Sports

Jets pick QB Wilson, trade up for OG Vera-Tucker

Hoping to end years of losing and quarterback instability, the New York Jets selected BYU’s Zach Wilson with the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft on Thursday night, making him the franchise’s highest-drafted quarterback since Joe Namath in 1965.

After the Jacksonville Jaguars took QB Trevor Lawrence with the top pick, the Jets opted for Wilson over the three other highly rated quarterbacks in the draft class: Ohio State’s Justin Fields, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Alabama’s Mac Jones.

The Jets then traded up to No. 14 with the Minnesota Vikings to get Wilson some protection, selecting USC guard Alijah Vera-Tucker.

The Jets traded the No. 23 pick and two third-round picks (Nos. 66 and 86) to the Vikings to move up, getting No. 14 and a fourth-round pick (143).

“I feel like the ball club improved,” general manager Joe Douglas said at the end of the night. “I feel good about the two people and players we brought in — just ecstatic, really, about those two young men.”

For weeks, Wilson-to-the-Jets was deemed a foregone conclusion around the league, especially after Sam Darnold — the No. 3 pick in 2018 — was traded to the Carolina Panthers on April 6.

In addition to Wilson’s physical talent, the Jets were impressed by their video conference interviews with him.

“Love the confidence, love the energy, love the passion,” Douglas said. “One of the things that really stood out was just his intensity. He sat on the edge of his seat. He was close to the camera. You could tell how intense and focused he was. The mental horsepower … was just really impressive.”

Coach Robert Saleh said Wilson “checked every box” with regard to arm strength, accuracy and ability to make off-schedule plays. He called him “fearless in the pocket.” Saleh declined to say if he’s planning to make Wilson the Week 1 starter.

Minutes after being chosen, Wilson vowed to embrace the challenge of changing the Jets’ losing ways.

“When a team isn’t doing super well and you can go in there and actually be a key piece to where it flips that organization around, that’s so special,” he said on a video conference call with reporters. “I’m so excited — me, along with this new coaching staff as well — to go in there and flip this thing around.

“I’ve heard from multiple sources how talented this team is, but maybe the pieces didn’t align,” he added. “I’m so excited to get in there and figure out what we can do to make it better.”

The Jets, coming off a 2-14 season, are counting on Wilson to upgrade the position. They haven’t had a true franchise quarterback since Namath, who was drafted No. 1 overall in the AFL and 12th overall in the NFL.

The Jets are the first team in the common draft era (since 1967) to select two quarterbacks within the top three overall picks in a four-year span, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Wilson, the franchise’s sixth first-round selection at quarterback since Namath, was a breakout star during the 2020 college football season. After a disappointing, injury-plagued sophomore year, he reclaimed his starting job in a three-way competition and led BYU (11-1) to its best season in 25 years.

He passed for 33 touchdowns and ran for another 10, while throwing three interceptions. Deemed a late-round pick at the start of the season, Wilson’s draft stock soared as he played his way into the first-round conversation and solidified his status with an exceptional pro day performance on March 26.

The Jets preferred Wilson over Fields, Lance and Jones because of his arm strength and accuracy, his quick release, his movement skills and his competitiveness. They see him as an ideal fit in their new scheme. Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, both former assistants with the San Francisco 49ers, are installing the system used by Kyle Shanahan.

“It’s so similar to BYU — tons of shifts and motions, a little bit of pro-style under center, pushing the ball down the field, play-action passing,” Wilson said of the Jets’ system. “That West Coast-style offense … if I had to write exactly the offense I want to play in, it would be right there.”

Some scouts have compared Wilson to Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes because of his ability to throw from different arm angles. At the same time, there are questions about him, starting with durability.

Wilson said he started to get a strong feeling “a couple of weeks back” that he was headed to the Jets, based on media projections.

“But you never truly know until draft day,” he said. “This is what I was hoping for. This is what my family was praying for.”

Standing 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Wilson had surgery in 2019 to repair a labrum in his right (throwing) shoulder. He also had surgery during the 2019 season to fix a broken right thumb.

He rebounded from the injuries and delivered a stellar 2020 season, but it came against a schedule that had no Power 5 opponents. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, BYU had to juggle its schedule on the fly and was rarely tested as a result.

As a starter against AP-ranked teams in his career, Wilson went 2-4, with eight touchdown passes and five interceptions.

Douglas dismissed BYU’s soft schedule, saying, “That’s not his fault, no more than it was Steve McNair’s fault about Alcorn State’s schedule when he was coming out.”

Wilson joins a Jets team with no experienced quarterbacks. The only quarterbacks on the roster are 2020 fourth-round pick James Morgan and former practice squad player Mike White, neither of whom has regular-season experience.

Explaining the decision to trade up for Vera-Tucker, Douglas called it a “unique opportunity,” noting that the former USC lineman was graded in the top 10 on their draft board. Douglas wouldn’t say where they will play him, but the initial plan is to use him at left guard, alongside left tackle Mekhi Becton, last year’s first-round pick.

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