FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Zach Wilson never expected to be here at this point in his NFL career.
The No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 draft is the New York Jets’ backup quarterback behind Aaron Rodgers. It has been a two-year stretch that has seen Wilson go from the future of the franchise to a reclamation project.
And learning from the player he has always wanted to be like.
“It’s interesting, right?” Wilson said Friday, the first time he spoke with reporters since the end of last season. “Of course I wish things had gone differently the past two years and I would’ve played amazing. But I truly believe things happen for a reason.”
Trying to discern what that reason is has been part of what has been a tumultuous journey for Wilson, who has shown brief flashes of why he was so highly coveted. But overwhelming struggles have marked his short time in the NFL.
In 22 starts, Wilson has 15 touchdowns and 18 interceptions with a lowly 55.2 completion percentage and an unsightly 70.9 quarterback rating. As his production dipped, so did his confidence — to the point he was benched twice last season and coach Robert Saleh insisted Wilson needed a mental reset.
Meanwhile, the Jets knew they needed to address the quarterback position in the offseason. They were open with Wilson, telling him they’d bring in a veteran who presumably would take over as the starter.
“I can’t be bitter at the situation,” Wilson acknowledged. “I didn’t perform well.”
General manager Joe Douglas pulled off the trade that shook up the NFL in April, when he acquired Rodgers from Green Bay after months of speculation.
Wilson, who in January declared he would make an incoming veteran’s life “hell” at practice, was suddenly going to be teammates with his idol.
“How old is he 40?” a smiling Wilson said. “He’s double my age. I’m like, ‘You’re like my big brother I never had.’ Sometimes your little brother has to make your life hell.”
The 39-year-old Rodgers, however, said the 23-year-old Wilson has “been incredible” this offseason.
“He hasn’t made my life hell every day,” he said with a grin. “He’s been a joy to work with and I give him so much credit because it’s a tough situation what he went through.”
Rodgers attended every voluntary practice this offseason while getting to know his new teammates and helping offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett install his system. And that’s after the four-time NFL MVP hadn’t attended voluntary sessions his last few seasons with the Packers.
“The last six weeks have been about the most fun I’ve had in a while,” Rodgers said. “It’s fun to come to work and be excited about what we’re doing.”
Rodgers’ presence has raised expectations for a franchise that has failed to make the playoffs the last 12 seasons, the longest active drought in the NFL.
He has insisted he is no savior. But he might be exactly that for Wilson.
“They have a really nice relationship and because of it, guards are down and there’s really good communication back and forth,” Saleh said of Wilson and Rodgers. “I think there’s a level of trust in the quarterback room right now between the coaches and the players amongst one another where communication isn’t met with cynicism.
“It’s met with acceptance and because of it, I think it’s going to help him get better.”
Wilson was thrust into the starting job as a rookie, learning life in the NFL on the fly — and taking plenty of criticism along the way. Now, the pressure is off. Wilson can watch Rodgers and get a mental blueprint of what success at this level looks like.
“The QB room being with Aaron, I think it’s feeling like every single day there’s so much to learn,” Wilson said. “You know, it’s like every day I’m just like, ‘Wow, like I just learned 10 different things about playing the quarterback position.’”
Wilson spent time with Rodgers in January in California, several weeks before Rodgers decided he wanted to continue playing — and intended to do so for the Jets. The two, who hit it off when the Jets and Packers had joint practices in Green Bay two summers ago, talked a little football.
There’s plenty of that now.
Wilson, who said he was humbled by his struggles, is now hopeful about his future.
“Like I said, I think everything happens for a reason,” Wilson said. “Am I going to have this opportunity to learn from the greatest quarterback of all time and this staff if things didn’t happen the way they did?
”So, I’m very optimistic about it.”
NOTES: Saleh and the Jets are not rooting to be selected to appear this summer on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series. “I know there’s several teams that would love for ‘Hard Knocks’ to be in their building,” he said, “but we’re just not one of them.” … TE C.J. Uzomah left practice with what appeared to be a right leg injury. He pulled up lame while going out for a pass from Rodgers and limped off the field.
Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.