Jets paying the price for taking Zach Wilson over Justin Fields

12 days ago The Draft Wire

Heading into the 2021 NFL draft, few doubted that Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence should be the first quarterback off the board, and a lock to be the No. 1 overall pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Things weren’t quite so clear for the New York Jets, but they should have been.

Justin Fields was coming off an strong season at Ohio State, and delivered an iconic performance in the College Football Playoff, racking up over 400 yards and tossing six touchdown passes against Clemson’s vaunted defense, doing most of that damage after sustaining a rib injury on a nasty hit in the first half.

With a rare combination of arm talent, athleticism and intangibles, Fields was the kind of prospect that in any other draft class, should have been the same kind of lock for the No. 1 pick that Lawrence was in 2021.

The Jets thought otherwise, though. Instead of taking Fields at No. 2 overall, they went with BYU’s Zach Wilson.

Heading into the homestretch of their second NFL seasons, Fields has already begun his ascent as one of the most dynamic playmakers in the league, while Wilson’s regression has been so bad that he just got benched for Mike White.

Fields has been putting up some otherworldly numbers in recent weeks, despite the lack of anything resembling an effective supporting cast around him. A porous offensive line, a lack of playmakers in the passing game, and a defense that traded away perhaps its two best players (Roquan Smith, Robert Quinn) have submarined the Bears’ season, despite Fields’ impressive play.

The opposite has been true for the Jets, who are still in the thick of the AFC playoff race despite Wilson’s erratic, sloppy play.

The last straw for the Jets came Sunday in a key road game against the division-rival New England Patriots. Despite the Jets defense holding the Pats to just three points, Wilson’s inability to generate anything for the offense eventually led to a 10-3 loss on a near-walkoff punt return for a touchdown in the final seconds.

After the game, Wilson asked if he felt like the offense’s play let their defense down.

“No,” he responded flatly.

Contrast that with Fields, who tried to apologize to his defense after Sunday’s loss to the Atlanta Falcons, but they weren’t having it (per SI’s Albert Breer):

My understanding is Fields' defensive teammates stopped him as he was finishing the apology, told him they had his back. Really cool moment for everyone there, and a nice sign of where Matt Eberflus has taken the culture in Chicago.

— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) November 22, 2022

Contrast Wilson’s response even further with that of one of his wide receivers, rookie first-round pick Garrett Wilson (via ESPN):

This s— is sorry. We’re out here looking sorry — and we know that we’re not sorry. That’s why it really hurts. We know we’re better than that. That’s why it hurts.”

It starts in practice. It’s got to be better, the things we see and don’t call out. It has to start getting called out. This is unacceptable. No one wants to feel like this, but that’s not enough. … Hopefully, this is a wake-up for some people in the facility, people in the facility to get on their details”It starts during the week in practice — coaching, all of that. We have to be detailed. We all have to have a better plan. This s—‘s not OK. Straight up. It’s not OK. How many total yards did we have? Yeah, that s—‘s not going to fly.

Let’s call it like it is: We have to be better in the passing game if we want to be where we want to be at. And we know we can be there, that’s the most frustrating part. We don’t have to be in games like this. They didn’t even score on offense, and we lost the game. Me, personally, I think we have to take it for what it is. We got our ass beat on offense, and the results showed.

It’s hard to argue with Wilson’s assessment, but that’s the kind of responsibility the Jets should be getting from their quarterback, instead of a rookie pass-catcher who hasn’t even been on the team for a year.

Let’s go back to that predraft process in 2021.

Here’s how I wrapped up my scouting report on Fields:

He’s got all the physical tools to be a franchise quarterback at the next level, but it’s his combination of that talent and athleticism with the intelligence, instincts and intangibles that give him a chance to be a truly special player at the game’s most important position.

Fields should be the no-brainer pick at No. 2 overall, so if he goes any later than that, he’ll be an absolute steal.

Here’s what I came away thinking about Wilson:

Consistency is the biggest concern with Wilson, with a big gap between his highest highs and his lowest lows on film. For every flash of brilliance, there was a head-scratching moment that looked like anything but a potential top-five pick. Combine that with the fact that he didn’t face much in terms of stout defense last season, and it’s easy to wonder whether or not he’ll be able to succeed against NFL defenses on a weekly basis.

If you watch nothing but Wilson’s best plays, you might come away thinking he should be picked ahead of Trevor Lawrence. If you watch nothing but his worst plays, you might wonder if he’s worth drafting at all. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in the middle.

The Jets aren’t alone in their folly, either.

But at least the Denver Broncos (Patrick Surtain II) and Carolina Panthers (Jaycee Horn) still landed impact players at another premium position with their top-10 picks in that draft. The New York Giants traded the pick that became Fields to the Bears, but though they missed big on No. 20 overall pick Kadarius Toney, at least Daniel Jones isn’t actively dragging down their playoff chances with his play. It’s hard to pass judgement on Trey Lance just yet, or the San Francisco 49ers might also find themselves in the same boat as the Jets.

No, the Jets are the only team that picked in that top 10, and chose a quarterback other than Fields who has been weighed, measured, and found wanting.

They had the perfect opportunity to land a quarterback prospect worthy of the No. 1 overall pick at No. 2, a proven leader with a complete skill set, and a track record of success against top competition.

Instead, they took Wilson, and they’re paying the price.

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