FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — As Zach Wilson flew on a red-eye flight from California to the East Coast early Thursday morning, he reclined in one of those premier seats that converts into a bed. He got plenty of sleep, he said.
The harsh wake-up came on Friday morning against N.F.L. defenders on the brilliant green grass of the Jets’ practice field.
Wilson, the young quarterback the Jets hope will eventually lead them to a second Super Bowl in more than half a century, had a rough inauguration on his first day of N.F.L. training camp. There were missed passes, a would-be sack and a bad interception after Wilson missed the first two days of camp because he and the team had not resolved contract negotiations.
“I wouldn’t say I’m behind,” Wilson said. “It was just my first live bullets again. It’s just getting back into the mix. I know my plays, I know my assignments. I know what’s going on and I’ve just got to execute.”
Eventually, perhaps as soon as Saturday, when fans will be allowed to watch the Jets live for the first time since the end of the 2019 regular season — or on Tuesday, when Wilson turns 22 — he will have the opportunity to set good performances against Friday’s ragged one. And who will ever remember his first, ugly day of training camp, anyway?
It is what he does in regular season games, and eventually the playoffs, that will matter most. With Wilson, there are high hopes and expectations that he will accomplish what recent predecessors at the position like Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith and Sam Darnold could not.
The Jets (2-14 last season) grabbed Wilson with the second overall pick in April’s N.F.L. draft, a shining star from Brigham Young University, who shot up the draft chart in the weeks leading up to selection day. He bears a tender, young aspect and at roughly 6-foot-1, he appeared as one of the smaller players on the field on Friday. But at least he was finally there.
His absence from camp was settled on Thursday when he finally signed his rookie contract, enabling him to take the field. Although rookie contracts are preset according to the slot the player was drafted in, the way the money is paid out and other technical aspects of the deal need to be negotiated. It took Wilson and his agent a few extra days to reach agreement with the Jets, and he was the last first-round draftee to sign.
“There’s a part of you that just wants to get it done,” said Wilson, who wore a face mask while standing on a podium after practice. “But you want to get it done the right way. It’s a rookie contract you’re going to have to play with for four years, so you have to handle the business side of it.”
It had been an agonizing couple of weeks for Wilson and the Jets, who learned of the death of Greg Knapp, an offensive assistant coach, on July 22. Five days prior, Knapp, 58, had been struck by a car while riding his bicycle in California and never regained consciousness.
Wilson, who worked with Knapp at rookie camp, optional training activities and mini camp, said he was shocked by the news.
“I had just been talking to him the day before,” he said. “It was almost like, I didn’t believe it, like if I called him right then on the phone, he would have answered. It really hit me later on. I’m just praying for his family and everyone. We have to get through this together.”
On Friday, Wilson and the other two young quarterbacks on the roster, James Morgan and Mike White, worked closely with Mike LaFleur, the team’s offensive coordinator. Despite several poor throws, the day was not all bad for Wilson. His first pass was completed to Elijah Moore for a long gain, eliciting cheers and “oohs,” from the players on the sidelines.
“We’ve got a quarterback,” Moore said.
Wilson also threw a touchdown pass to Corey Davis on a red-zone drill. Overall, he completed just 5 of 10 passes and went only 1 for 6 in 7-on-7 drills. Robert Saleh, the Jets’ first-year head coach, dismissed Wilson’s rust and noted that defenses were usually more advanced than the offenses at this stage of training camp.
He also noted that Wilson exhibited some traits that every N.F.L. quarterback needs, including a commanding presence, on his first day of camp.
“He’s got tremendous confidence,” Saleh said. “He walks into the huddle and he’s not stuttering, he’s giving the play call, gets to the line of scrimmage, gets people lined up. So he’s got that leadership presence, and it’s only going to get better.”
Over his three years at Brigham Young, Wilson’s completions rate was 67.7 percent, peaking at 73.5 in his final year. He had 33 touchdown passes and only 3 interceptions that season. That is why the Jets traded Darnold to the Carolina Panthers and selected Wilson so high, and why they will pay him a guaranteed $35.1 million over four years, with $22.9 million of it in a signing bonus.
What could Wilson buy with all that money, other than a first-class airline ticket?
“You can’t buy a Super Bowl,” he said, “so I guess I’ve got to work for that.”