BYU quarterback Zach Wilson holds a New York Jets jersey after being selected second overall in the first round of the NFL football draft Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
NEW YORK (AP) — Zach Wilson is going from BYU to NYC, shouldering enormous Big Apple expectations with the New York Jets.
Wilson was selected as the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft Thursday night after being linked to the Jets for the last few months. He’s now the blond, blue-eyed face of a frustrated franchise that has gone 10 seasons without making the playoffs — and 52 without reaching the Super Bowl.
“There’s not another team I’d want to play for besides the Jets,” Wilson said on NFL Network shortly after being drafted. “We’re going to be a special team. We’re going for the Super Bowl.”
The 6-foot-2, 214-pound Wilson made a massive jump in his development — and on teams’ draft lists — while throwing for 3,692 yards with 33 touchdown passes and just three interceptions last season for BYU. He also broke Steve Young’s school record for completion percentage with an eye-popping mark of 73.5%.
“The things that we value out of quarterback play,” coach Robert Saleh said, “he checks every box.”
New York gave Wilson an athletic and strong protector up front when it traded with Minnesota to move up from No. 23 to No. 14 and took USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker, whom Jets GM Joe Douglas said the team had ranked in their top 10. The Jets also sent two third-rounders (Nos. 66 and 86) to the Vikings for a fourth-rounder (No. 143).
The 6-4 1/2, 308-pound Vera-Tucker is expected to play left guard, where he was a standout as a sophomore before moving to left tackle last season. He will team with left tackle Mekhi Becton, the Jets’ first-rounder last year, on New York’s young, new-look left side of the line.
“He’s a guy who’s going to come in, he’s going to be a game changer right away,” Vera-Tucker said of Wilson. “And who doesn’t want to block for someone like that? So it’s going to be real exciting.”
The Jets have been fruitlessly searching for decades for a quarterback to emerge from the massive shadow of Joe Namath, who led the franchise to its only Super Bowl in 1969. There have been flashes of individual and team success from several players under center since. But none has produced consistent enough results to solve the team’s seemingly endless quarterback quandary.
Since Namath was taken in the first round of the AFL draft in 1965, the Jets have used their first selection in the NFL draft on a quarterback six times: Richard Todd (1976), Ken O’Brien (1983), Chad Pennington (2000), Mark Sanchez (2009), Sam Darnold (2018) — and now Wilson.
And the Jets and their fans are hoping the former BYU star is finally the answer.
“I’m so excited, along with this new coaching staff, to go in there and try and do the best that we can to flip this thing around,” Wilson said during a video call.
Some are skeptical about how smooth Wilson’s leap to the NFL will be since he played a schedule that was low on top-flight opponents. But the 21-year-old gunslinger has impressive accuracy and outstanding zip on his passes from multiple arm angles. Those skills were on full display last month during his pro day at BYU — with Douglas, Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur all in attendance.
“I think that pro day really, really cemented it,” Douglas acknowledged.
The GM then cleared the way for Wilson by trading Darnold, the No. 3 overall pick in 2018, to Carolina for a sixth-rounder this year and second- and fourth-rounders next year.
It marked a disappointing end to a once-promising tenure for Darnold, who the franchise hoped would someday lift the Jets to sustained success with him leading the charge as one of the NFL’s top playmakers at his position.
That never happened. And now that responsibility falls to Wilson, whose baby-faced looks belie his ultra-confident and competitive nature.
His quick feet and hands make him a seemingly perfect fit for LaFleur’s offensive scheme — the “Shanahan System” — which includes lots of play-action, screens, outside zone runs and jet sweeps and is predicated by pre-snap motions.
“That West Coast-style offense that Coach LaFleur and Coach Saleh are going to bring in,” Wilson said, “is exactly, you know, if I had to write exactly the offense I’d want to play in, it would be it right there.”
Wilson had some injury issues in college, including surgery to repair a torn labrum before the 2019 season and a thumb injury that also required surgery and caused him to miss four games. But he bounced back from those ailments with a spectacular junior year and the Jets were confident enough in Wilson’s health moving forward that they didn’t hesitate.
Wilson, a native of Draper, Utah, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one of six children and also of Hawaiian ancestry — his middle name Kapono means “righteous.” His father Mike was raised in Hawaii and played defensive line at the University of Utah. That’s where Mike met his future wife, Lisa Neeleman, whose family includes several successful entrepreneurs and business people in the airline and medical industries.
Now their son will be tasked with leading an NFL team for what the Jets and their fans hope — finally — is many winning years to come.
“I can’t wait,” Wilson said, “to be able to represent that city.”
The Jets are scheduled to have the second pick in the second round Friday and have plenty of options — and needs.
After addressing the offense in the opening round, Douglas could go for a cornerback such as Georgia’s Tyson Campbell or Florida State’s Asante Samuel Jr. to solidify the secondary. Edge rusher also remains a need and Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari could be an option. Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is also a potential pick.
New York doesn’t have any other picks until the fourth round Saturday after dealing its two third-rounders to Minnesota.