April 12, 2022

Zach Wilson Primed for Breakout Year Following Jets' Impressive Offseason

The New York Jets have been known to take massive swings in free agency and the trade market. With the selection of Zach Wilson with the second overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the importance of continuing to take big swings to fill out the team around Wilson became even more evident. 

They went for a big offseason swing on Tyreek Hill last week. They missed.

What's worse is, they lost out to a division rival as Hill was shipped from the Kansas City Chiefs to the Miami Dolphins. It would be easy for Jets fans to be down bad after that series of events, and expect a season in which they are the bottom-dwellers of the AFC East (again). 

While the Jets likely do still have the worst roster in the division, such gloomy prognostications would be premature, with New York undoubtedly in a better position after a strong free agency. The Jets spent a lot of money this offseason, and though that is far from a guarantee of progress on the field, the additions they made were astute that should improve the team on both sides of the ball.

Indeed, it is tough to look at the Jets roster and not conclude that it is stronger than it was last month.

Robert Saleh's team is in a much better position to contend in 2022 and their hopes of competing with the Dolphins and the New England Patriots for the second spot in a division, of which the Buffalo Bills are comfortably the class, rest on the development of Wilson, who will soon be running out of excuses if he does not impress having been set up for success next season.

Wilson was not good by any stretch last season. The BYU product dubbed the "Mormon Mahomes" completed just 55.6% of his passes and threw nine touchdowns to 11 interceptions.

He ranked last of the 31 qualifying quarterbacks in Ben Baldwin's Expected Points Added and Completion Percentage Over Expectation (EPA + CPOE) composite metric and was 34th of 34 qualifiers in Football Outsiders Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) and Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement.

In other words, he was the quarterback with the least value per play (DVOA) and total value (DYAR). Yet, playing behind an offensive line that ranked 28th in Football Outsiders Adjusted Sack Rate and without injured left tackle Mekhi Becton, Wilson was hardly in an advantageous situation.

The Jets took a big step toward improving his protection with the signing of guard Laken Tomlinson. Coming over from the San Francisco 49ers offense, Tomlinson will have no problem slotting into Kyle Shanahan's disciple Mike LaFleur's attack and brings durability to the trenches. Tomlinson started 80 consecutive regular-season games for San Francisco, and that level of consistency will be a welcome addition to a bad Jets' offensive line.

Wilson was also given two security blankets at tight end in the form of C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin. Uzomah, who ranked in the top 10 tight ends by DYAR, had five touchdown receptions for the Cincinnati Bengals last season while Conklin hauled in three for the Minnesota Vikings. Just two Jets receivers caught more than two touchdowns last year (Elijah Moore, Corey Davis).

In addition to having more reliability upfront and more pass-catching weapons, Wilson should also be supported by a more talented defense.

The Jets lost Marcus Maye in free agency after a 2021 season in which the safety played just six games, but their secondary looks stronger after they added a pair of ascending young players to the defensive backfield. New York brought in Jordan Whitehead from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, giving the Jets a player who can operate in both the free and strong safety roles and has excelled at making the plays on the ball during his time in the league.

Whitehead has had 25 pass breakups and five interceptions since entering the NFL in 2018 and has shown his impact in making plays behind the line of scrimmage. His 18 tackles for loss since 2019 are fourth among all safeties in that span.

Meanwhile, newly signed D.J. Reed has blossomed into an excellent starting cornerback with inside-out versatility. His completion percentage allowed of 47.7 percent was the best among corners targeted at least 50 times last year, per Pro Football Reference.

The only way is up for a Jets defense that ranked last in weighted DVOA last season and the arrivals of Whitehead and Reed, along with the return of pass rusher Carl Lawson after his first season with the team was lost to injury, should facilitate strides on that side of the ball.

There are still moves the Jets need to make in the draft if they are to narrow the gap with their division foes.

Notre Dame's Kyle Hamilton would seem to be a natural fit at free safety to pair with Whitehead while the Jets also have the 10th and 38th selections with which to potentially add to their receiving corps and give Wilson more weaponry. 

Ohio State's Chris Olave, with his mix of speed and route-running ability, could be a target who offers the kind of big-play threat the Jets need. Although, it's unlikely he'll make it to the second round. 

They are not just limited to Olave, however, as this draft is loaded with top-tier receiving prospects, including Olave's teammate, Garrett Wilson

Regardless of who the Jets pick in the draft, Wilson will go into the 2022 season with a roster much better suited to helping him reproduce his spectacular performances at BYU at the pro level. Fail to make the desired progress after this offseason, and questions about Wilson's suitability as a franchise quarterback and this regime's ability to develop him will increase.

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration