CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Zach Wilson and Sam Darnold almost shared a quarterback room in the Jets training center. On Sunday, they will be sharing the spotlight.
Wilson, the prized rookie quarterback whom the Jets drafted second overall, will make his NFL debut inside Bank of America Stadium. Darnold, the Jets’ former franchise quarterback whom they drafted third overall in 2018, will make making his Carolina Panthers’ debut and face his former team for the first time.
Bravo, NFL schedule makers. Bravo.
Both players have reasons to bring extra juice Sunday, but they’ve remained pretty emotionless and tried to act as if it’s just another game. Wilson said he isn’t even thinking about living out a dream by playing in the NFL. The 22-year-old Jets captain is all business going into this game.
"It is the first game, and I’m really doing everything I can to just get ready for that," he said. "I don’t know if I thought of it as this is a big moment, my first start and all that. I think it’s exciting."
Wilson represents another dawn of a new Jets’ era.
Gone are coach Adam Gase and Darnold. Hope replaced them in passionate head coach and proven leader Robert Saleh, and Wilson, the quarterback with zip on his passes and the knack for making plays off-schedule.
Excitement is brewing for a team that went 2-14 last year. The Jets rightfully gutted their roster. There are 26 first-time Jets, 12 of them rookies, and almost an entirely new coaching staff.
"It’s definitely two different worlds, for sure," returning running back Ty Johnson said. "Words can’t really describe what these coaches are bringing to the table and what the players are buying into. The sky’s the limit. It’s going to be great having this fresh start."
But Saleh said the Jets were close to keeping Darnold, the former face of the franchise, and still drafting a quarterback. And they would have been fine doing that.
But it would have been dicey and created more of a distraction than anything, especially as the Jets zeroed in on Wilson very early.
"It went pretty far," Saleh said. "You see how late in the process Sam was traded. I’ll go ahead and say it, we pretty much knew that we were taking that young kid pretty quick. The discussion with Sam was if somebody is going to make an offer we can’t refuse . . . "
A few weeks before the draft, Carolina agreed to a sixth-round pick this year and second- and fourth-round picks next year. Done. From there, the Jets put all their focus into Wilson and trying to put the right pieces around him.
The offense is retooled with new No. 1 receiver Corey Davis and exciting rookie wideout Elijah Moore, who can do a little of everything in coordinator Mike LaFleur’s West Coast system with an outside zone blocking scheme.
The line is revamped with rookie guard Alijah Vera-Tucker and veteran tackle Morgan Moses. Seventh-year player Tevin Coleman and rookie Michael Carter were added to the running back corps.
It won’t be all on Wilson. He has help, much more than Darnold had.
"We got some guys," Davis said. "We got some talent on both sides of the ball. It’s just up to us to put it all together and make it happen."
This will be quite the first test for Saleh’s young defense, which lost new edge rusher Carl Lawson for the season with a ruptured Achilles last month.
The Jets will play rookies or second-year players at corner against explosive Panthers receivers D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson. The Jets also have to try and contain star running back Christian McCaffrey.
"A lot of times you play offenses and they’ve got one point of emphasis for your defense that you try to take away," defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. "These guys make it difficult on you because they are explosive outside. It’s extremely tough because we’d like to say we just got to eliminate the explosives. But then there’s space for [McCaffrey]."
Wilson met Darnold in San Clemente, California, long before the draft or trade. They were training in the same place. Darnold told Wilson about life in the NFL and what to expect.
That must have been some conversation.
On his very first NFL pass, Darnold threw a pick-6 in Detroit. He came back to lead the Jets to victory, but they didn’t do much winning together. Darnold was 13-25 and last season didn’t win until Week 15. Wilson is expected to get his first win much earlier, perhaps in Week 1.
But Saleh isn’t worried about Wilson trying to do too much.
"This is about Zach and his process," Saleh said, "and him getting ready to play the best he possibly can and his surrounding teammates to do the best they can and keep it in the moment. Keep it about us. Execute the best he can.
"He’s got a good mindset to him. He’s got to put it to work."
The Jets trust that Wilson will.