The Jets expect to play meaningful games “down the stretch,” and they think Zach Wilson will be a major part of their improvement.
Despite a knee injury that will likely cost him at least the first game of the regular season — if not more — Gang Green’s brass believes the No. 2 pick in the 2021 draft is on an upward trajectory.
“Before the injury, he was way ahead of where he was a year ago,” coach Robert Saleh said Thursday. “I know that first preseason game, people put a lot of stock into those series, which is warranted, but that first preseason game isn’t even close to what he’s been showing throughout OTAs and training camp and the way he communicates even now that he’s not a part of the practices, and he’s just in meetings.
“So [I’m] really excited about him getting the chance to get back to the football field to show how far along he’s come. As far as the development and the course that he’s on, we’re excited about it, and we’re excited about his future.”
When, exactly, the 23-year-old Wilson returns remains uncertain. He suffered a torn meniscus and bone bruise in his right knee in the Aug. 12 preseason opener against the Eagles, a game in which he threw an interception and was far from impressive. Wilson underwent arthroscopic surgery four days later and is still not practicing, though on Wednesday Saleh said he may not need a full two weeks of practice to return as he did last year after suffering a sprained knee injury.
When asked about that on Thursday, the Jets’ coach stepped back from that statement somewhat, saying that is a question better suited for team doctors.
“It has to do with the return-to-play protocol that’s assigned to the player once the injury has been diagnosed and all that stuff,” Saleh said.
One positive for Wilson is, by the time he is back, the offensive line will have had a lot of time together to jell. The group, which was reshuffled after Mekhi Becton’s season-ending knee injury — 37-year-old left tackle Duane Brown was signed, and George Fant was moved from left to right tackle — struggled in its lone preseason game together. Saleh is encouraged the unit will be more cohesive by the time Week 1 rolls around.
“We have time to get the game reps in. We’re having team competitions, so it’s not just going against cards, we’re competing against one another also, but we’ve got to get going,” he said. “There’s an opportunity for us to catch up pretty quick, and we’ve got about five, six practices left.”
The Jets’ roster is improved on paper. This year’s draft class appears loaded, and the defense looks formidable up front, without the issues at cornerback. But for the team to really take the next step, it will need Wilson to rebound from a rocky rookie season, and he will have to do so after missing crucial practice time.
“We’ve talked about him coming back at the end of last year and the jump he made,” general manager Joe Douglas said. “He was having that same level of progression throughout OTAs, throughout training camp. … I’m sure he would like to have that first series back in the Philly game, but he was getting back into rhythm and showing all of those traits and the progression that he had made in that second series, before the injury. We have seen tremendous progress from Zach.”