Zach Wilson clears 'awesome' hurdle in sprint to New York Jets' starting job

Zach Wilson, the Jets' No. 2 overall pick in April's draft, has made great strides in learning the offense this offseason. Mike Stobe/Getty Images

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rookie Zach Wilson is the front-runner in the New York Jets' quarterback competition. He has a slim lead over former BYU star Zach Wilson.

Yeah, it's a one-man show.

Everybody knew that when the Jets drafted him No. 2 overall and nothing has changed. New York cleared a wide path to the starting job -- no veteran additions to the quarterback room -- and now it's all about getting Wilson ready for Sept. 12 against the Carolina Panthers.

Experts can debate the pros and cons of throwing a rookie into the fire. The Jets, who did it with Sam Darnold (2018), Geno Smith (2013) and Mark Sanchez (2009), are committed to being a Zach Pack in Week 1. They spent the past four weeks (a dozen practices) feeding his brain with information, testing his recall and his mettle.

He passed.

"It's been a learning curve for him," Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur said. "We've thrown a ton at him. I thought these last two weeks have been awesome for him. We've done so many call-it periods where he doesn't have the script. He just has to hear me through the walkie-talkie and make sure he calls it correctly and gets everybody aligned."

An unscripted period is when the offensive coaches don't know the defensive call -- and vice versa -- thus creating game-like spontaneity. Naturally, it's more challenging for the quarterback, especially a rookie. Wilson experienced a few hiccups, but there were no total meltdowns, at least not in the practices that were open to the media.

That's an encouraging sign.

On Tuesday and Wednesday in minicamp, Wilson showed an aggressive side, throwing downfield more than usual. That wasn't by design; it happened organically. He noticed the defense was sitting on short routes, so he countered by going deep.

Wilson also made a subtle adjustment in red zone periods. In earlier practices, his five-step drop was too slow. Things happen fast in the red zone, and the timing between the quarterback and the wide receivers has to be in sync or else the play will be out of whack. Without prodding from the coaches, Wilson quickened the tempo on his five-step drop, demonstrating an innate feel for the game.

"Pretty cool to watch," LaFleur said.

These were only baby steps, of course. They were non-contact drills with no pads, so Wilson didn't have to worry about getting blindsided by a quarterback-hungry blitzer. Things will pick up in training camp, then a little more in the preseason games. He should pass those tests easily, considering he was the second pick in the draft. If he doesn't -- sound the alarms. In reality, an accurate read won't happen until the regular season.

"Zach loves ball, that's one thing I've learned," Jets coach Robert Saleh said. "He's unflappable in the sense that he doesn't care whether [it] went good or bad. He wants to know why it went good or bad. He wants to learn from it. He's wired exactly the way you want all players to be wired. Now it's a matter of getting as many reps as possible [in training camp]."

Wilson and 2021 No. 1 overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence (Jacksonville Jaguars) are expected to be the only rookies to start in Week 1. The other first-round quarterback picks -- Trey Lance (San Francisco 49ers), Justin Fields (Chicago Bears) and Mac Jones (New England Patriots) -- are behind seasoned veterans. The Jets decided against that route, in part to give Wilson a chance to establish himself among teammates in the offseason.

"He's going to be a problem [for defenses]," Jets tackle Mekhi Becton said. "He's really good."

New York guard Greg Van Roten said, "I've been impressed. You hear a lot of hype about guys coming out of college and going through the draft process. You get in front of them and you see they're just normal guys, just human beings. Zach is definitely somebody that makes throws that you raise your eyebrow."

Wilson played in a similar offense at BYU, which has helped the transition, but he admitted there are times when the playbook seems like it's written in Latin and things get moving so fast that it's hard to separate the good days from the bad days.

"It's hard to say exactly how you did," Wilson said. "Personally, in my eyes, I feel I can improve every single day. I feel like I'm learning something every single day. Even on the good days, it's still frustrating, and it's just because it's like a foreign language. Every single day it's the same plays, but you're getting different reps, different looks at it, different defensive coverages."

Since 2008, 16 of the 35 quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 were opening-day starters, most recently Joe Burrow (Cincinnati Bengals), Kyler Murray (Arizona Cardinals) and Darnold, Wilson's predecessor. Barring injury, Wilson will join that list. Now it's a race against the calendar to get him as ready as possible.