June 7, 2023

FLORHAM PARK, NJ — A scene was becoming increasingly familiar as the second day of Jets training camp wore on last week: quarterback Zach Wilson scrambled.

The defensive line’s pressure consistently got to the backfield — some of those pressures might have resulted in live-game sacks if the quarterback was allowed to hit in an NFL practice — 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 fired the ball downfield to receiver Corey Davis, who scooped the ball over the outstretched hands of a defender. The play was a glimpse of the ability that propelled Wilson to the No. 2 overall pick in last year’s draft.

And yet, those games 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 raved about young quarterbacks like Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, who he said were “so hard to defend” because of their ability to make plays outside the pocket and get away from defenders when under pressure.

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

Wilson proved he had that ability in college at Brigham Young University, where he rushed for 10 touchdowns to go along with his 33 pass scores in 2020. But in his first NFL season, he struggled to handle pressure and make plays on the move .

Wilson completed just 24 percent of his passes when under pressure and 30 percent while on the run, both of which ranked last among quarterbacks who started at least five games, according to NFL Next Gen statistics. So Saleh pointed to the 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 mere disarray.

“He seems a lot more comfortable doing it than he was a year ago,” Saleh said.

It took a season or two for many of the league’s top quarterbacks to develop into superstars, and the addition of skilled offensive players often helped improve their game. Allen reached the NFL’s elite in 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 2021, his second season after Cincinnati drafted college teammate Ja’Marr Chase, who was named an All-Pro as a rookie.

The Jets invested in offensive talent in the offseason, upgrading the players around Wilson to help accelerate his progress. They selected Garrett Wilson, a tight end from Ohio State, tenth overall in the NFL draft. traded up in the second round to get Iowa State’s Breece Hall back. and signed former Bengals tight end CJ Uzomah in free agency.

Since joining the Jets, Uzomah has been impressed with Wilson, having continued a July trip hosted by Wilson for the team’s tight ends, receivers and quarterbacks in North Idaho. On the first day of training camp last week, Uzomah was wearing a t-shirt which featured Wilson photoshopped into Time magazine’s Person of the Year cover.

“He’s got one hell of an arm,” Uzoma said. “He’s going to be able to make the tough shots. The point is to slow the game down.”

Even if Wilson is able to utilize his new pass-catching group, his success will rely heavily on protecting the Jets’ inconsistent offensive line and how he improves as a decision-maker. Of Wilson’s 44 sacks last season, 32 came when he had more than four seconds to throw the ball — both tops in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

Last season, the Jets were without Mekhi Becton, who was selected 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 listed at 6-foot-7, 363 pounds, has been maligned this offseason for his lack of preparation and his weight, which reportedly reached nearly 400 pounds when he arrived at mandatory minicamp in June. Saleh said Becton was training to get into “football shape”.

Still, Becton looked exhausted in the first few days of camp as he worked a limited amount of snaps and defensive ends fell short in many of his reps on the field. But, if Becton can return to prime form, when NFL executives ranked him as the sixth best tackle in the leaguewilson should be standing a lot more than he was last season.

“I think Zach is going to be a lot better,” Saleh said, noting the addition of Becton and others to the offense. “It’s a young team, but what’s going to be fun is watching this gel together.”

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