Jets, Texans used same team-building plan with contrasting results

Aaron Rodgers defends Zach Wilson against media leaks (1:08)

Aaron Rogers joins Pat McAfee to express his displeasure for the source from the Jets leaking stuff on Zach Wilson. (1:08)

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- A look at what's happening around the New York Jets:

1. Battle of the 2s: This will be one of those "what might have been" Sundays for the Jets and their frustrated followers.

When they watch the Houston Texans, who visit MetLife Stadium (1 p.m. ET, CBS), they will see a team using the same franchise-building blueprint as the Jets -- except the Texans have been executing it better. They hired former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans and paired him with quarterback C.J. Stroud, whom they drafted No. 2 in 2023. Led by a rookie coach and a rookie quarterback, the Texans (7-5) have gone from doormat to playoff contender.

The Jets did the rookie coach-quarterback thing in 2021, hiring Robert Saleh (Ryans' predecessor in San Francisco) and drafting Zach Wilson with the No. 2 choice. Same coaching pedigree, same quarterback model, different results. The Jets are 15-31 in the Saleh/Wilson era, on the verge of missing the playoffs for the 13th straight year. They've used four quarterbacks in each of Saleh's three seasons.

Asked about Stroud and Ryans, and how an elite quarterback can boost a head coach, Saleh smiled.

"Stability at the quarterback position, we're always chasing it," he said. "But I'll leave that topic for you guys."

Saleh's response -- or lack thereof -- speaks volumes.

The Texans hit the jackpot with Stroud, who leads the league with 3,540 passing yards and is on pace for 5,015, which would shatter the rookie passing yards record held by Andrew Luck (4,374 yards in 2012). Jets players on both sides of the ball are blown away by Stroud's talent and intangibles. Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, an NFL veteran of 20-plus seasons as a player and coach, said, "I don't know if I've ever seen" so much poise from a rookie quarterback. "It's amazing, the success he's having."

And then there's Wilson, who has struggled from Day 1. He was benched twice last year, got replaced in the offseason, received a second chance to be a starter when Aaron Rodgers was injured, sputtered through nine starts and got benched again. Now, after the ill-fated Tim Boyle experiment, the Jets are back to Wilson, looking to him to save their season from going completely off the rails.

Check out this comparison:

Wilson: 32 games, 21 touchdown passes.

Stroud: 12 games, 20 touchdown passes.

So much of the NFL is a right-place, right-time business. If Saleh had a quarterback of Stroud's caliber, he probably wouldn't be in this predicament. Wilson probably will be gone after the season. Saleh is trying to avoid that same fate.

2. R-E-L-A-X: What should we expect from Wilson? Some teammates said he's different than before. After everything he has been through, including a published report in which unidentified team sources questioned his desire to retake the starting reins, he's taking a nothing-to-lose attitude into what could be his final run with the Jets.

"He seems a little more relaxed since being benched and stuff, understanding he's got only a few weeks left here," wide receiver Allen Lazard said. "He's trying to make the most of it."

The question is, can he bring that carefree-but-confident mindset to the game? The fans don't care about practice-field heroes; they want to see it on Sunday.

In Wilson's case, the coaches want him to loosen up and not be consumed by the fear of making a mistake, which is contrary to how he was coached in his first two seasons. (Remember the "it's OK to be boring" quotes from Saleh?) From a team perspective, there's nothing to lose. It's not like the Jets will be playing high-stakes games down the stretch.

"When he plays with that mentality to just let the ball rip, he's pretty good," Saleh said.

3. Job interview: Wilson said he hasn't discussed his future with the organization, but he knows the reality. Essentially, it's a five-game audition for his next job. Wilson didn't dispute that notion, but insisted he's not distracted by it.

"I don't think I need to think of it as, 'If I do this, then maybe someone will give me a chance or maybe the Jets will keep me,'" he said, talking openly for the first time about the prospect of playing elsewhere. "It doesn't matter, it really doesn't. I'm out there to help this team win."

Because of his draft pedigree, Wilson should be able to land what would likely be a backup job in 2024, His performance down the stretch could determine if he's a second- or third-stringer next season. No matter what, he will have $5.5 million in guaranteed salary from the Jets. Despite his struggles, Wilson could fetch a fifth-round pick in a trade, according to an NFL personnel executive.

4. Odd, but true: In his last start (Week 11), Wilson moved into 10th place on the Jets' all-time passing list (5,966 yards), surpassing Geno Smith (5,962). No, the Jets' history isn't filled with prolific passers. Smith could be a good model for Wilson -- a player who realized his potential later in his career after years of battling adversity.

5. Did you know? In the last six calendar years, from Dec. 10, 2017, until now, backup quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Brett Rypien have combined for only four wins as starters -- and two of them were against the Jets. Siemian did it 2017, Rypien in 2020, both with the Denver Broncos.

6. Allen wrench: Lazard seems puzzled by his reduced role. He went from full-time starter to healthy scratch in Week 12. He returned last week to play only five snaps in the first half. He wound up with 31 snaps, but said the only reason he played in the second half was because of an injury to Jason Brownlee (ankle). What's up with his playing time?

"You have to ask the coaches," said Lazard, who has only 20 receptions.

With Brownlee out this week, Lazard could be in line for more playing time.

7. Picky, picky: Sauce Gardner has gone 18 straight games without an interception, but he doesn't sound concerned by the drought.

"I'm having a pretty solid year," he told ESPN. "But, of course, if I had the picks, it'd be a crazy year."

Gardner believes his down-to-down coverage is every bit as good as it was last season, when he won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. The "nearest-defender" metrics from NFL Next Gen Stats suggest otherwise. For example, his coverage success rate in 2022 was 61.7% vs. 51.1% in 2023.

As for the zero in the interception column, he chalked it up to fewer targets than last season. He's averaging 4.1 targets per game, down slightly from 4.8 in 2022. He finished with two interceptions as a rookie.

8. Cashing in: Gardner has a lot riding on the Pro Bowl voting. Based on the CBA, a player's fifth-year option becomes the franchise-tag value if he makes two Pro Bowls in his first three seasons. If Gardner does it again, his fifth-year option (2026) will increase by approximately $3.5 million, per Over the Cap.

9. Cashing out: Remember when the Jets traded oft-injured linebacker Blake Cashman to the Texans in 2022? They received a 2023 conditional sixth-round pick in return, which seemed like an absolute steal for a player who had missed 35 of 49 games with injuries.

Well, Cashman has turned out nicely for the Texans; he's their leading tackler. What became of that sixth-round pick? It was included last spring in a not-so-small trade -- sent to the Green Bay Packers as part of the Rodgers package.

10. The last word: "He's going to be a Jet for a damn long time." -- Saleh on rookie center Joe Tippmann, their only 2023 draft choice seeing significant playing time