New York Jets newcomers excited about Zach Wilson's 'incredible' talent

While Zach Wilson struggled during his rookie season, the quarterback showed enough to impress some of his new teammates. Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Jordan Whitehead remembers the play with vivid detail. He was in deep-middle coverage, his eyes fixed on New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson. Whitehead had two receivers to his left, Braxton Berrios on a "dig" (an in-breaking route) and Keelan Cole to the outside on a post pattern. This, he figured, was an easy read.

Whitehead jumped the dig, assuming cornerback Pierre Desir was in position to defend the post and knowing his linebackers were obstructing the young passer's vision to Cole. Yeah, this ball was coming to Berrios and Whitehead was going to ruin Wilson's day with an interception.

Except it didn't happen that way. Wilson delivered one of the best passes of his rookie season, a 21-yard laser to Cole on the 1-yard line to set up a touchdown in the Jets' eventual Week 17 loss to the then-defending Super Bowl champs. Whitehead was clearly frustrated at the end of the play. He got got.

"He threw that ball over the top of two linebackers and between me and the corner," Whitehead said last week after signing a free-agent contract with the Jets. "That had a lot of arm accuracy and arm strength, just trusting his ability to squeeze that ball in there. That just shows the type of quarterback he is."

Whitehead, who went from the GOAT (Tom Brady) to a kid, is counting on Wilson to make a massive jump after an underwhelming rookie year. So are the other members of the Jets' free-agent class. They have seen glimpses of his potential, as Whitehead witnessed firsthand last Jan. 2. And, of course, they know his draft pedigree (second overall in 2021). Hence, the optimism.

"He's a great talent," said tight end C.J. Uzomah, formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals. "He was a rookie last year. He's going to make huge strides this year.

"I'm hoping I can be a crutch for him if he wants anything, if he needs anything. Hopefully, I can be a security blanket for him on the field as well. I think he's an incredible talent and he's just going to grow."

Uzomah left an outstanding young quarterback in Cincinnati, Joe Burrow, who led the team to an AFC championship. Fellow tight-end signee Tyler Conklin came from the Minnesota Vikings, where he had an established, if not stellar passer in Kirk Cousins.

Let's not be naive about free agency: In most cases, players take the biggest offer. In rare situations -- i.e. Brady with the Bucs -- they go because of the quarterback. Wilson isn't close to that status, but at least there's quarterback certainty with the Jets, not to mention a real chance for growth.

"[When he was] coming out of college, I really liked Zach," Conklin said. "Coming into free agency, one of the things I wanted was to be with a young quarterback, especially him with his arm talent, his mobility and all things I've heard about him from players and coaches about how he approaches the game. It sounded like a perfect fit.

"I'm excited to help him in wherever he needs to grow, whether it's to help him in the locker room or help him on the field or being that safety blanket," Conklin continued. "I'm excited to be part of his growth."

Conklin and Uzomah can definitely help Wilson on the field. Wilson completed 35 passes to tight ends last season, tied for the league low among qualified passers, according to Next Gen Stats. (Some might find it interesting that he tied with his predecessor, the Carolina Panthers' Sam Darnold.) To be fair, Wilson didn't have game-breaking targets in Ryan Griffin and Tyler Kroft.

Uzomah and Conklin aren't big-play threats, either, but at least they're proven pass-catchers -- a combined 110 receptions for 1,086 yards and eight touchdowns in 2021. They will add more balance to the passing game, which leaned heavily on the wide receivers.

You know what they say about a reliable tight end: He's a young quarterback's best friend, providing an over-the-middle threat. Sometimes football is like geometry. It's a shorter throw to the middle than the sideline, so the percentages should be higher. Wilson really struggled over the middle, with two two touchdowns, five interceptions and a league-low 68.0 passer rating, per NFL Next Gen Stats.

"It's a great offense for a tight end," Conklin said.

Wilson hit a few big passes to his tight ends in that 28-24 loss to the Bucs, his best all-around game as a rookie. Whitehead was impressed by the Jets, who let it slip away in the final minute. He liked their fight and their quarterback's potential.

"You could see he had that arm," Whitehead said. "He can throw the ball. Then you add in that he can run the ball. I was in the red zone and ..."

You already know what happened. Wilson to Cole for 21.