity. We’ve seen others dart left, dart right, spin, stiff-arm and swing their torsos around to sling impossible throws at impossible angles. But this is where Roderick draws an important distinction and can really make you believe.
There’s always purpose to Wilson’s Holy $%&#! throws.
Is he athletic? Yes. Does he improvise? Absolutely.
“But he’s not a Johnny Manziel,” Roderick says. “When I watched him play, a lot of what he was doing was running around like a chicken with his head cut off. And he would just find a way to make a play. Zach makes plays within the scheme. So, if the play is executed the way it’s supposed to, he’ll take his drop, hit his back foot and throw the completion. He keeps the game simple. And then the next play, everything’s just about right, but there’s the giant arm of a 6-7 defensive end in the window he wants to throw and so he just drops his arm angle, steps to his right a little bit and throws it sidearm under the guy’s arm.
“Then — when you need it — he can make the spectacular play. He can take off and run. He can do some things that are ‘wow’ things. But I think the people who have really watched him and studied his game know he’s not reckless.”
Roderick, like many of us, loved watching Johnny Football at Texas A&M. How could you not? He became appointment viewing. But scouts everywhere are quick to point out that much of Manziel’s success was the result of sprinting all over the place and chucking the ball up to Mike Evans without much of a plan.
Pair this style with a terrible work ethic and, well, you get a terrible pro career.
This is not the case with Wilson.
Roderick first points to one throw vs. Texas State last season. Granted, this is Texas State. Not ‘Bama. But right here is what the greats do in the NFL.
The week leading up to the 52-14 win, Wilson noticed on film that Texas State played a Tampa 2 coverage in the two-minute drill. And whenever an opposing quarterback rolled one direction, the backside safety would not keep his width — he’d flow with the quarterback, he’d vacate, he’d give a QB a chance to throw across his body. Wilson explained this all to Roderick and Roderick blared the siren.
“No. No. No. You can’t. That’s not a good idea,” Roderick told him.
“Coach, watch this,” he said, calmly.
Wilson showed him the proof on film and Roderick essentially told his QB not to go looking for this play but if it happens, it happens. He’d understand Wilson’s logic. Sure enough, Texas State gave Wilson this look at the end of the first half, Wilson rolled right, pumped, bought a split-second of time — knowing he was about to get hit — and threw deep left for a 45-yard touchdown with 27 seconds left.
“I’m not a geometry guy,” Roderick says. “The ball probably traveled 65-70 yards across the field to the far third of the field.
“It looked like a Johnny Manziel play but he had literally told me about that two days before in our meeting room. And he came into the meeting already knowing it was there. He was excited to tell me about it. It wasn’t like I saw it and we discovered it together. He had already seen it and said, ‘Coach, this is going to happen and I can do this.’ And then he did it in the game. He did things like that every game.”
He could go on for days.
Against Houston, Wilson once knew he could burn a backup cornerback for a touchdown on the first play of the game with a specific throw. And he did. He hit Dax Milne on a “dime” of a 78-yard touchdown that, Roderick repeats, was 100 percent Wilson’s own play call. The QB is only 21 but has a seasoned football IQ.
He’ll need help in New York. Every QB does. Sam Darnold was set up to fail in every conceivable way.
Nobody will be surprised one bit if Darnold resembles a totally different player in Carolina, given the night-to-day changes around him. Back in New York, things are changing, too. New OC Mike LaFleur may in fact have the best offensive scheme “in the world” as head coach Robert Saleh put it. These X’s and O’s will surely maximize Wilson’s gifts and Wilson’s brain. (Side note: The Jets have sent plenty of personnel to Provo but Roderick did say he has not spoken with LaFleur. Never say never on draft day, I suppose.)
There’s a lot more talent around the quarterback position already in New York, too. Corey Davis is fresh off a career year in Tennessee, Keelan Cole was a dynamic playmaker stuck in an offensive wasteland in Jacksonville and the Jets will surely be counting on 2020 second-rounder Denzel Mims taking a huge step in Year 2.
In the second round of this year’s draft, No. 34 overall, the Jets will have a good shot at landing a new starting running back, too.
By all accounts, GM Joe Douglas knows what he’s doing. His reputation leaguewide is strong.
In Wilson, the Jets can sell hope that’s real.
In Wilson, the Jets get a “football junkie,” Roderick says, who’s downright “brilliant.” Wilson is constantly talking to as many quarterbacks as he possibly can to add winkles to this ever-evolving game. When he took a playful jab at Aaron Rodgers’ lack of swagger, Rodgers called him right up on FaceTime. Quickly, Wilson started peppering him with questions to learn more. Now? He’s getting compared to Rodgers by longtime coach Jim Mora. And throughout the 2020 season, Wilson stayed in regular contact with his new nemesis in the AFC East: Allen.
The two quarterbacks hit it off as small-school guys who were overlooked out of high school.
It wasn’t just one phone call. Roderick remembers them speaking several times.
Both the Bills and Jets certainly hope Allen and Wilson can build a rivalry that lasts for a decade-plus.
No quarterback — ever — is completely a safe bet. There are far too many variables. Allen has been living many of those variables himself and there’s a reason Wilson has also been talking to as many ex-Jet quarterbacks as possible, too. Those stories may not be as pleasant.
But it’s OK, Jets fans.
It’s OK to believe once more.
Wilson will be the QB for a long time.
Two teams in fantastic positions this NFL draft? Two other teams that have mostly been mired in misery these last two decades: Buffalo and Cleveland. I don’t think any other two teams in the AFC are better positioned to challenge Kansas City. For once, neither franchise needed to recklessly spend this offseason. And neither needs to make a blockbuster trade on draft day to shake things up.
This draft marks the 10-year anniversary of one trade (universally praised at the time) that completely backfired on the Browns.
Three years after this, the Browns drafted Justin Gilbert eighth overall and Manziel 22nd overall. Two years after that, the Browns traded out of the second overall pick to select Corey Coleman 15th overall.
Suffice to say, the analytics approach didn’t work for a while in Cleveland. You can gobble up all the picks in the world and it doesn’t matter if you draft poorly. Now with Andrew Berry in charge, there’s a better sense of order.
We’ve covered Buffalo’s past problems in this space but I’m not sure anything sums The Drought up better than former Bills scout Marc Ross recalling the time Ralph Wilson ordered the selection of Dwayne Wright in the fourth-round of the 2007 draft. Something that can seem so, so small really says a hell of a lot.
When you don’t have a stable front office with one clear voice at the top making decisions, this is what happens:
Ross had many fascinating stories to share on the full episode of that podcast which can be heard here.
The good news for both Cleveland and Buffalo, long term, is that it appears both franchises have smart decision-makers in charge with a clear vision. So much still depends on the continued development of Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield but the Bills and Browns have to be feeling good into this 2021 draft. There is calm.
In the past, things turned sideways fast on draft day.
Which brings us to…
Tonight’s Zoom Happy Hour
Cannot wait for tonight’s hangout with former Buffalo Bills GM Doug Whaley. He’ll be joining us a bit earlier — right at 5 p.m. (EST) — to share old draft stories (good and bad) and answer any ‘n all questions you have. Whaley first arrived in Buffalo as the assistant GM in 2010, was elevated to GM in May of 2013 and then was let go after the 2017 draft.
Prior to Buffalo, Whaley spent 10 years in the Steelers’ front office.
Whaley also joins the Go Long Podcast from time to time. Here he is in our debut episode reliving his old boss’ love for Patrick Mahomes and the day he was fired. Speaking of the podcast, my co-host Jim Monos (and Whaley’s former right-hand man) will also be on the Happy Hour tonight.
Here’s the log-in information for tonight’s Zoom:
Time: April 23 at 5 p.m. (EST)
Link: CLICK HERE
Meeting ID: 846 6881 7708
One tap mobile
+19292056099,,84668817708#,,,,*252061# US (New York)
+13017158592,,84668817708#,,,,*252061# US (Washington DC)
We’ve got big plans for the 2021 NFL Draft, from an in-person hangout at Hamburg Brewing (first beer is on me) to three straight nights of Happy Hours featuring several special guests from around the country: draft prospects to NFL beat writers to University at Buffalo head coach Lance Leipold.
All details are right here if you missed the newsletter this morn. I’ll be sharing those Zoom links with you as we get closer.
Miss any of our pre-draft coverage? Here’s some linkage: