FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – The fascination started last October.
Joe Douglas, general manager of New York Jets, received word from one of his scouts that there was a college junior in the west to watch. The 2021 NFL draft was six months away, but this was his typical starting point for an in-depth band study of potential prospects. So he shot the video of the BYU Houston game on October 16, and it changed the course of the franchise.
Douglas chose this game because it featured no less than four prospects, particularly Houston’s defensive end, Payton Turner, who would be the New Orleans Saints’ first choice. BYU’s offense included three players with pro potential, including a quarterback named Zach Wilson.
In the interests of efficiency, Douglas prefers rating games with multiple prospects. One of his right-wing men, senior soccer advisor Phil Savage, calls them “Scouter’s Delight” games. In the world of scouting, there is nothing like mano a mano. In this case it was Cougar a cougar.
Douglas fell in love with Wilson and sparked a scouting and screening process that is second to none. Due to restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, the Jets only explored two of his games in person and relied on five hours of video conference calls (the maximum allowed by the league) to test his soccer acumen and familiarize themselves with his personality and leadership skills do. Ultimately, they chose Wilson No. 2 overall and signaled the beginning of a new era.
Because it’s been a strange year, the only time Douglas saw Wilson in person was his pro day on March 26th on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah. Then they spoke for two minutes, certainly nothing in depth. There was no combine harvester and no private workouts in Indianapolis. So Douglas had to rely on his scouts to get information from their sources and that his medical staff selected information that would normally have been easy to come by.
Douglas relied on his eyes more than ever and they told him last October to keep watching.
“”[Wilson had] An incredible junior year, “said Douglas after the draft.
Wilson was brilliant in that game against Houston, completing 25 of 35 passes for 400 yards and four touchdowns. Delivering many wow moments, it combined physical skills, accuracy, quick release and the ability to perform off-platform throws. At 6-foot-2, he was able to change his arm angle to throw between and around defenders.
Douglas sat in his office and was overwhelmed. He made notes of every prospect in the game, but his eyes kept drifting back to Wilson. Unlike Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields of Ohio, Wilson wasn’t a household name before entering campus. He was a three-star recruit who wasn’t good enough to receive an offer from his dream school in Utah, where his father Mike played on the defensive. From a national standpoint, the game in Houston was his breakout performance.
One of the games Douglas noticed was an 18-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. Wilson was already three points ahead of a third-and-15 player. He read lightning and saw man-to-man reporting from outside. Some quarterbacks would have played it conservatively with a safe pass, but he used his eyes to freeze medium safety and shot Dax Milne in the far corner of the end zone to seal the win.
Douglas remained fascinated for a long time and watched two more BYU games that evening. The next time he saw assistant GM Rex Hogan, Douglas told him they had to dive deep into Wilson. Douglas wanted to know all about him in case he signed up for the draft.
At this point, the Jets weren’t looking to draw a quarterback. Although Sam Darnold struggled and the team lost, the organization hadn’t lost confidence in the 23-year-old. But when they fell to 0-13 it became clear they were going to have a high draft pick. When fans and the media shouted for Lawrence, the top player of the consensus, and considered the talent of the generation, Douglas and his staff quietly scrutinized Wilson and the other three top quarterbacks, Fields, Trey Lance of North Dakota and Mac Jones Alabama.
In a normal year, Douglas would likely have traveled to Utah to investigate Wilson. In 2018, former GM Mike Maccagnan flew to California for four consecutive weekends to explore Darnold in his junior year at USC. He returned on red-eye flights to return to the game of jets. Scouts see things in person that they can’t see on tape, such as how a player behaves on the sidelines. This is especially important for a quarterback. Does he interact with teammates? Is he a loner? Does he trample after a bad game? How does he lead?
The Jets scouted the win in Houston and the December 5th competition in 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 moving towards the number 1, was watching the game on television. He didn’t see any outstanding performance from Wilson, but he didn’t see it as a negative under the circumstances. Because of the pandemic, the game wasn’t scheduled until this week and BYU had to make an overland flight to face a national team.
Douglas returned to TV scouting on December 22nd when he saw Wilson tear central Florida apart at the Boca Raton Bowl – 425 yards and three touchdown passes. Meanwhile Douglas was in the rabbit hole, as he likes to say. He’d watched a tape from Wilson’s first and sophomore years, including a road win in Tennessee, a home win over USC, and a flawless performance against Western Michigan in the famous 2018 Idaho Potato Bowl – 18 versus 18, 317 yards and four touchdowns goes by.
Wilson attempted 837 passes in his college career. Douglas had studied each of them by the end of January.
Take a look at Zach Wilson’s highlights at BYU as the QB prepares to be a top pick in the NFL draft.
Two employees were heavily involved in the review process – area scout Andrew Dollak and HR manager Zach Truty. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, they couldn’t be on campus and had to rely on their connections. They spoke to assistant coaches, coaches, the equipment manager, BYU boosters, and friends of the Wilson family.
They got so far into his background that they were putting together notes on his college recruitment. Wilson had given Boise State an oral commitment, but he switched to BYU. The jets wanted to know why. (BYU, closer to home, made a late push.) Fortunately, Dollak and Truty had a background in recruiting. In fact, Dollak was familiar with the western region. He grew up in Arizona and worked in the Arizona State Recruiting Department.
There isn’t too much information in scouting.
Ready for Broadway?
To the surprise of many, the Jets actually won two of their last three games to finish in 2:14 and blew their shot at number 1 overall – i. H. Lawrence. While outsiders lamented their fate, the team officials loved their position in second place. They knew it was a strong quarterback class.
In February, the Jets began drafting their meetings. When they got to Wilson, one of the topics that came up was how he would deal with the New York limelight. He grew up in Draper, Utah (population 49,000) and played college ball in Provo (116,000), far from Broadway. Hogan, the assistant GM, made a comment at the meeting that was well received.
Early in his career, Hogan was Utah’s director of football operations for a year under coach Urban Meyer. He got a feel for the local vibe and saw BYU, which now has its own TV network, generate much of the media coverage. The BYU quarterback is naturally pressured, he told the group, comparing him to Notre Dame. BYU is known for its outstanding quarterback performances, among others with Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer.
“It’s huge there,” said John Beck, a former BYU and NFL quarterback. “It’s really a cool thing. It’s a mantelpiece that you have to carry, a responsibility. There are super high expectations. You can feel all those expectations all the time.”
Wilson’s personal trainer Beck, a noted quarterback guru from Huntington Beach, California, has become a valuable resource for the Jets. He has known Jets Offensive Coordinator Mike LaFleur for many years and they had several conversations ahead of the draft. At the beginning of the process, the Jets asked questions about Wilson’s height. He was 6-foot-2 and 214 pounds on his March 26th pro day. Previously there were rumors about its real size.
“Everyone thought I was 6 feet,” Wilson said with a laugh. “I mean that was a little tough.”
Then LaFleur Beck examined Wilson’s physical and mental properties and dug himself deep into the X and O. How would you rate his arm strength on an 18 yard dig route? Which quarterback is he comparing to on this route? In the beginning, the Jets were caged about their interest in Wilson. As Beck noted, “That may sound funny, but it’s a bit like ‘The Dating Game’. Two people like each other but they don’t tell each other yet.”
It soon became the NFL’s worst-kept secret. The clincher tire was Wilson’s pro day.
Five months after Douglas first saw Wilson on tape, he flew the 1,964 miles to Provo to see him throw 70 passes in front of representatives from 31 teams. He was joined by LaFleur and trainer Robert Saleh, who made an unusual request that day. He met one of his former players, the San Francisco 49ers linebacker and BYU alum Fred Warner. He asked Warner to hug Wilson. The idea, as first noted by MMQB’s Albert Breer, was to get a feel for the size of the quarterback’s torso. His narrow shoulders were talked about in the league.
In the pre-pandemic world, Saleh could have hugged on the combine. Warner carried out the assignment – which linebacker would pass the chance to wrap his arms around a quarterback? – and reported to Saleh that Wilson’s height reminded him of Patrick Mahomes, the star of the Kansas City Chiefs. The Jets are confident that Wilson can fill out; His father was a 6-foot-3 and 283-pound defense attorney in Utah, and his two younger brothers play linebackers.
If Douglas was beaten before the pro day, he was head over heels after watching Wilson finish training with an off-balance 50 yard cent that went viral on social media.
– NFL (@NFL) March 26, 2021
“Ultimately, that pro-day really, really cemented it,” said Douglas.
By then, the Jets were familiar with Wilson’s intangibles. In five video conference calls, each one hour, they showed video clips and grilled him on certain parts of his career. For each game, they wanted to know the call, protection, its progress, reporting and audible alert (if any). He spat every answer with the speed of a “Jeopardy!” Champion.
To surprise him, they didn’t show any pieces in sequential order. They jumped around his career and picked up pieces from his first season. They were amazed at his call back. For some games, he knew the result before it started, simply based on relegation, distance and opponents. Wilson suffers from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) like some others in his family, and it has created challenges in the college classroom, but it doesn’t affect his ability to absorb football concepts, according to people around him.
“His intellectual achievement goes through the roof,” said Saleh.
The Jets didn’t want to overpower Wilson on the video conference calls with a dozen people, so they limited themselves to five or six, including LaFleur, passing specialist Greg Knapp, and quarterbacks coach Rob Calabrese, each of whom wrote separate scouting reports on the top five quarterback prospects .
When the Jets’ three offensive coaches rated the draft quarterbacks, the organization weighed the offers for Darnold. They eventually traded it for the Carolina Panthers on April 5th. There was a certain vibe in the building to keep the 2018 first round election going, but the prevailing thought was that Wilson was too good to pass up.
The final piece of the puzzle was to get medical information about Wilson’s surgically repaired throwing shoulder. In a normal year, the jets would have received imaging results of the shoulder on the combine in early March. The jet’s coaches and doctors were forced to crawl and were given information by reaching out to BYU medical staff and the doctor who performed the labral surgery in 2019, further from Darnold and lock himself in Wilson.
In the end, it all came down to a football decision. When Lawrence went to the Jacksonville Jaguars with the number 1, the Jets faced a choice between Wilson, Fields, Lance and Jones. If they’d finished 0-16 instead of 2-14 it would probably have been Lawrence, but the pro-Wilson sentiment in the organization was strong. The trainers and HR were in lockstep, which essentially resulted in a final decision four weeks ahead of the draft. There was no swaying in the 11th hour, no conversation about trade offers. They were so committed to Wilson that the people in his inner circle knew beforehand that he was in New York.
In their view, Wilson split because of his sheer overtaking ability; His quick eyes, hands, and feet really slammed onto tape. They felt it would be the best fit for Kyle Shanahan’s version of the West Coast crime that uses game action and boots. They also loved how he approached everything with sparkling eyes.
On April 29 at 8:33 p.m. ET, it got official: Wilson was the Jets ‘new quarterback six months after being just a picture on Douglas’ screen and a possibility on his mind.