Jets’ Zach Wilson on the right track, Mekhi Becton’s return and more from preseason opener

CANTON, Ohio — Before Zach Wilson spoke about his best throw Thursday night, he stopped, smiled and credited the person who replaced him for making it happen.

It was a 57-yard completion in the first quarter of the New York Jets’ preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns. Quickly after the snap, Wilson spotted wide receiver Malik Taylor down the field, getting past Browns cornerback Thomas Graham, and connected with ease. The pass traveled 50.8 yards in the air, according to NextGen, one of the longest completions of his career.

“Great call by Aaron Rodgers,” Wilson said, beaming.

The Jets traded for Rodgers this offseason largely as a result of how bad things got for Wilson last year, his confidence shot by poor performance and a bad relationship with his offensive coordinator. Late in the season, he was benched for a practice squad quarterback. A promising Jets season ended in collapse. You know the story by now.

But this is a new Wilson, rejuvenated by an offseason out of the spotlight, during which the Jets revamped the offensive coaching staff and traded for Rodgers, Wilson’s hero, who has made it his mission to help get the 2021 No. 2 NFL Draft pick back on track. As Rodgers tries to win a Super Bowl, he’s taking the time to hold Wilson’s hand, too. Wilson started the last two years for the Jets, and it was mostly a mess. If anyone was going to take his job, he’s happy it was Rodgers.

“I’m very grateful for him,” Wilson said. “He helps me more than he needs to.”

It’s not as if Wilson made anyone forget about his problems of the past. On his first drive, Wilson slipped while trying to scramble on a third-down play. He bounced back on the next drive with the Taylor throw but followed that up with an inaccurate pass to wide receiver Xavier Gipson. Another pass later was swatted down at the line of scrimmage. He completed 3 of 5 passes for 65 yards, with no turnovers. The Jets lost 21-16, but it’s not like that mattered.

It wasn’t a star-making turn, but maybe it was a turning point: Wilson is having fun again.

“That’s the goal: putting everything behind me, learning and being appreciative of it, too,” Wilson said. “It was a lot of fun to get back on the field. It’s a lot of fun. This game is a lot of fun.”

Coach Robert Saleh’s stated goal when he benched Wilson for Mike White last season — and then again for Chris Streveler during a late-season loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars — was to rebuild his confidence and get back to the basics. That is happening with this new staff, with Rodgers and with Wilson, weathered by the disaster of his first two years. This is square one.

“For him, just rebuilding that confidence and swag that we fell in love with in the draft process, and I think he’s getting — I said it before: He’s a rookie all over again,” Saleh said. “There’s a lot of learning, and I think he’s been attacking the heck out of it and doing a nice job.”

Wilson described himself as “appreciative” multiple times after the game. Appreciative of what, exactly?

“The last two years have felt kind of hectic, scrambled,” Wilson said. “And tonight I felt like I had a plan.”

The plan was to start over. And Friday was a good start.

Here are some other takeaways from Thursday night’s game.

It was a strange night for Becton in his first game action since Week 1 of the 2021 season, or 23 months ago. Saleh had said the plan was for Becton to play 20-25 snaps. Instead, he played only seven on offense and four on field goal and extra-point attempts.

The issue: Becton’s injured knee — which cost him last season — didn’t feel comfortable on the Hall of Fame Stadium turf. Becton said he felt “a little discomfort.”

“That turf isn’t friendly for people of my size with my type of injury,” Becton said. “So I was feeling it in warmups.”

Saleh insisted there was “no setback,” explaining that Becton “felt it a little bit” after the first series, and after “communication between him and the trainers,” the Jets decided to pull him from playing left tackle on offense, though he continued to play on special teams.

“This is all about confidence (in the knee) for him,” Saleh said. “If he’s got any doubt in it at any time, we’re going to be cautious.”

Becton still has a long way to go before he becomes a serious option to start for the Jets — or another team.

Will McDonald’s debut

The Jets’ first-round pick lived up to his reputation right away as a long, twitchy edge rusher with a quick get-off. In the first quarter, he nearly sacked Browns quarterback Kellen Mond. Cleveland (boldly) left him unblocked, but he still got to the quarterback fast enough to force an incompletion. Later in the first quarter, he stuffed running back Demetric Felton at the line of scrimmage. Late in the third quarter, McDonald flashed his lethal spin move — which he said he learned from studying film of Raiders star Maxx Crosby. McDonald also got a tackle on special teams.

McDonald, Bryce Huff — who had a sack in the first quarter — and Jermaine Johnson all flashed their ridiculous quickness getting off the line. It’s going to be fun to see how defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich deploys the three of them this season.

Some standouts

P Thomas Morstead and K Greg Zuerlein: Yes, I’m leading with the punter and kicker. The punting game was a major weakness last season, and Morstead is an upgrade over Braden Mann. His first punt pinned the Browns at their 5-yard line. He averaged nearly 50 yards per punt and kicked two more inside the 20. Zuerlein continued his great summer: 3-for-3 from 54, 44 and 53 yards.

RB Israel Abanikanda: The numbers don’t look great on paper (nine carries for 29 yards), but his 10-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was impressive. He flashed the sort of burst the Jets were missing last year when Breece Hall went down.

LB Jamien Sherwood: He forced a fumble (recovered by Javelin Guidry) and flashed the athleticism that has the Jets comfortable with him as Kwon Alexander’s replacement.

LB Chazz Surratt: He picked off Mond, though it was a terrible throw.

Extra points

• The Jets didn’t dress 32 players. Most of them were players like Rodgers and Sauce Gardner who likely won’t play in the preseason. Others, like safety Tony Adams and tight end Jeremy Ruckert, have less certain roles but are valued by the coaching staff. It was notable that second-year tackle Max Mitchell dressed but veteran Billy Turner did not. Mitchell and Turner are battling to start at right tackle.

• The Jets’ starting offensive line: LT Becton, LG Adam Pankey, C Joe Tippmann, RG Trystan Colon, RT Mitchell.

• Cornerback Brandin Echols had a rough night, getting two penalties in the first quarter. He’s suspended for Week 1 of the season for a violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy.

• Linebacker Hamsah Nasirildeen (neck) left in the first quarter and was declared out.

(Photo: Ken Blaze / USA Today)

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