FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – The first training camp pass of Zach Wilson’s career really was a thing of beauty. It was a perfect strike down the field to rookie receiver Elijah Moore, nearly 50 yards away. It was a hopeful sign of things to come -- exactly the kind of throw everyone would expect from the No. 2 overall pick.
As for the rest of his first day of camp … well, at least there’s another day tomorrow.
To be honest, no matter what Wilson did on the field, it was a good day for the Jets simply because the 21-year-old showed up. One day earlier he was still engaged in his contract standoff. But now that he’s signed his four-year, $35.1 million deal, it’s full steam ahead.
Or … almost. It was a bit of a false start for Wilson on the practice field. He got 14 reps in full-team drills and completed just 5-of-10 passes. He threw one interception to safety Marcus Maye, nearly threw another, and was nowhere near any receivers on at least two other passes. Even the 7-on-7 drills, which can be easy at times for the offense, were a surprising struggle. He completed just 1-of-7 passes in those, and most of the misses weren’t even close.
He looked far worse than Mike White and James Morgan did in the two practices they ran without him, which is surprising. More to the point, though, Wilson looked very much like a quarterback who hadn’t practiced with his teammates in six weeks. Which, of course, he hadn’t.
That might have been the biggest reason for his struggles – rust. But there were other reasons, too. Saleh pointed out that the third day of training camp is a day of heavy scheme installation for the offense, which leads to a lot more thinking on the field by the players – especially for a quarterback that missed the first two days. And that allows the defense to play freer and faster, which certainly appeared to be the case.
Jets defensive end Carl Lawson in particular broke through to put a lot of pressure on Wilson on Friday, surely causing a few of those off-target throws.
But the biggest reason for Wilson’s poor debut performance is still the simplest and most obvious:
He’s a 21-year-old rookie and this was Day 1.
“This is his first year in the league, he is a rookie, and just like every other rookie there’s going to be ebbs and flows,” Saleh said. “He starts out with a bang on that go ball on the post down the middle of the field (to Moore). But (then the) defense was moving at a very fast rate, the windows were very tight.
“Like I said, I don’t think there’s anything there, other than, it’s his first day in, he’s just got to get a little bit caught up.”
Another bit of good news: That’s exactly the matter-of-fact way Wilson handled his first-day struggles. He said he’d react “Exactly the way you do when you have a great day. You go in and you watch the film and say ‘What things could I have done better?’”
“That’s what practice is for,” he added. “Every day is going to have something frustrating. That’s why I’m out here, trying to learn something every day. It’s going to be a process.”
And Wilson, Saleh and the Jets most definitely trust the process. It’s why there is no veteran quarterback in camp to threaten Wilson’s presumed status as the Opening Day starter. It’s why even though Saleh is resisting making that official, even he was willing to concede that after just one day Wilson clearly has the “inside lane” for the job.
“It’s his to lose,” Saleh said.
That’s because the Jets believe his Day 1 struggles will just be a minor bump on his road to greatness. And nothing they saw in his return to practice left them any less convinced that he’ll be ready for that first game.
“It’s that process, it’s his deliberateness, his arm talent, his relentless drive to find ways to get better, watch film, and learn the system,” Saleh said. “He’ll come in here, he’ll get his feet wet, and he’ll continue to progress. There’s so many things that he’s got to go through, other than this first day of practice going against a defense he’s been seeing since OTAs. There’s so many opportunities for him, and I think he’s going to pass all those hurdles.”