Zach Wilson, Jets struggle to replicate the Patrick Mahomes effect

When it comes to NFL scouting, everyone is trying to find the next "guy". For teams looking for quarterbacks in the NFL draft, that means trying to find someone who could eventually be their version of Patrick Mahomes. The Jets thought they had their guy in Zach Wilson, and are paying the price for getting it wrong.
Chicago Bears v Kansas City Chiefs
Chicago Bears v Kansas City Chiefs / Cooper Neill/GettyImages
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The New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs are heading into this week's Sunday Night Football matchup on different trajectories. A once-promising season for the Jets was brought to a screeching halt abruptly when Aaron Rodgers went down in Week 1 on the team's fourth play from scrimmage in an eventual win over the Buffalo Bills. Rodgers represented a new hope in New York, one that had been regained after it all seemed lost when 2021 second-overall draft pick Zach Wilson's days as a starter appeared to be over in the Big Apple.

Plans change, and injuries happen. But the Rodgers injury represented more than just the loss of a starting quarterback for the Jets. It signaled a return to an outcome that the Jets and their fans had already come to know as massively disappointing. Wilson's short career has been marred with turnovers, uninspired performances, and a tremendous lack of production (and results) that now have the Jets staring down a 13th consecutive season without a playoff appearance.

Where did it all go wrong for the Jets? The same place it has gone wrong for them (e.g. Sam Darnold) and numerous other NFL franchises before: talent evaluation. These things don't happen overnight. While many young quarterbacks may flash in years one and two and then get "figured out" by the rest of the league, many (many) more are over-touted in the draft evaluation process and end up being cast into less-than-ideal situations on rosters that are drafting high for a reason.

The Jets thought they had their guy in Zach Wilson, and are paying the price for getting it wrong.

Wison wasn't drafted second overall in the 2021 NFL Draft by the Jets because of his tremendous track record of success at BYU. He burst onto the scene in his final year in Provo but was a relative newcomer to the national spotlight. Nonetheless, an interesting prospect from the outset, Wilson transformed into serious eye candy for multiple franchises throughout the draft process because of things they had seen another quarterback—Patrick Mahomes—excel at in the league. He was brash. He took risks making throws. He extended plays with his legs, slung the ball all over the field, and made off-platform passes.

Wilson is gifted. Like, "crazy gifted". But most of the time when you're a franchise like the New York Jets (poorly constructed over a long period of time) were in 2021, "crazy gifted" is going to turn into "crazy disappointment". Sure, the Jets front office has done an incredible job the past two seasons in building the roster on the defensive side of the ball, and the addition of Aaron Rodgers to the offense this past offseason generated buzz, but there's nowhere near enough progress on the offensive side of the ball to support a miss as big as Wilson has been.

Calling Zach Wilson's first two seasons on the field as a Jet disappointing would be almost complimentary. In 22 games combined in 2021 and 2022, Wilson totaled 3,922 passing yards on 55.2% passing. He tallied 15 touchdowns and 18 interceptions in his first two seasons. For comparison, Mahomes has logged only 5 out of 83 games in his career under 55.2% completion percentage, and accounted for 7,461 yards, 61 touchdowns, 13 interceptions in his first 22 career starts.

This season, while attempting to fill the much larger shoes of Aaron Rodgers, Wilson has shown more of the same. In just under 3 games Wilson has accounted for 467 yards through the air, 2 touchdowns against 4 interceptions, a 52.4% completion percentage, and the Jets are last in the league in both yards and points per game offensively. Their offense has become so desolate in just 3 weeks of play in 2023 that Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay had to compose himself before suggesting that he thinks the Jets are a "team that wants to run the ball" against Kansas City on Sunday night.

There's certainly an elephant in the room: when the Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid and the front office had built a Super Bowl-contending roster. Alex Smith had led the club to 3 consecutive playoff appearances, and 2 consecutive AFC West titles (the first 2 of the current 7), and were in no way expected to take a quarterback in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. But when opportunity knocks, you answer. K.C. traded up from 27 to 10 in that Draft to take Mahomes, who would eventually plug in nicely to an offense that included Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and other pieces that would prove very fruitful.

Wilson, on the other hand, was drafted to a team that had just hired a first-time, defensive-minded head coach in Robert Saleh following a stretch the previous two seasons that saw the team go 9-23 under Adam Gase. The cupboard was bare and the roster needed to be rebuilt, badly, and they started with the project QB from BYU. The rest, unfortunately, has been more history repeated for the Jets.

While both sides of the statistical equation are mind-boggling, for very different reasons, one thing is probably fair to say: there will be many, many more players like Zach Wilson walking through the doors of NFL facilities in the near future than there will be guys like Patrick Mahomes. The quest for the next Mahomes will inevitably continue to frustrate front offices and head coaches who are attempting to capture the same lightning bolt the Chiefs snuck into their bottle back in 2017.

The right player might be there, but the chances of him landing in the exact right situation—roster, front office, and coaching staff—like Mahomes did are slim to none. Hope is a fantastic thing that springs eternal, but the pursuit of the Mahomes effect looks like something that might continue to haunt some franchises for years to come.

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