National Football League

Analyzing the New York Jets' recent QB timeline leading up to Zach Wilson

May 6

With the 2021 NFL Draft in the books, the New York Jets made history – but not the kind that warrants bragging rights.

The Jets became the first team in the common draft era (since 1967) to draft two quarterbacks with top-three picks within a four-year span. 

It was just 2018 when the Jets used their No. 3 pick on the recently traded Sam Darnold. Then, just three years later, they selected Zach Wilson with the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft, opting for Wilson as the new face of their franchise over Trey Lance, Justin Fields, Mac Jones and Darnold.

Wilson is the highest-drafted QB since the Jets selected two-time league MVP and Hall of Famer Joe Namath with the first overall pick of the 1965 AFL Draft. 

He is also the seventh quarterback the Jets have drafted in the first or second round since 2000, two more than any other team.

The Jets have struggled over the years to find a signal-caller who provides positive results, and coming off an abysmal 2-14 season in 2020, expectations are high for Wilson to perform. 

The question remains, can Wilson finally break the cycle created by his predecessors?

In the past decade, no quarterback has been more vital to the Jets' success than Mark Sanchez, who was the team's starter from 2009-2012 and led the Jets to the AFC Championship Game in 2009 and 2010.

The Jets traded up to the fifth overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft to get Sanchez, and he was the first quarterback taken by the Jets in the first round since Chad Pennington went 18th in 2000. 

The former USC QB signed a five-year, $50 million rookie contract, making him the highest-paid player in franchise history at that time. 

The Jets picked up former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy as a backup for Sanchez in the seventh round of the 2011 draft, but he only started one game and was ultimately released before the start of the 2013 season. 

In the 2013 draft, New York used its second-round pick on former West Virginia QB Geno Smith. He went 12-18 during his tenure with the Jets and is now a backup behind Seattle Seahawks superstar Russell Wilson.

The Jets released Sanchez before the 2014 season and immediately signed former Atlanta Falcons QB Michael Vick as his replacement. 

And in the seven years since, the Jets have drafted six different quarterbacks.

In the sixth round in 2014, they picked up former Clemson QB Tajh Boyd, but he was released less than four months later without ever taking an NFL snap. The following year, the Jets selected former Baylor QB Bryce Petty, who was 1-6 as a starter in his two seasons. The Jets released Petty three years into his four-year contract, and he never played for another NFL team.

In the second round in 2016, the Jets took Penn State star Christian Hackenberg, but his success didn’t translate from the Big Ten to the NFL. Hackenberg was traded to the then-Oakland Raiders, who would release him two years into his four-year contract. He hasn’t signed with another NFL team since. 

The next time the Jets drafted a quarterback was in 2018, when they picked Darnold.

Darnold signed a four-year, $30.25 million fully guaranteed contract and became the NFL's youngest opening-day starter since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 (21 years and 97 days old). 

The USC product holds the Jets' franchise record for the highest completion percentage by a rookie in a single season (57.7%) and highest rookie quarterback rating (minimum seven appearances – 77.6).

Darnold threw for 8,097 yards, 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions in 38 games with the Jets, but he is coming off a season in which he hit career-lows in passing yards (2,208), touchdowns (nine) and passer rating (72.7). The Jets were 13-25 in his starts and failed to reach the postseason in that time. 

In April, the Jets traded Darnold to the Carolina Panthers, just three years after he was welcomed to New York as the Jets' savior.

He has one year remaining on his rookie contract, with a guaranteed salary and bonuses of $4.6 million for 2021. The Panthers recently announced they are exercising Darnold's fifth-year option, guaranteeing him $18.9 million in 2022.

That brings us to Wilson, the Jets' new leading man. 

Wilson played in 30 games during his three years at BYU, starting 28 of them. He is the youngest freshman quarterback to ever start for BYU and led his team to three consecutive bowl appearances. 

He finished his career with 7,652 passing yards, 56 touchdowns at a 162.9 passer rating.

In 2020, he ranked No. 2 nationally in points responsible for (264), passing efficiency (196.4) and completion percentage (73.5). He also finished No. 3 in passing yards (3,692), passing touchdowns (33), yards per pass attempt (10.99) and points responsible for per game (22.0). 

He was  No. 4 in the nation in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (10) and finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting. 

Heading into his first season with the Jets, Wilson is surrounded by some serious talent, but the question remains if he will be able to reach his ceiling in New York and change the franchise's recent lack of quarterback success.

On Wednesday’s "Speak For Yourself," former NFL Pro Bowler LaVar Arrington said he’s skeptical Wilson will be able to live up to the expectations.

"I don’t see Zach Wilson coming in and being the catalyst of change this season," Arrington said. "In fact, I don’t even know that he finishes anywhere but last place as the starting quarterback for this New York Jets team.

"This is something that Zach Wilson has never experienced. BYU is a long way from where he’s at in the New York market. I don’t think it’s the greatest situation for any quarterback to go into, not a rookie, not a vet, nobody. … If I’m Zach Wilson, I’d be scared to death going to play for this team right now." 

On "The Herd," Colin Cowherd agreed with Arrington that there’s a slim likelihood Wilson can single-handedly come in and overhaul this franchise in his first year.

"The New York Jets are a fourth-place team," Cowherd said. "This is gonna take time. You gotta be patient. … This is just a young kid … a brutal division. … You’ve got a first-time head coach, and a first-time play-caller, and a rookie quarterback and rookies everywhere. I [have] no idea how it’s gonna turn out, by the way, nobody does, including Robert Saleh and Joe Douglas.

"You hope the kid can play, but he’s going from small-town Utah to the biggest city in America." 

New York has been dubbed the big city of dreams.

Hopefully, it doesn't produce nightmares for Wilson.

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