Earlier this month, CBS analyst Tony Romo was asked on a media call to assess Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson. Romo didn’t hold back.
“I think Zach Wilson is going to be in the discussion as one of the top three to five quarterbacks very quickly,” Romo said of the No. 2 overall pick from BYU. “Within the next couple of years, I think you’re going to see him rise. I think he’s unbelievable. His ceiling is so high.
“It’s rare for me to say someone has the ability to get in the stratosphere of a [Patrick] Mahomes, but I think this kid actually has that ability.”
OK, Tony. How many times have we heard that before, from Mark Sanchez to Geno Smith to Sam Darnold? Wake me up when a Jets quarterback actually develops into a legitimate NFL starter.
But when you watch film of Wilson’s NFL debut, a 19-14 Jets loss to the Panthers last Sunday, you understand why Romo has such passionate belief in the 22-year-old quarterback.
Wilson, who faces the Patriots this Sunday in his MetLife Stadium debut, undeniably has incredible raw talent.
What he lacks in size (he’s listed at 6 feet 2 inches, 214 pounds), he more than makes up for in arm strength and athleticism. Wilson threw for 258 yards and two touchdowns with one interception against the Panthers, and he displayed some impressive traits — an ability to evade pass rushers, like Kyler Murray, and an ability to fire lasers on the run, like Mahomes.
Wilson had some outstanding passes, including perhaps the best throw in the entire NFL for Week 1 — a 40-yard frozen rope, on the run, to Denzel Mims down the left sideline, while taking a huge shot to the ribs.
Wilson definitely can zip it into tight windows, and he is at his most dangerous when scrambling and throwing on the run, schoolyard style. He forces cornerbacks to cover their receivers for an inordinately long amount of time.
After a rough first half, Wilson threw for two touchdowns and completed five passes of more than 20 yards in the second half, including a 22-yard touchdown to Corey Davis.
“When you have a guy like that, you sense his moxie,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said. “He’s only going to get better and better and better.”
The problem is, Wilson plays for the Jets, who are starting over from scratch for the third time since 2015. The Jets have a first-time head coach (Robert Saleh) and offensive coordinator (Mike LaFleur), and have the youngest roster in the NFL. Against the Panthers, they played like it.
Jets offensive line coach John Benton, a veteran of 18 NFL seasons, may want to return last week’s paycheck after his unit’s performance Sunday. The Panthers so thoroughly confused the Jets with zone blitzes that I stopped counting unblocked rushers about midway through the second quarter. Every play, it seemed, was wrecked by an unblocked Panther.
On 43 dropbacks, Wilson was sacked six times, hit 10 times, and pressured 11 times. The 27 combined pressures (62.8 percent of his dropbacks) were the most in the NFL in Week 1.
After the sixth sack, late in the fourth quarter, Wilson stayed down for an extra beat after having the wind knocked out of him.
“I feel like I got hit by a truck for a second,” Wilson said.
Wilson also didn’t have much of a chance thanks to LaFleur, the brother of Packers head coach Matt LaFleur. Mike LaFleur came from the 49ers with Saleh and is trying to implement Kyle Shanahan’s run-heavy offense, but he did a horrible job of getting Wilson in a rhythm against the Panthers.
Wilson started the game 2 for 10 for 43 yards with an interception, as the Jets trailed, 16-0, at halftime. A lot of that probably can be pinned on LaFleur for not putting the ball in Wilson’s hands enough. The Jets finished the game with 45 rushing yards on 17 carries, yet LaFleur was stubborn about calling runs on first down.
LaFleur called a run on his first seven first downs, and they resulted in just 12 yards on five carries, plus a holding penalty on the Jets and a defensive penalty. Not until the eighth first down, with 9:43 left in the second quarter, did LaFleur finally call a pass.
Wilson found himself in far too many second-and-longs and third-and-longs, resulting in sacks, incompletions, and a whole bunch of punts. The Jets’ six possessions in the first half ended with four punts, an interception, and of course, a stuffed run on fourth and 1. Wilson was just 6 of 16 for 84 yards, with three sacks, an interception, a fumble, and a 29.2 rating in the half.
Playing from behind, Wilson pieced together good numbers in the second half: 14 of 21 for 174 yards, two touchdowns, three sacks, and a 123.9 rating. He moved around the pocket and made several big throws on the run.
But he played like a rookie, too. He threw a classic rookie interception in the second quarter, failing to see linebacker Shaq Thompson lurking over the middle in zone coverage. It was such an easy interception that Thompson looked like the intended receiver.
He sometimes made the rookie mistake of retreating too far in the face of the pass rush, and some of the 16 hits he took were a result of him dancing too much in the backfield.
Wilson also tries too often to be the hero instead of throwing the ball away.
His scrambles can be a little wild, and at times he looked like a smaller Josh Allen — not the version that almost won MVP last year, but the version that completed 56 percent of his passes in his first two seasons, threw 21 picks, and had 22 fumbles.
Wilson completed just 54 percent of his passes.
Wilson has excellent tools, and it’s easy to see why Romo, the Jets, and many scouts fell in love with him during the predraft process. Put him on the Patriots and I’d like his chances to make the playoffs and win Rookie of the Year.
But he plays for a team that was a discombobulated mess in its first game under a new head coach and offensive coordinator. And now Wilson gets to face Bill Belichick, who has made a career out of confusing rookie quarterbacks (26-6 with the Patriots against them).
Wilson may one day be included in the conversation of the NFL’s elite. But he certainly has some painful days coming before then.