Zach Wilson's path to the New York Jets: Inside the NFL's worst-kept secret

ByRich Cimini ESPN logo
Sunday, May 9, 2021

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The fascination started last October.

New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas received word from one of his scouts that there was a college junior out west he needed to watch. The 2021 NFL draft was six months away, but this was his typical starting point for in-depth tape study on potential prospects. So he punched up the video of the Oct. 16 BYU-Houston game, and it changed the course of the franchise.

Douglas picked this game because it contained no fewer than four prospects, most notably Houston defensive end Payton Turner, who would become the first-round pick of the New Orleans Saints. BYU's offense included three draft-eligible players with pro potential, including a slick-throwing quarterback named Zach Wilson.

In the interest of efficiency, Douglas prefers to evaluate games that include multiple prospects. One of his right-hand men, senior football adviser Phil Savage, calls them "scouter's delight" games. In the world of scouting, nothing beats mano a mano.In this case, it was Cougar a Cougar.

Douglas fell hard for Wilson, triggering a scouting and vetting process unlike any other. Because of restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Jets scouted only two of his games in person and relied on five hours of videoconference calls (the maximum allowed by the league) to test his football acumen and get acquainted with his personality and leadership traits. Ultimately, they chose Wilson No. 2 overall, signaling the start of a new era.

Because it was a strange year, the only time Douglas saw Wilson in person was his March 26 pro day on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah. Afterward, they spoke for two minutes, certainly nothing in depth. There was no combine in Indianapolis and there were no private workouts, so Douglas had to rely on his scouts to dig up intel from their sources and on his medical staff to cull information that ordinarily would have been easy to obtain.

More than ever, Douglas relied on his eyes, and they told him last October to keep watching.

"[Wilson had] an unbelievable junior year," Douglas said after the draft.

Wilson was brilliant in that game against Houston, completing 25 of 35 passes for 400 yards and four touchdowns. He delivered plenty of wow moments, combining physical skills, accuracy, a quick release and the ability to make off-platform throws. At 6-foot-2, he was able to change his arm angle to throw between and around defenders.

Sitting in his office, Douglas was blown away. He jotted notes on all the prospects in the game, but his eyes kept reverting to Wilson. Unlike Clemson's Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State's Justin Fields, Wilson wasn't a household name before he stepped on campus. He was a three-star recruit who wasn't good enough to get an offer from his dream school, Utah, where his father, Mike, played on the defensive line. From a national perspective, the Houston game was his breakout performance.

One of the plays that stood out to Douglas was an 18-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. Already ahead by three points, facing a third-and-15, Wilson read blitz and saw man-to-man coverage on the outside. Some quarterbacks would have played it conservatively with a safe pass, but he used his eyes to freeze the middle safety and fired a strike to Dax Milne in the back corner of the end zone to seal the victory.

Intrigued, Douglas stayed late and watched two more BYU games that night. The next time he saw assistant GM Rex Hogan, Douglas told him they needed to commence a deep dive into Wilson. Douglas wanted to know everything about him in case he declared for the draft.

TV scouting

At that point, the Jets weren't bent on drafting a quarterback. Even though Sam Darnold was struggling and the team was losing, the organization hadn't lost faith in the 23-year-old. But as they plummeted to 0-13, it became clear they would have a high draft pick. As fans and media clamored for Lawrence, the consensus top player and considered a generational talent, Douglas and his staff quietly investigated Wilson and the three other top quarterbacks, Fields, North Dakota State's Trey Lance and Alabama's Mac Jones.

In a normal year, Douglas probably would have traveled to Utah to check out Wilson. In 2018, former GM Mike Maccagnan flew to California on four consecutive weekends to scout Darnold in his junior year at USC, returning on red-eye flights so he could make it back for the Jets' game. Scouts see things in person they can't see on tape, such as how a player conducts himself on the sideline. This is particularly important for a quarterback. Does he interact with teammates? Is he a loner? Does he mope after a bad play? How does he lead?

The Jets scouted the win at Houston and the Dec. 5 contest at Coastal Carolina. The latter was BYU's biggest game of the season and only loss, 22-17. Douglas, whose Jets were 0-11 and seemingly careening toward the No. 1 pick, scouted the game on TV. He didn't see a stellar performance from Wilson, but he didn't view it as a negative given the circumstances. Because of the pandemic, the game hadn't been scheduled until that week, and BYU had to make a cross-country flight to face a nationally ranked team.

Douglas reverted to TV scouting again on Dec. 22, as he watched Wilson tear apart Central Florida in the Boca Raton Bowl -- 425 yards and three touchdown passes. By now, Douglas was down the rabbit hole, as he likes to say. He had watched tape from Wilson's freshman and sophomore years, including a road win at Tennessee, a home victory against USC and a flawless performance against Western Michigan in the 2018 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl -- 18-for-18, 317 yards and four touchdown passes.

Wilson attempted 837 passes in his college career. By the end of January, Douglas had studied every one of them.

Two staffers were heavily involved in the vetting process -- area scout Andrew Dollak and personnel executive Zach Truty. Unable to be on campus because of COVID-19 restrictions, they had to rely on their connections. They spoke to assistant coaches, trainers, the equipment manager, BYU boosters and friends of the Wilson family.

They got so far into his background that they compiled notes on his college recruiting. Wilson had given a verbal commitment to Boise State, but he flipped to BYU. The Jets wanted to know why. (BYU, closer to home, made a late push.) Fortunately, Dollak and Truty had backgrounds in recruiting. In fact, Dollak was familiar with the Western region. He grew up in Arizona and worked in the Arizona State recruiting department.

In scouting, there's no such thing as too much information.

Ready for Broadway?

To the surprise of many, the Jets actually won two of their final three games to finish 2-14, blowing their shot at the No. 1 overall pick -- i.e., Lawrence. While outsiders bemoaned their fate, team officials loved their position at No. 2. They knew it was a strong quarterback class.

In February, the Jets started their draft meetings. When they got around to Wilson, one of the topics that came up was how he would handle the New York spotlight. He grew up in Draper, Utah (population 49,000) and played college ball in Provo (116,000), a long way from Broadway. Hogan, the assistant GM, made a comment in the meeting that resonated.

Early in his career, Hogan spent a year as Utah's director of football operations under coach Urban Meyer. He got a feel for the local vibe and saw how BYU, which now has its own TV network, generated a large share of the media coverage. There's inherent pressure in being the BYU quarterback, he told the group, comparing it to Notre Dame. BYU has a reputation for quarterback excellence, having produced Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer, among others.

"It's huge there," said John Beck, a former BYU and NFL quarterback. "It's really a cool thing. It's a mantel you have to carry, a responsibility. There are super-high expectations. You feel all of those expectations all the time."

Wilson's personal coach, Beck, a renowned quarterback guru based in Huntington Beach, California, became a valuable resource for the Jets. He has known Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur for many years, and they had several conversations during the run-up to the draft. Early in the process, the Jets asked questions about Wilson's size. He was 6-foot-2 and 214 pounds at his March 26 pro day. Prior to that, there were concerning rumors about his actual height.

"Everyone thought I was 6 feet," Wilson said, laughing. "I mean, that was a little harsh."

After that, LaFleur probed Beck on Wilson's physical and mental traits, digging deep into the X's and O's. How would you rate his arm strength on an 18-yard "dig" route? Which quarterback does he compare to on that route? In the beginning, the Jets were cagey about their interest in Wilson. As Beck noted, "This may sound funny, but it's kind of like 'The Dating Game.' Two people like each other, but they're not telling each other yet."

Soon, it became the worst-kept secret in the NFL. The clincher was Wilson's pro day.

Five months after seeing Wilson on tape for the first time, Douglas flew the 1,964 miles to Provo to watch him throw 70 passes before representatives from 31 teams. He was joined by LaFleur and coach Robert Saleh, who made an unusual request that day. He bumped into one of his former players, San Francisco 49ers linebacker and BYU alum Fred Warner. He asked Warner to hug Wilson. The idea, as first noted by Albert Breer of the MMQB, was to get a feel for the size of the quarterback's upper body. There was talk around the league about his narrow shoulders.

In the pre-pandemic world, Saleh could have done the hugging himself at the combine. Warner carried out the assignment -- what linebacker would pass on a chance to wrap his arms around a quarterback? -- and reported back to Saleh that Wilson's size reminded him of Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes. The Jets are confident Wilson can fill out; his father was a 6-foot-3 and 283-pound defensive lineman at Utah, and his two younger brothers play linebacker.

If Douglas was smitten before the pro day, he was head over heels after watching Wilson finish the workout with an off-balance 50-yard dime that went viral on social media.

"Ultimately, that pro day really, really cemented it," Douglas said.

By then, the Jets were comfortable with Wilson's intangibles. In five videoconference calls, one hour each, they showed video clips and grilled him on specific plays from his career. For each play, they wanted to know the call, the protection, his progression, the coverage and the audible (if there was one). He spit back each answer with the speed of a "Jeopardy!" champion.

In an effort to stump him, they didn't show plays in sequential order. They bounced around his career, pulling up plays from his freshman season. They were amazed by his recall. On some plays, he knew the outcome before it started, simply based on down, distance and opponent. Wilson has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), like some others in his family, and it created challenges in the college classroom, but it has no effect on his ability to absorb football concepts, according to people close to him.

"His mental horsepower is through the roof," Saleh said.

The Jets didn't want to overwhelm Wilson with a dozen people on the videoconference calls, so they limited it to five or six, including LaFleur, passing-game specialist Greg Knapp and quarterbacks coach Rob Calabrese, each of whom wrote separate scouting reports on the top five quarterback prospects.

As the Jets' three offensive coaches ranked the draft's quarterbacks, the organization weighed offers for Darnold. They eventually traded him to the Carolina Panthers on April 5. There was some sentiment within the building to keep their 2018 first-round pick, but the prevailing thought was that Wilson was too good to pass up.

The final piece to the puzzle was obtaining medical information on Wilson's surgically repaired throwing shoulder. In a normal year, the Jets would have had imaging results of the shoulder at the combine in early March. Forced to scramble, the Jets' trainers and doctors got the intel by reaching out to the BYU medical staff and the doctor who performed the labrum surgery in 2019. They received the actual notes from the procedure, creating a comfort level that allowed them to move on from Darnold and lock into Wilson.

In the end, it came down to a football decision. With Lawrence heading to the Jacksonville Jaguars with the No. 1 pick, the Jets faced a choice among Wilson, Fields, Lance and Jones. If they had finished 0-16 instead of 2-14, it probably would've been Lawrence, but the pro-Wilson sentiment in the organization was strong. The coaches and personnel department were in lockstep, essentially resulting in a final decision four weeks before the draft. There was no 11th-hour wavering, no entertaining of trade offers. They were so committed to Wilson that people in his inner circle knew ahead of time he was New York-bound.

In their view, Wilson separated himself because of his pure passing ability; his quick eyes, hands and feet really popped on tape. They felt he was the cleanest fit in Kyle Shanahan's version of the West Coast offense, which uses play-action and boots. They also loved how he approached everything with bright eyes.

On April 29, at 8:33 p.m. ET, it became official: Wilson was the Jets' new quarterback, six months after he was just an image on Douglas' screen and a possibility in his mind.

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