By DENNIS WASZAK Jr.
AP Pro Football Writer
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Zach Wilson was in the middle of the locker room Thursday talking about taking over for the injured Aaron Rodgers when a teammate shouted and made the New York Jets quarterback grin.
“Zach, we love you, bro!”
It was a light moment, but one that was telling.
Wilson struggled mightily during his first two NFL seasons and his confidence took a massive hit, and so did his popularity in the locker room. He was benched twice last season and his playing future — particularly with the Jets — was uncertain when New York acquired Rodgers in April. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 draft was no longer the face of the franchise.
But Wilson insisted he would soak up as much football knowledge as he could from the sideline and learn from Rodgers, the four-time NFL MVP and one-time Super Bowl winner. He found himself back in the huddle after just four snaps with Rodgers out for the season with a torn left Achilles tendon suffered in the Jets’ season-opening overtime win over Buffalo.
Suddenly, the spotlight is back on Zach.
“One step at a time, one play at a time,” Wilson said. “And I think it’s trusting the guys around me.”
Wilson had some shaky moments Monday night when he came in for Rodgers, finishing 14 of 21 for 140 yards and a touchdown with an interception. But he was able to make plays under pressure, too, and the short passes to get out of trouble — something that was such an issue last season — were also there.
All that, from the Jets’ perspective, is progress.
“I’ll tell you, my respect for him is off the charts,” said offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, in his first season with the Jets. “For a guy to not have any practice to come in there and execute the way that he did, it’s so great to see.”
Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich knew Wilson would be OK when he looked across the locker room at halftime against the Bills.
“There was a really cool moment,” Ulbrich said, “where I saw the skill guys wrap their arms around Zach and uplift him.”
There’s almost a sense that after all the hits Wilson has taken, both on and off the field, the Jets are doing everything they can to make sure he knows they’re behind him.
“I think when he came in, he had a nice swagger about him,” center Connor McGovern said. “I think he lost it a little bit over the course. And it’s back. It’s back and better than ever. The way he’s carrying himself around the locker room, around the building is awesome.”
Wilson feels it in himself, too.
“A lot of confidence, man,” he said. “I truly believe in myself, and I think that’s the first step to being in the NFL. You’ve got to believe in yourself first and the rest can take care of itself.”
Wilson said he’s having more fun than ever. And having Rodgers around “absolutely” made him better in the five months they’ve been teammates.
“I feel like I’ve been trying to copy every little thing he’s doing, from his footwork to the coaching tips he’s given us,” Wilson said.
But both Hackett and coach Robert Saleh have made it clear they don’t need Wilson to be Rodgers. They need Wilson to be a better version of Wilson — the one they’ve seen all spring and summer — starting Sunday against the Cowboys’ strong defense in Dallas.
Many Jets fans remain skeptical Wilson has made significant enough progress to step in for a team that had Super Bowl hopes with Rodgers.
“For me, it’s I know what I’m capable of,” Wilson said, adding he doesn’t listen to the outside noise. “And I feel like I’ve got the belief from the guys in this locker room.”
There could, however, potentially be some deja vu for his teammates if he struggles a bit in games.
“That’s the past. This is the future,” Hackett said. “This is a guy that’s been training his butt off and learning a new system and growing within it. I think everybody can say that they’ve seen him grow and that’s all we can do every game.
“There’s going to be ups and downs with all quarterbacks and with all players, especially young players. There’s always going to be questions. For me as a coach, I just want to keep teaching him. I just want him to feel more and more comfortable and keep growing.”
While Saleh said the Jets are looking into bringing in another quarterback to back up Wilson along with Tim Boyle, the coach insisted it won’t be someone to compete for the starting job.
The Jets want Wilson to play free, knowing the team is his — again — and he doesn’t need to look over his shoulder.
“It’s good to know he’s got a lot of trust in me,” Wilson said. “As a quarterback, when you’re stepping in and when you feel the belief of the guys around you, it makes you want to go out there and do everything you can for them.”
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