Zach Wilson returns from injury: Will it make a difference for the New York Jets?

Zach Wilson will return as the New York Jets' starting quarterback in Week 4. What does his re-emergence mean for Gang Green?

The prodigal son has returned. Zach Wilson, sidelined after suffering a preseason knee injury and subsequently undergoing surgery, has been medically cleared and is on track to start the New York Jets’ Week 4 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 draft, Wilson is resurfacing with a chance to rewrite his narrative after an unsuccessful rookie campaign. Can he turn his career around, and will his return make a difference for Gang Green?

What Zach Wilson’s return means for the New York Jets

In recent years, it seems as though significant leaps from second-year NFL quarterbacks have become commonplace. Josh Allen is the prime example of a QB turnabout, but Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow also showed massive development from Year 1 to Year 2.

It’s difficult to bank on your signal-caller suddenly developing into an MVP-caliber passer, but decision-makers have to build their rosters as if their quarterback will ultimately ascend.

Jets general manager Joe Douglas has done just that over the past two offseasons, taking advantage of Wilson’s inexpensive rookie contract by adding multiple starters in free agency while simultaneously moving up the draft board to acquire even more young, affordable talent.

New York’s plan took a U-turn when Wilson went down with a meniscus tear and a bone bruise in the first week of the preseason. Luckily, after only a three-game absence and a Joe Flacco cameo, Wilson is back in the starting lineup.

But we still don’t really know how much of an impact Wilson will have on a Jets team that started 1-2 and could easily be 0-3. The reality is that Wilson struggled so much in 2021 that’s it challenging to pin too many hopes on him.

Pick nearly any quarterback metric, and Wilson ranked near the bottom of the league in his rookie season. He finished dead last in adjusted net yards per attempt, expected points added per play, and completion percentage over expectation, and he was next-to-last in QBR. Only Joe Burrow and Ryan Tannehill took more sacks than Wilson’s 44.

Wilson displayed issues with accuracy, decision-making, and pocket presence in 2021, and you don’t need to be a quarterback whisperer to know those are three major red flags for an NFL passer. Some of those inconsistencies can be ironed out over time. Others might not be.

Given that he’s only 13 starts into his career, it’s far too early to say if Wilson can correct those problem areas. But we do know he’ll get to play with an improved set of offensive skill position weapons.

Douglas used the 10th overall pick on Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson, who has already become New York’s top pass catcher. Wilson leads the team in targets (32), yards (214), and touchdowns (two) while flashing elite route-running ability. Second-round running back Breece Hall has contributed both through the ground and the air, while free agent addition Tyler Conklin is tied with Wilson in receptions (18).

However, there are complications up front, where the Jets are down to their fourth and fifth options at offensive tackle. With George Fant, Duane Brown, and Mekhi Becton all sidelined by injury, New York is rolling with career backup Connor McDermott and fourth-round rookie Max Mitchell at the bookends. That’s obviously not ideal for Wilson, who might be burdened with correcting his rhythm and timing flaws while managing pressure off the edge.

Wilson also won’t benefit from a defense that can get off the field. Through three games, New York’s pass defense is among the least efficient in the league. The Jets have admittedly played three solid opponents in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Cincinnati, but they’ve given up the seventh-most points per game and the fifth-most points per drive.

All told, Wilson probably isn’t going to suddenly reverse the Jets’ playoff fortunes. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 3% chance to make the playoffs, the worst odds of any team in the NFL.

But that’s never what this season was about for New York. This year was about Wilson’s development and the progression of Gang Green’s youthful core. Getting to eight or nine wins should be the goal.

And if Wilson can’t get there? The Jets should have another early pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, and they will likely be unafraid to pull the ripcord on the Wilson experiment in favor of another option.

Pour one out for Joe Flacco

A decade after his Super Bowl MVP-winning performance for the Baltimore Ravens, Flacco is still out here slinging it. He’ll depart the starting quarterback chair while leading the league in pass attempts (155).

That’s the most attempts any QB has ever recorded through the first three games of an NFL season. Flacco has dropped back 100(!) more times than Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields.

Was Flacco efficient? No. Was he fun to watch? Yes.

The 37-year-old led one of the season’s most thrilling comebacks in Week 2, bringing the Jets back from a 30-17 deficit against the Browns with just 1:22 left in regulation. He got to face his old team, the Ravens, in Week 1 and dropped back a whopping 62 times. And his absurd volume allowed New York to see what it had in its young offensive weaponry.

Barring an injury ahead of him, Flacco will never be a full-time starter again. But he’s shown no indication he’s ready to hang up his cleats, and there’s no reason he can’t hang on as a backup QB even as he approaches 40 years old.

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