New QB reality in AFC intensifies pressure on Jets, Zach Wilson

Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (left) could be dueling with the Bills' Josh Allen for years to come. Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- When the season ended, New York Jets coach Robert Saleh wasted little time in outlining the mission for 2022, saying the overall objective is to "close the gap with our division." The best way to do that, and to overtake the entire AFC (which is the ultimate goal, right?) is to eliminate the quarterback gap.

That challenge never has been more daunting, and it raises the stakes on their Zach Wilson investment.

After 20 years of pursuing one GOAT, the Jets are now faced with the prospect of chasing a bunch of precocious kids. Former New England Patriots star Tom Brady is gone, but as the regular season and playoffs have reinforced, the league's top five young quarterbacks reside in the AFC:

Josh Allen. Joe Burrow. Justin Herbert. Lamar Jackson. Patrick Mahomes.

Average age: 24.8.

The Jets recognize the enormity of what lies ahead, but they're not flinching because they believe Wilson, despite an underwhelming rookie season, still has the potential to rise to the level of his gilded peers. He certainly has the draft pedigree. Of the aforementioned five -- all former first-round picks -- the only one drafted higher than Wilson was Burrow, who was picked No. 1 overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2020.

The expectations are huge whenever a team picks a quarterback that high. There's always a "they can't be wrong" narrative, and the circumstances weren't any different with Wilson, chosen No. 2 overall last spring. Now the pressure on Wilson and the organization is even greater, considering what has transpired over the last few months.

Allen and Herbert followed up strong 2020 performances with elite-level play for the Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Chargers, respectively. Burrow, in his first full season, was spectacular, leading the upstart Bengals to the AFC Championship Game. He will face the Mahomes-led Kansas City Chiefs, who reached the title game for the fourth straight year. Jackson was hampered by an injury, but the Baltimore Ravens star already has proven himself as a former NFL MVP.

(For those into the torturous what-if game, the Jets passed on Mahomes, Allen and Jackson in the 2017 and 2018 drafts, essentially opting to build around Sam Darnold -- a big mistake, in retrospect.)

It will get even tougher for the Jets and other teams in their situation if the Houston Texans' Deshaun Watson returns to the field on an AFC team. What if the Green Bay Packers trade Aaron Rodgers to the AFC? What if the Seattle Seahawks do the same with Russell Wilson?

The conference is entering a golden era for quarterbacks, reminiscent of the 1980s and 1990s. The legendary Class of 1983 made sure of that, with first-round picks John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino landing on AFC teams. The Jets' Ken O'Brien, a member of that class, was a good quarterback, but he wasn't in their category. As a result, the Jets won only one playoff game during that era.

All these years later, the circumstances are pretty much the same. If Wilson isn't the goods, the Jets never will be good.

"I have a 100% confidence in myself that I can play in this league and that I can play well, and that I can help lead this team to do some special things," said Wilson, who played better down the stretch yet ranked only 26th in Total QBR (30.9) from Week 12-18.

You have to believe the quarterback-heavy landscape in the AFC will have some impact on the Jets' decision-making in the offseason. If it wasn't clear earlier, it is now: General manager Joe Douglas has to give Wilson every chance to shine, which means adding another offensive lineman (or two), another wide receiver and a pass-catching tight end.

"I think we want to have a balanced team that can win in all three phases," said Douglas, emphasizing he always wants to be strong at the line of scrimmage.

The Jets aren't the only team staring up at Mahomes, Allen & Co. The Patriots, Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars also have young quarterbacks on the ascent. It's better to be in that position than the handful of other teams with quarterback issues. At least the Jets have hope, meaning a highly-drafted quarterback with upside.

If they're wrong, the Brady-era struggles will bleed into another long period of irrelevancy.