How Jets’ Zach Wilson can make a breakthrough out of a ‘breakdown’

NFL

MINNEAPOLIS — A look at what’s happening around the New York Jets:

1. Welcome to Flight School: Zach Wilson‘s personal quarterback coach, John Beck, visited the team’s facility on Wednesday. No, he’s not rejoining the coaching staff. This was a house call, a chance to get some face time with Wilson, who is attempting to navigate the most difficult chapter in his young career.

“This is something that’s going to be a tough one for him, to go out on the field and not be the guy, but I think a lot of growth can happen,” Beck told ESPN.

Beck and Wilson talk every week. In fact, he got a call from Wilson on the day of the benching, Nov. 22. (“I don’t think he ever thought that would happen,” Beck said.) Beck, a former NFL quarterback with a master’s degree in performance psychology, sees himself as more than a passing instructor. He’s a sounding board and a confidant.

“With Zach, there’s an opportunity for growth to come in a bunch of different areas in his game,” Beck said. “I think he can grow mentally from this, he can grow physically from this and I think he can grow in terms of his perspective. Ultimately, I think that’s one of the biggest things that can come from this — a paradigm shift in the way he’s seeing things, the way he’s handling certain things.”

Beck declined to comment on why Wilson has struggled, saying it’s hard to form an evaluation because he’s no longer in the meeting rooms. He had that behind-the-scenes perspective in 2021 as a midseason addition to the coaching staff. He believes Wilson can sharpen his fundamentals as the scout-team quarterback, practicing without the stress of having to prepare for an opponent. His penchant for throwing off his back foot is one area the coaches are hoping to clean up.

Wilson stays after practice every day to participate in their “Flight School,” a catchy name for an extra work session that includes mainly third-stringers and practice-squad players. It’s odd to see a player of his draft status (second overall pick in 2021) in that setting, but that’s his new reality.

Wilson will be inactive again Sunday, as Mike White gets the start against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium (1 p.m. ET, CBS). The demotion “really hurt him a lot,” said Beck, adding that Wilson quickly shifted into a positive attitude. No one knows when he will get back on the field. Coach Robert Saleh said Wilson will return “when he’s ready to roll,” although it will be hard to replace White if he continues to shine. It could be a slippery slope.

For now, Wilson toils in the Jets’ version of QB rehab, hoping to regain his job.

“Sometimes,” Beck said, “a breakthrough can only happen after a breakdown.”

2. Meritocracy rules: One of Saleh’s best attributes is he’s not afraid to shake up the status quo. Obviously, the best example of that is the quarterback change, but it also happened at running back. Not happy with the production in the Week 11 loss to the New England Patriots, he benched James Robinson in favor of rookie Zonovan Knight.

Robinson arrived in a recent trade, costing the Jets a conditional sixth-round pick, but that didn’t make him untouchable in Saleh’s eyes. Moves like that send a message to the team and helps establish the right culture.

Since joining the team, Robinson’s rushing yards over expected is -1.2 per carry, which ranks 46th out of 47 running backs (minimum: 25 carries) from Weeks 8 to 12, per NFL Next Gen Stats. The only player with a lower average is Seattle Seahawks rookie Kenneth Walker III (-1.4).

Knight is a better scheme fit than Robinson because he’s a one-cut runner with more speed and explosiveness. In his NFL debut last week, Knight’s RYOE was 0.7 per carry. He produced 103 yards from scrimmage, the most ever by a Jets’ rookie in his debut.

Saleh said the running back depth chart is week-to-week, adding that Robinson still is a factor. He could be active Sunday with Michael Carter (ankle) not expected to play.

3. Conklin’s WR scouting report: Tight end Tyler Conklin played two years with Vikings star Justin Jefferson, and now he sees Garrett Wilson every day in practice — a unique perspective on two gifted wide receivers.

“They’re definitely similar in that they attack the ball really well in the air,” Conklin said. “They both have those long strides. …. They Euro-step throughout their stems and also after the catch with the ball in their hands. Justin is a little taller and longer. I think Garrett is a little more twitchy and shifty. They’re definitely similar in how they move and definitely how they high-point the ball.”

4. Did you know? The Jets are good at a lot of things, but there’s one area where they really struggle — recovering fumbles. They have forced 15 fumbles, which is a lot, but have recovered only three. That’s really odd, considering there’s a 50-50 chance on most fumbles. Not surprisingly, they conducted fumble-recovery drills this week in practice.

5. What a month: Many of the Jets’ key players arrived in 2021 and 2022 via free agency and the draft, but don’t forget about September, 2019 — one of the best months in Joe Douglas’ tenure as general manager.

In that month, he signed White to the practice squad, claimed wide receiver Braxton Berrios on waivers from the Patriots and claimed defensive end John Franklin-Myers on waivers from the Los Angeles Rams. Berrios and Franklin-Myers already have been signed to contract extensions.

That’s what you call a heckuva month.

6. Second Cousins: The Jets will face Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins for the second time since being spurned by him in 2018 free agency. The Jets would look a lot different now if Cousins had accepted their three-year, $90 million offer (fully guaranteed). It was a franchise-altering rejection, as Cousins took less from the Vikings (three years, $84 million) and the Jets made a quick pivot.

A few days later, they made a blockbuster trade with the Indianapolis Colts to move up in the draft, which led to Sam Darnold, who didn’t work out, which prompted his trade to the Carolina Panthers, which led to Zach Wilson, who hasn’t worked out so far.

Cousins would’ve provided solid, if not elite-level quarterback play, but the size of his contract would’ve impacted the Jets’ roster-building approach. They would’ve been in win-now mode — i.e. no rebuilding and no accumulation of draft capital, meaning they wouldn’t have as many young, ascending players as they do now. There’s also no telling who would be coaching them if he had accepted Gang Green’s green from the previous regime. So many what-ifs.

7. Nice touch: As part of the NFL’s “My Cause My Cleats” campaign in Week 13, six Jets coaches will wear shoes honoring the Coach Greg Knapp Memorial Fund in memory of the Jets’ assistant who was killed in a biking accident in July, 2021.

8. Who knew? You may not remember this, but Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell was a member of the Jets in 2009. They got him from the Detroit Lions in a trade, hoping he’d develop into their long-term backup quarterback. He was on the team for three seasons but never got into a game and was famously released on “Hard Knocks” in 2010, when the HBO series featured the Jets.

9. Pick your poison: Rookie cornerback Sauce Gardner sometimes gets asked if he’d welcome the challenge of traveling with the opponents’ top wide receiver, the way Darrelle Revis used to back in the day. Of course he would, but he doesn’t think it’s necessary, not with him and D.J. Reed. As Gardner said, “When you’ve got two dominant corners, you really don’t have to do it.”

10. The last word: “Who are you?!” — Mike White, repeating what his wife, Mallory, said to him upon returning home after his three-touchdown, 315-yard passing day last Sunday

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