Zach Wilson must be a star to validate New York Jets' questionable QB strategy

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- A marriage that once seemed impossible -- quarterback Zach Wilson and the New York Jets -- is a reality.

When the 2020 NFL season began, the Jets were invested in Sam Darnold, no doubt about it. Wilson, coming off an ineffective, injury-plagued sophomore season at BYU, was an afterthought on the college football landscape. He wasn't on anybody's big draft board. Heck, he had to win a three-way competition to reclaim his starting job for the Cougars.

Things move quickly in the NFL, and now Wilson -- drafted No. 2 overall Thursday night -- is the new perceived savior of the Jets' franchise. General manager Joe Douglas fell hard for the baby-faced gunslinger, and by the time he walked out of Wilson's pro day on March 26, "Joe D. was 100% sold. He was in love with him," a person familiar with the Jets' thinking said.

Douglas' career will be defined by this quarterback swap -- the ill-advised decision to trade Darnold and the selection of Wilson. You don't want to bury the kid with expectations, but let's call it like it is: Good won't cut it. Considering what the No. 2 pick would have brought back in a trade, Wilson needs to be really good, a player who -- in two or three years -- puts the Jets in position to challenge quarterback Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills for AFC East supremacy.

The Jets' long-tortured fan base will enjoy Wilson because his right arm is electric. He's creative outside the pocket, and his personal story of beating the odds will play well in New York. But there's an element of risk with this pick that can't be ignored. While many in the scouting community consider him the second-best quarterback in this draft -- personally, I agree with that assessment -- there's a variance of opinion on his upside.

"After watching that guy throw, I'm like, 'This is [Patrick] Mahomes," an offensive coach from an AFC team said after attending Wilson's pro day.

A longtime AFC scout offered a different take, saying, "He plays like Johnny Manziel and throws like Baker Mayfield. He'll either be Manziel or Mayfield. I don't think there will be any in-between."

In the end, the only opinions that matter are those of Douglas and his team of scouts. They see Wilson as a new-age quarterback who can create plays with his arm and legs, who can make quick decisions and who fits perfectly in Jets coordinator Mike LaFleur's West Coast offense. LaFleur is installing the Kyle Shanahan system, which emphasizes play-action and a moving pocket.

In 2020, Wilson threw 19 touchdowns with no interceptions on play-action passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Over the past 10 seasons, only two other quarterbacks had more play-action touchdown passes with no picks than Wilson -- Mayfield (24) and Mitchell Trubisky (20).

That pairing illustrates the crapshoot nature of drafting quarterbacks. The Cleveland Browns hit on Mayfield, the Chicago Bears whiffed on Trubisky.

Wilson is similar to Trubisky in that he was a one-year wonder in college. While he did have 28 starts and 837 pass attempts, compared to 14 and 572 for Trubisky at North Carolina, Wilson didn't break through until 2020. He was brilliant in BYU's 11-1 season, throwing 33 touchdowns against three interceptions (including one on a Hail Mary). Skeptics point to the level of competition, noting BYU -- forced to alter its schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic -- faced no Power 5 opponents.

"You just grade the tape that you have," Douglas said. "There's a lot of arguments that can be made about strength of schedule. Ultimately, that's not the player's decision. I've been around players from every level of football that have been successful."

With prospects from smaller schools, Douglas said he tries to focus on "their competitive makeup, their will to win, their desire, their heart." People who know and scouted Wilson say he's a tenacious competitor with a passion for football. Coming out of high school as a three-star recruit, his dream school was Utah, where his father played and family members attended. When Utah didn't offer a scholarship, he turned to BYU, Utah's bitter rival. You have to admire that kind of chutzpah.

Playing quarterback for the Jets is one of the toughest jobs in sports, one that requires leadership and mental toughness. Wilson, who can be perceived as arrogant at times, will be tested like never before, mentally and physically. At 6-foot-2 and 214 pounds, he's undersized by NFL standards. One scout said he "looks like he's 14 years old." He already has a surgically repaired throwing shoulder, and some wonder about his durability.

The Jets are convinced Wilson is the answer to their decades-long problem, just like the previous regime was convinced about Darnold and the 2009 regime was convinced about Mark Sanchez. Including 1976, Joe Namath's final season, the Jets have drafted 22 quarterbacks, including six in the first round. You know the names: Richard Todd. Ken O'Brien. Chad Pennington. Mark Sanchez. Darnold. Now, Wilson.

Maybe this time the Jets will get it right. In some ways, it's the perfect match.

A once-broken and forgotten quarterback has landed with a broken franchise that is tired of being forgotten.