Why Mike LaFleur will ensure Zach Wilson doesn’t follow Sam Darnold as Jets latest QB bust

Zach Wilson holds a jersey onstage after being drafted second by the New York Jets during round one of the 2021 NFL Draft at the Great Lakes Science Center on April 29, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Zach Wilson holds a jersey onstage after being drafted second by the New York Jets during round one of the 2021 NFL Draft at the Great Lakes Science Center on April 29, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

Here’s why New York Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur will ensure quarterback Zach Wilson doesn’t follow Sam Darnold as the team’s latest bust at quarterback.

The New York Jets knew Zach Wilson was their man before the pro day circuit even began. New head coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur quickly began overhauling what was a woeful unit under Adam Gase. Tailoring an offense around the former BYU star and surrounding him with a deep cast of playmakers was clearly a priority.

Jettisoning former third overall pick Sam Darnold to Carolina and rebooting the offense was an easy decision. But Darnold didn’t just bust because he was bad, as he dealt with one of the toughest situations in the league throughout his three seasons with the franchise. The organization let him fail miserably and the new regime is focused on preventing the same fate for Wilson.

The 33-year-old first-time coordinator has big shoes to fill. The brother of Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, and protege of Kyle Shanahan, Mike LaFleur must find his niche so he’s not simply a clone of the ever-popular wide zone offense. Using the scheme as a base for the offensive play-calling and style is important but creation and versatility are as well.

The wide zone running attack essentially boils down to relying on outside zone rush plays and then throwing play-action attempts to take advantage of defensive adjustments to filling gaps near the line of scrimmage. Shanahan, for example, has mastered creating yards after catch opportunities with the wide zone base. Kevin Stefanski has made his version of it feature more 22 personnel to take pressure off the quarterback.

Zach Wilson will quickly help Jets fans get over the Sam Darnold era

Wilson was exposed to a version of wide zone at BYU, making many see this fit as perfect. It’s certainly a cleaner fit than Darnold’s struggle with Adam Gase, but it’s not as easy as dropping Wilson into the offense and expecting a hasty transition. BYU rooted their attack in more Air Raid concepts on pass plays.

LaFleur can adjust his passing attack to replicate some of the Air Raid but NFL defenses have performed better than collegiate defenses against the attack. Finding a balance between the two principles is a tough line that few offenses ever achieve. The blend of personnel and creative, timely play-calling must be excellent.

Wilson’s strengths will highlight the best parts of the offense. He’s experienced in run-pass options, has a strong, quick passing motion, and has the mobility required to terrorize defenses on the move. LaFleur can account for these without specific tailoring to Wilson since there’s overlap between the player and base of the scheme.

Darnold was stuck in an offense trying to rely on screens, slants, and predictable situational calls. Gase never evolved as the league incorporated more Air Raid and outside zone action, and was keeping everything simplified. Defenses weren’t threatened by the scheme or lack of playmakers around Darnold.

The Jets have worked to rectify both of those issues. Drafting Elijah Moore and Michael Carter in addition to signing Corey Davis gives Wilson one of the better young groups of talent in the league. 2020 second-rounder Denzel Mims and slot specialist Jamison Crowder also return to complete the group.

There’s still work to be done in bolstering the offensive line, a star back, and possibly a tight end. It’s not fair to expect this unit to be as smooth-flowing as San Francisco’s yet but the days of Darnold struggling to find open receivers is over. Whether Wilson acts on finding the open man is another topic, though.

Every prospect has flaws but even in an advantageous and relatively easier passing scheme, Wilson lacked consistency reading defenses. He missed leverage cues pre- and post-snap too often and opted to break the pocket to make splashy plays on the move. Operating out of structure shows a higher upside but it doesn’t overcome the necessity of winning within structure.

This is especially true of the wide zone scheme. The play-action rollouts often create clear passing windows and rely on timing. Wilson excelled at the Air Raid aspects of the BYU offense but not so much on the wide zone elements. He’s more of a back-shoulder on isolation routes thrower than one who reliably hits his target in stride over the middle of the field.

This is an area of development for the future. LaFleur has surely seen this and has signed off on working with Wilson to better this aspect of his game. After all, he’s seen the glass ceiling in place when working with an opposite skill set Jimmy Garoppolo has.

The Jets are already well ahead of where their efforts were after the 2018 NFL Draft. Darnold had Robby Anderson, LeVeon Bell, and Crowder throughout his time with the franchise but help was scarce in general. This is the most offensive firepower we’ve seen the Jets have since Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, and Quincy Enunwa headlined the receiver corps.

Blending the offenses the 49ers have produced with more Air Raid, isolation-type routes is the ultimate goal to help Wilson reach his potential. Aaron Rodgers has been able to pull off this rare mixture with Matt LaFleur, and the Jets are praying they’ll find the same level of success with Mike LaFleur and Wilson.

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