New York Jets' QB decision: 'Holy cow' throws and the nonexistent debate

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- For months, Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields were perceived as the top two quarterback prospects in the 2021 NFL draft (April 29-May 1, on ESPN and the ESPN app). The New York Jets were trending toward Lawrence until they won a game -- and another -- putting themselves in position to draft 2021's QB2.

Barring a major upset, the No. 2 pick by the Jets won't be Fields.

At some point during the pre-draft process, New York general manager Joe Douglas fell hard for Zach Wilson. He's not alone. The scouting community has plenty of love for the former BYU star, but there are those who still rate Fields higher than Wilson.

This is the great thing about talent evaluation: Beauty is in the eye of the team holding the draft card.

There hasn't been much Wilson-Fields debate with regard to the No. 2 overall pick because of the widespread belief the Jets are locked into Wilson, but that doesn't mean it's not worth examining. You can bet it will become a hot-button issue if Fields somehow winds up with the New England Patriots.

Fields is a rare NFL prospect. Not only does he have a strong and accurate arm, but he's built like a linebacker (6-foot-3, 227) and runs like a wide receiver (4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash). At Ohio State, he performed against the best competition on the biggest stages.

And yet the Jets apparently prefer Wilson, which tells us they believe his upside is off the charts.

"I would take Zach Wilson," former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said. "He had the most throws on tape this year that made me go, 'Holy cow!' He's got some throws like, man, you just can't teach that. He's got uncoachable traits.

"He's got that FOMO [fear of missing out] style. Patrick [Mahomes] has that. Russell [Wilson] has that. They feel they can make any throw on the field, and they're capable of making any throw on the field. They're looking for it, like, 'I might be able to launch this ball 400 yards downfield.'"

There's a split among the industry's top draft analysts. Todd McShay (ESPN), Daniel Jeremiah (NFL Network) and Dane Brugler (The Athletic) rate Wilson over Fields. Mel Kiper Jr. (ESPN) and Matt Miller (ESPN) have it the other way. ESPN polled two scouts and an offensive coach from three different teams; it was two votes for Wilson, one for Fields.

"If I'm going to bet on upside, I want the biggest guy who has the strongest arm and who is the best athlete who has never lost a game in the Big Ten and has played against Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame," Miller said. "I'd rather have the battle-tested, two-year starter coming out of the Big Ten, who has the best arm in this draft class and is arguably the most well-rounded athlete -- over Zach Wilson, who is [6-foot-2, 210 pounds] and has had surgery on his throwing arm, broke his throwing hand and had one year of good production against really bad teams."

Everyone agrees both quarterbacks would be good fits in the Jets' new system, which is modeled after Kyle Shanahan's version of the West Coast offense. The San Francisco 49ers emphasize pre-snap motion, play-action and a moving pocket. First-time offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, who worked under Shanahan, is planning to install those concepts in the Jets' attack.

In college, Wilson and Fields posted big numbers on play-action and outside-the-pocket throws. What the Jets like about Wilson, sources said, is his ability to improvise and make second-reaction plays, displaying rare instincts for the position.

"Zach plays with a little more urgency than Justin, just in terms of how quick his hands are, how quick the ball gets out, how quick he'll make decisions when he has to," Jeremiah said.

"He fits in beautifully into that system," he added. "Justin and Trey [Lance] would add a little twist to that offense. I think what Zach can do is going to be pretty remarkable because he was built to play in this system, with the stretch boot and all that stuff. [He has] some of the quickest hands I've seen from a quarterback prospect. When the ball separates from his left hand, just look at the time between when it separates from his left hand and the ball is out. It's pretty impressive."

College statistics should be taken with a grain of salt, especially in a season that was affected in many ways by the coronavirus pandemic, but Wilson rates an edge over Fields in situational passing categories -- red zone, third down, fourth quarter/overtime, versus the blitz and under pressure.

There was a huge disparity in the latter category. Neither quarterback faced a ton of pressure in the pocket in 2020, but Wilson posted a 46.9 QBR -- fourth among 125 qualified passers in the FBS. Fields' QBR was only 14.6, which ranked 40th. He had the tendency to hold the ball too long, taking 21 sacks on 85 dropbacks under pressure, per ESPN Stats & Information research. Wilson had only 11 in 83 dropbacks, in part because of a quick release.

Orlovsky said his primary concern with Wilson is that his 2020 season was relatively stress-free. As he put it, "His job of playing quarterback was the easiest of the Big Five last year," including Alabama's Mac Jones and North Dakota State's Lance in that group.

Wilson, surrounded by a strong supporting cast, went 11-1 against a soft schedule that had no Power 5 opponents. He had only two close games, including a 22-17 loss to Coastal Carolina. With time to throw and open wide receivers, it looked like pitch-and-catch at times. How easy was it? He never had four incomplete passes in a row.

"He's got some Baker Mayfield to him in terms of skill set, play style and size," a scout from an AFC team said of the comparison of Wilson to the Cleveland Browns quarterback. "He has some street-ball instincts and improv ability."

A scout from a different AFC team said, "[Wilson] does some freaky stuff, but I'd trust Justin a little more to last longer. You can't question his toughness and durability."

But, it looks like the Jets have made their decision.