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Zach Wilson’s critical Year 2 with Jets begins with preseason test vs. Eagles

Zach Wilson is determined to show he’s a different — better — quarterback than he was in his rookie year.

Behind the scenes, that process began months ago for the Jets’ second-year quarterback with the offseason conditioning program, then OTAs, minicamps and now training camp.

On Friday night, behind the scenes becomes front and center when Wilson and the Jets play the Eagles in the teams’ preseason opener at Lincoln Financial Field, where Wilson and the starting offense are expected to play a series or two depending on how successful the first series goes.

“If they put together a good first series, we’ll call it a day,’’ head coach Robert Saleh said. “If not, we’ll just go out there and try to get a certain number of plays.’’

There’s much to improve on for Wilson, who had his struggles his rookie season — and understandably so considering he was thrown immediately into the fire as the face of the franchise and considering some of the cast around him was barely NFL-worthy.

This year is different. The Jets have added some skill-position talent around Wilson and upgraded the offensive line. More will be expected of him. More will be needed from him.

When we last saw Wilson, he was trending upward at the end of last season. He threw nine interceptions in his first five games then just two in his final eight starts, while throwing five touchdown passes in that span.

Zach Wilson runs wind sprint during a recent Jets practice.
Zach Wilson runs wind sprint during a recent Jets practice.
Bill Kostroun

One thing to watch for beginning Friday is how quickly Wilson makes decisions and gets the ball out of his hands. Yes, the offensive line struggled last season, as evidenced by the 44 times Wilson was sacked on his 383 pass attempts. But Wilson constantly held onto the ball too long, something that’s imperative for him to improve on this season.

“It’s just getting more comfortable, getting more comfortable within offense and the looks that you’re getting and my reads,’’ Wilson said. “I think we’re getting to the point where I’ve seen the plays that we’re running so many times now that I can think about those reps and what the last one looked like [and] I can stack those days up.’’

Tight end Tyler Conklin, one of the offseason acquisitions who’s already developed some good chemistry with Wilson, recalled what he saw of Wilson before he became a Jet and what he’s seen since he arrived.

“Before I got here, you could see all the traits — the arm strength and athleticism,’’ Conklin said. “Since I got here, I’ve seen how hard he works in person — studying, in the weight room and the practice field — his love for the game and how hard he works at it.’’

Conklin said he’s “excited’’ about Wilson’s “ability to extend plays’’ with his athletic ability.

Zach Wilson
Zach Wilson
Bill Kostroun

“That’s something that’s hard for defenses to cover,’’ Conklin said. “If the pass rushers can’t get there and he escapes, it creates to many more opportunities for us as an offense. He can do both — sit in the pocket and throw with timing and also get out of the pocket and make plays.’’

Though many teams opt to keep their starters in Bubble Wrap in preseason games, Saleh finds it important to play his starters.

“They’ve got to play, they’ve got to feel it, they’ve got to go out there and feel different bodies at some point,’’ Saleh said. “You’ve got to be able to go through those exercises and all of it. You can’t coach scared, you can’t play scared, if you do, it gets even worse. But, at the same time you’ve got to be smart.’’

Smart in Saleh’s eyes is to play Wilson and the starters for at least a part of the first quarter before sending the backups out for evaluation.

What is he looking for out of Wilson?

“Just execute the best way you know how,’’ Saleh said. “Get comfortable in a game situation — timing, clock, play clock, getting out of the huddle, getting lined up, playing through cadence a little bit. It’s really their first time playing a game since whatever the last time was [at the end of last season], so it’s just a matter of just getting out there and getting comfortable. No expectations.’’

Wilson, however, has some expectations he’d like to fulfill in the first preseason fame.

“The biggest thing is going to be clean football,’’ he said. “We have to go out there with no penalties. There’s going to be the penalties, but it’s going to be the pre-snap penalties that you need to avoid [and] the missed assignments that we need to avoid. We need to look like a football team out there.’’

That begins with Wilson looking like a winning NFL quarterback out there.

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