Jeff Ulbrich couldn’t stop gushing about C.J. Stroud this week.
“He is a guy I really wish we could have played Week 1 through 4 when he was still trying to figure out this game,” the Jets defensive coordinator said. “[He’s] a guy that is a high-level processer, quick decision-maker, sees the field way better than you think a rookie would, and a big part of that is just his poise. He is the opposite of skittish in the pocket. He is very comfortable to sit in there, he’s got a lot of contact courage, doesn’t mind getting hit, will deliver the ball.”
He went on to use phrases like “unique,” “amazing,” “uncommon” and “unheard of” when discussing Stroud’s production (he is the first rookie quarterback to lead the NFL in passing yards at the end of any week since at least 1950) and skyrocketing status in the league (he’ll likely be the unanimous Offensive Rookie of the Year and may be the first rookie to get MVP votes since Dan Marino 40 years ago).
Ulbrich said he has been around a lot of young quarterbacks, from his time as a player when his 49ers team took Alex Smith first overall through his coaching tenures in Seattle and Atlanta when he faced a slew of them on other rosters. Stroud is just different.
“I don’t know if I have ever seen it,” Ulbrich said.
Well, he certainly never saw it on his current team, that’s for sure.
Ulbrich and Zach Wilson both arrived in New York in 2021. Ulbrich came as the defensive coordinator for new coach Robert Saleh and Wilson as the new franchise quarterback taken with the second overall pick. Since then, Ulbrich’s defenses have become a strength of the team and about the only positive identifying element for the franchise. Wilson? He’s been benched more often than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s free weights and is now being recycled back as a starter to finish the string on a miserable season.
That Wilson will start this game on Sunday against Houston is significant in that it will pit the two most recent quarterbacks taken with the second overall pick in their draft classes against each other, and the early trajectories of their careers could not possibly be more dissimilar.
The most succinct way to compare them? Stroud has lifted a lifeless, moribund franchise into respectability, competitiveness and even the possibility of being a playoff team, all in the span of a little more than three months on the job.
“We came in and said we were going to change this thing, build a foundation,” Stroud said of himself and the other Texans rookies this season. “The foundation is us.”
Wilson, by contrast, has managed to pull the Jets even further into embarrassing depths, could become the first qualifying quarterback in NFL history to finish last in passer rating in three straight seasons and has the Jets on the mathematical verge of missing the playoffs for a 13th straight year.
It is a Tale of Two Number Two Quarterbacks, and yes, for the Jets, it very much remains the worst of times.
The only team that looks more forlorn than the Jets is the Panthers, who traded up for the first overall pick this past spring and then passed on Stroud to take Bryce Young.
Stroud’s passing yards put him on pace to throw for 5,015 yards this season, which would shatter the record for a rookie quarterback set by Andrew Luck (4,374 in 2012). With 20 touchdowns, Stroud is also on pace to throw 28 touchdown passes, which would be the second most by a rookie, trailing only Justin Herbert’s 31 in 2020. And Stroud has thrown an interception on just 1.20%of his passes, which would also be the second-best markby a rookie, trailing only Dak Prescott’s 0.87% interception rate in 2016.
Wilson, to be fair, is far from the only second overall pick who has disappointed. In fact, quarterbacks taken second overall do not have a great track record and Stroud is more an anomaly than a norm. Avis may have tried harder because it was No. 2, but quarterbacks have mostly flopped from that position.
Besides Stroud and Wilson, this century has seen Mitch Trubisky, Carson Wentz, Marcus Mariota and Robert Griffin III all drafted in that spot and although there were early highlights from some all eventually failed for one reason or another by the end of their rookie contracts. Two of the biggest draft busts and quarterback cautionary tales of all time (with Wilson getting dangerously close to joining that nefarious list) were taken with the second overall pick: Ryan Leaf in 1998 and Rick Mirer in 1993.
You have to go back to 1973 and Bert Jones to find a quarterback taken second overall who won the league’s MVP award. None of them have ever started and won a Super Bowl and only two of them — Earl Morrall (1956) and Donovan McNabb (1999) — ever played in the big game. Want to find a Hall of Fame quarterback taken with the second overall pick? Seems like it should be easy. Nope. The Bears took Sid Luckman in 1939 to start and end that list.
Stroud certainly isn’t close to that Canton level yet. But he’s much closer than Wilson despite the two-year head start.
The two quarterbacks obviously won’t be facing each other on the field. It will be Stroud going against Ulbrich’s defense, the one that has managed to make Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts at times this season look pedestrian. And Stroud will be without his favorite target, receiver and fellow rookie Tank Dell, who fractured his leg last week.
“It’s about playing with timing,” Stroud said of facing the Jets’ defense. “I have to be on my 'A' game.”
If he is close to that, he might be able to beat the Jets on Sunday.
If he plays at or above that high bar, as he has at several points this season, he’ll do worse to them. He’ll embarrass the Jets’ front office that thought it was getting a star like him when it drafted Wilson second overall, but wound up instead with a black hole.
COMPARING NO. 2 PICKS' ROOKIE YEARS
Zach Wilson, Jets (2021)
Touchdown passes: 9
Completion percentage: 55.6
Times sacked: 44
C.J. Stroud, Texans (2023)
Touchdown passes: 20
Completion percentage: 63.4
Times sacked: 31