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Evaluating Zach Wilson, Week 1: Welcome to the NFL

In this film breakdown, take a look back at Zach Wilson's professional debut against the Carolina Panthers.
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After diving into some of the larger concerns with rookie quarterback Zach Wilson’s college tape, it was time to look at his preseason. After about 30 minutes of watching the Jets preseason opener against the Giants, I felt okay switching to the regular season. Not only did this rookie class not get a full offseason leading up to their debut campaigns, but this preseason was one of the most laxed we’ve had in a while and isn’t the best quality of play if we’re trying to assess Wilson’s development.

Just as a reminder, here are some of the categories we want to see Zach Wilson improve upon throughout the duration of his first 13 starts.

Confidence on open first reads: As we’ll see throughout the course of this series, Wilson waits too long on some of his most open receivers; especially on first reads. Whether it be a lack of trust or waiting for a larger play to develop downfield, taking the easy throws the second they’re open will always help move the ball down the field.

Standard throwing motion on the “simple” throws: Not only does Wilson need to hit those reads with assertiveness, but he also needs to make the throws as easy as he can for himself. His arm talent is extremely impressive, and the way he mixes in off-platform throws and obscure arm angles is impressive, but a standard throwing motion will go miles for his accuracy on these easy throws and help limit off-target throws.

Throwing receivers open: Again, this is something that confidence will play a large factor in. Wilson was often late getting the ball out of his hands and often slowed down his receiver’s routes so the ball could catch up to him. Instead, that ball needs to anticipate where the receiver is going so that he can hit them in stride and allow the receiver to seamlessly continue his route for some longer catch-and-runs.

Giving up on dead plays: Possibly the most important for Wilson is just knowing when to throw the ball out of play, at his receivers’ feet, or drop to the ground for a less-severe hit. His improvisational skills are impressive, but knowing a play has no chance will save him from taking brutal hits and throwing unnecessary turnovers.

Now that we’re caught up, let’s turn on the TV for Week 1. It was a mixed bag, if I’m being generous, but it’s important to know our starting point so we can see where things land by games 12 and 13.

CREDIT: Clips used in this story are from NFL GamePass.

Week 1: The Carolina Panthers

Wilson: 20-for-37, 258 Yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 6 Sacks

Having to face a ferocious Carolina pass rush to kick off the season, before the offensive line had a chance to find its groove, made life difficult for Wilson. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow did a great job disguising some stunts and catching the young linemen off guard – finishing the day with six sacks and 18 total pressures on Wilson. The line wasn’t responsible for every sack, with Wilson holding onto the ball way too long in certain scenarios.

Despite evading the first and second sack attempt, Wilson still tries to keep the play alive way too long and eventually takes a 10-yard sack. Situations like this are fine on third- or fourth-down attempts, but on a first-and-10 he needs to just live to see another day. Setting up a second-and-long, this play ended in a three-and-out deep in their own territory.

Another issue we saw frequently at BYU was his inability to take the easy throw, instead trying to force something downfield. In this first instance, Wilson has driven his offense down the field in a must-score opportunity late in the fourth quarter. His eyes stay glued toward the end zone, waiting for something to open up, and completely misses a wide open crosser that would’ve resulted in at least an eight-yard gain.

Wilson probably doesn’t want the clock to continue rolling by hitting a completion in the middle of the field, but his insistence on taking a shot at the end zone results in another 10-yard sack. While the drive finishes off two plays later with nice throw to Corey Davis in the end zone, early-down sacks are drive killers and could’ve easily been avoided if he took the simple throw available.

Another example, Wilson launches a deep 50/50 ball that lands incomplete instead of seeing Corey Davis on a slant with room to run.

One area I thought Wilson did a really nice job in, and something that was probably drilled into his head all week long, was timing up his first-read throws and having confidence in the easy attempts. Complimenting what looks like no-brainer passes can seem silly, but this was not the case for Wilson in college, so any improvement should be recognized. This layup went for 10 yards and moved the chains.

Getting comfortable hitting singles on early-down passes and not needing every play to be a home run will help this offense build longer drives, keep Wilson upright and minimize turnovers.

He does have an odd tenancy of overthrowing his running backs out in the flat, something we also saw at BYU. It seems like he’s trying to just loft an easy pass and avoid hitting them with his fastball, but he needs a lower release point to avoid sailing the ball. This one was still catchable, but just something to keep an eye on moving forward.

Early in the season you can expect some miscues between a new quarterback and his receivers, and there were quite a few dropped balls and timing issues in this game. There was, however, a brilliantly placed ball to Braxton Berrios that led him into an open area of the field. This connection turns into a potent one as the year goes on, and it seems it got off to go a good start as early as game one.

Wilson’s anticipatory skills still need some work, however, as his lone pick on the day came by way of underthrowing his tight end on a heavily covered route. The throw probably shouldn’t have been attempted anyways, as you’ll see three defenders in the area, but there is a soft spot in the defense where Wilson could’ve led his target for a diving grab with a worst-case scenario of an incomplete pass. Instead he tries to hit his teammate in the chest, and the lurking linebacker glides over for the pick.

I’ll always make sure to finish these off with Wilson’s best throw of the day, and there were a few impressive throws in this one to choose from. Given the scenario, this off-platform rocket to Denzel Mims to set the Jets up in the red zone was an absolute beauty. This throw could’ve gone for six if the ball led Mims just a little bit further, but getting the play off while running up the pocket with defenders bearing down was impressive enough to earn play of the day.

There’s a long way to go, but you can see some of the improvisational skills and throws that some of best quarterbacks in the game possess. If the consistency and IQ can develop, there’s something special here in the Jets potential franchise quarterback. Next week we’ll look at his first go-around with the vaunted Bill Belichick defense, which we all know was one of Wilson’s toughest days this season.

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