FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- If at first you don't succeed ...
... Keep drafting quarterbacks until you find another Joe Namath.
The New York Jets, who have drafted 12 quarterbacks since 2000 (tied with the Denver Broncos for an NFL high) and a total of 22 since Namath left town 45 years ago, are poised to do it again in the 2021 NFL draft on April 29. The likely choice is BYU's Zach Wilson, whose meteoric rise has enraptured Jets general manager Joe Douglas and the rest of the league.
A year ago, Wilson was coming off a disappointing sophomore season that resulted in him having to win a three-way competition for the 2020 starting job. Thirty-three touchdown passes and three interceptions later, he's the odds-on favorite to be chosen No. 2 overall. To call this an enormous decision for the Jets would be like saying Namath liked to wear fur coats.
Now that the pro days for the top quarterbacks are over, the team's brass can mull this franchise-altering decision. Here's a closer look at Wilson, examining the positives and negatives:
Arm talent: Wow
Wilson scores big in all the passing metrics, but sometimes numbers don't tell the entire story. Sometimes you just have to be there, watching him throw in person to appreciate what his right arm can do. ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller attended Wilson's pro day last Friday in Provo, Utah, and the thing that struck him was the "effortlessness" with which Wilson threw the football.
"The ball just pops out of his hand," Miller said on ESPN's "Flight Deck" podcast. "He's not gritting and grunting. You don't hear that oomph you get from a lot of quarterbacks. It's easy for him to throw the ball that hard. I think that's what's really exciting because he is young; he's still going to fill out. He's going to get stronger, so the ability to throw with so much velocity and great distance -- and the fact that he's not having to dial up a lot to do that -- that's impressive."
In his workout for scouts, Wilson made a ridiculous, off-balance throw that traveled 50 yards in the air. He rolled to the left hashmark and, in one motion, flicked a perfectly thrown pass toward the opposite hash. You can't teach that. That might explain why he completed 62% last season on throws of 20-plus air yards, the highest of any FBS quarterback since the stat started being tracked in 2011.
Soft schedule: Can't be ignored
BYU is an independent football school that was forced to juggle its schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, Wilson "put together one great season -- one great season against cupcakes," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. "I said all year, the sugar level has to be through the roof because he's playing so many cupcakes."
Wilson faced no Power 5 opponents in 2020 and two ranked teams, Boise State (21) and Coastal Carolina (14). When talent evaluators study quarterbacks, they like to see how they fare against elite talent -- i.e. a cornerback with NFL-level closing speed. Wilson faced three defenders who are ranked in ESPN's top 200 draft prospects, none of whom are considered first- or second-round talents. Some of the BYU games looked like 7-on-7 passing drills, with Wilson routinely picking apart overmatched defenses in vanilla coverages.
In his career, Wilson went 3-4 with nine touchdown passes and five interceptions against Power-5 and ranked opponents. In his other starts, he was 16-5, with a 46-10 touchdown/interception ratio.
Intangibles: Better than advertised
The recent hullabaloo over Wilson's captaincy -- he was named by the coach, not voted by teammates -- drew attention to his leadership skills. Is this a real-life Bo Callahan, the fictional quarterback in the movie "Draft Day," whose teammates didn't show up for his birthday party?
Those close to the situation believe it's being overblown, noting Wilson was in the midst of a quarterback competition when the team voted for its captains. He was named to the leadership council before getting bumped up to captain at the start of last season, replacing an injured teammate.
"He loves football, he's committed to football and he works hard at football," said ex-NFL player and former ESPN analyst Merrill Hoge, whose son, Beau, attended BYU and lived with Wilson for two years. "People have said he's arrogant. I could see how he might come off as arrogant, but it's never disrespectful. He's confident. I want a guy with a little attitude leading my huddle."
Hoge studied Wilson's high school tape and met him for the first time as a BYU freshman. His first thought upon watching him throw: "Holy cow, I can't believe this kid wasn't recruited more."
Wilson wasn't a five-star recruit; he came up the hard way. Despite a comfortable upbringing -- his uncle is a founder of JetBlue Airlines -- he showed the ability to overcome adversity. He had surgery on his throwing shoulder before the 2019 season, required surgery to repair a fractured right hand midway through the year and fought to retain his job.
"What separates me is just my passion for the game," Wilson said after his pro day. "I really put a lot of time into what I do. Throughout all the years, I've really dedicated my life to football. It's crazy. People ask me what I do outside of football, and football is really my life. It's all I’ve got going on."
You need commitment and mental toughness to survive in the NFL, especially in New York.
The clutch gene: Does he have it?
If Wilson is drafted by the Jets, he will be in a market that worships athletes who deliver in crunch time -- Eli Manning, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, et al. Wilson hasn't fared well in this area.
In 2019, his fourth-quarter struggles were pronounced -- six interceptions and no touchdown passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He made critical, fourth-quarter mistakes in four losses, including a killer interception against Toledo with 1:09 remaining that set up the game-losing touchdown. (To be fair, he also engineered come-from-behind overtime wins against Tennessee and USC.)
In 2018, he had a late interception and a game-ending sack in losses to Northern Illinois and Boise State, respectively. That was his freshman season, so he is entitled to some slack. In 2020, BYU was tested in only one game, a five-point loss to Coastal Carolina.
The best quarterbacks have innate ability to thrive in pressure situations. Wilson's 2019 tape leaves a lot to be desired, but "he has become much more accurate than his underclassman film," said former NFL coach June Jones, who has studied the top prospects. "He threw the ball really well [in 2020]."
Durability: Focus on shoulder
The labrum in Wilson's right shoulder was repaired during the 2019 offseason. At the time, Wilson said it had been bothering him since high school. One theory is it was the result of overthrowing. Because he wasn't highly recruited, Wilson felt compelled to accept as many throwing auditions as possible. He said the shoulder is fine. The league's medical check (April 8-10 in Indianapolis) will be critical.
Also, he's slightly undersized at 6-foot-2, 214 pounds, which might concern some pro teams.
Tannenbaum says Zach Wilson has higher ceiling than Sam Darnold
Mike Tannenbaum explains why Zach Wilson is the better choice at quarterback for the Jets over Sam Darnold.
Can he handle New York?
Wilson grew up in Draper, Utah (pop. 45,000) and played college ball in a small market, so it's hard to project how he will respond to the crucible of a big city. The pressure will be enormous, especially if he has to play immediately. He would be the franchise's highest-drafted quarterback since Namath (1965), one spot ahead of Sam Darnold (No. 3 overall in 2018), who went from Golden Boy to (On the) Bubble Boy. The Jets fan base, desperate for a franchise quarterback, is notoriously impatient.
"They should draft a quarterback. I'm not ready to say Zach Wilson is that guy," Miller said. "A lot of it goes back to 'OK, do we feel like in that market he can handle it?' Because there's no one there to groom you. You're not sitting behind Alex Smith like Patrick Mahomes did. You're not sitting behind Ryan Fitzpatrick. You're the guy when you're drafted No. 2 overall, and there's a lot of pressure that comes with that. That's the thing to figure out right now."
Hoge, who has spent a lot of time with Wilson, believes he can thrive in New York. The one concern, he said, is unrealistic expectations.
"The most dangerous word with the draft is 'expectations,'" Hoge said. "Everybody is comparing him to Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. People are going to expect Patrick Mahomes results. [The Jets] aren't built like Kansas City. That's the only danger."