Jets' decision to ease Zach Wilson into spotlight is right move

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Zach Wilson with Roger Goodell on Draft Night
Zach Wilson with Roger Goodell on Draft Night

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – No one thinks it will be easy on Zach Wilson to get adjusted to his new role as the heir apparent in New York. Being the latest savior of a franchise that hasn’t been to the Super Bowl in more than 50 years will be challenging. The Jets know the scrutiny is coming, and it will be intense.

“To hide him, to shield him, you can’t. It’s impossible,” said Jets coach Robert Saleh. “If you do that, you’re wasting time.”

Maybe so, but the Jets are still going to try to make it as easy on their 21-year-old Boy King as they possibly can.

That’s part of why the first day of Jets rookie camp was not the Grand Opening of the Zach Wilson Era. In fact, it barely even registered as taking a test drive of their fancy new car out of the lot. Wilson’s first passes in the NFL were completed to assistant coaches. His next ones to actual teammates were in no-defense drills.

And when he finally did get to the 7-on-7 drills with defensive backs actually in coverage, the practice had already been closed. So if they were completed or not, no one outside the organization knows.

That was unusual for the Jets, but clearly done with their new quarterback in mind – to help ease the transition for Wilson into his new, high-pressure role. Perhaps the organization remembered the uproar three years earlier when Sam Darnold, in his first rookie camp, fumbled his first snap and then fumbled a few more. Or maybe they heard the story of Eli Manning’s first rookie camp 17 years before that when he was firing passes into the overturned garbage cans at the line of scrimmage because things were moving too fast.

Saleh said it had more to do with the nature of the camp – 30 rookies and first-year players divided into two separate groups – and the understanding that, for all rookies, things likely wouldn’t go well.

“It has nothing to do with trying to hide anyone or anything like that,” he said. “(It’s) to give the guys a chance to learn, process, and be able to execute the system. It’s going to be sloppy. And so instead of unveiling the rookies in a rookie minicamp where there are going to be busts and guys flying all over the place, I felt like we could just hold off.”

It's not really the worst idea, either. Little is accomplished in these rookie camps outside of getting young players a taste of what it’s like in the NFL – even in the 24 7-on-7 plays that the media didn’t get to see on Friday. But the overreaction can be fierce, even if it’s misguided. Darnold’s fumbles three years ago weren’t a sign of impending doom, or that the Jets made the wrong choice with the third overall pick. But the media and social media frenzy made it seem like it was the beginning of the end of Darnold’s NFL world.

What would be the point of subjecting a young player to that in the first hours of his NFL life?

Because so far, everything’s been great with Wilson. He has embraced the challenge of playing under the New York microscope. He seemed genuinely excited about joining this oft-struggling franchise when he spoke during his first few interviews as a member of the team. He was even texting his new teammates in the days leading up to camp, making sure they were prepared and getting them as excited as he was for what’s to come.

It’s only going to get more intense from here. The organized team activities (OTAs) begin in two weeks and there are expected to be at least some Jets veterans in attendance, despite the NFLPA’s attempt at organizing a boycott. And then in mid-June is the three-day, full-team mini-camp when Wilson will get his first real chance to lead his team.

And between now and then, there’s a lot of learning to do.

“As far as bringing along a quarterback and overall philosophy, it’s no different than how you’d want to bring along your mike linebacker or your offensive linemen,” Saleh said. “There’s a process that we will go through. There’s Football 101 coaching, there’s Football 301 coaching, and there’s Football 501 coaching. We have to be able to introduce our scheme, we have to show them techniques and fundamentals, and we have to be able to get them to a point where they understand the overall scope of football.

“As far as Zach, I get it, the magnitude of the quarterback position. But the development of all these rookies is still the same in regards to trying to reach them at the 101 level and trying to get them their graduate degree at the 501 level.”

That’s not easy, especially with the eyes of an entire city and region watching. So maybe they can’t protect him from that forever. But why not try to at least delay the inevitable and push some of that scrutiny off?

“Obviously the questions about the quarterback, how he plays, the scrutiny that he gets, I get it,” Saleh said. “But it’s our job as an entire organization to make sure everybody’s lifting one another to get us to where we want to go.”

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