ESPN's Sal Paolantonio is a lifer -- a Jets lifer.
As a youngster growing up in Stewart Manor on Long Island, he and his brother used to ride their bikes to Hofstra University in Hempstead to watch the Jets practice in the days before the club moved its operations to Florham Park, NJ.
" I grew up a Jets fan on Long Island, I went to Sewanhaka High School and we used to take our bikes and watch the Jets practice," Paolantonio told Eric Allen and Ethan Greenberg in the Jets Draft Preview podcast. "Now, it's been a thrill of my life to get paid to do it. [In Hempstead] they had a white picket fence around the field and you just rode your bike up and watched practice. It was the coolest thing in the world."
In 1969, a 13-year-old Paolantonio and some buddies cobbled together a train trip from Long Island to New Haven, CT, for the first meeting between the Jets and the Giants, an exhibition game at the Yale Bowl a few months after the Jets had won Super Bowl III. It was a game for bragging rights -- the brash Jets led by Joe Namath against the establishment, entrenched Giants.
"We had seats on the edge of the field, the stadium is literally a bowl," he said. "We sat in the front row in the end zone and watched Namath carve up the Giants in that game."
In the 37-14 Jets victory, Joe Willie connected on 14 of 16 passes for 188 yards and 3 TDs before leaving the game midway through the fourth quarter.
"You go back to the Yale Bowl," Paolantonio said. "There's Namath, and the Jets are still trying to find the heir apparent to Joe Willie. It comes full circle. It does."
Since then the quest for a new franchise quarterback has covered 50 years, and indeed it will come full circle on Thursday night in Cleveland when the Jets are expected to select a quarterback with the overall No. 2 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. If the prognosticators are right and BYU's Zach Wilson is that pick, and if he starts in Week 1 in September, he will be the 35th different starting quarterback since Namath last played for the Jets.
"I think Zach Wilson has the potential to be the next Patrick Mahomes," Paolantonio said. "He has all those kinds of tools ... incredible vision, quick release, accurate on the run, a creative player and he can really rip it."
Paolantonio has spent many hours embedded in the Jets' draft nerve center over the years. He said it's a place that gets the juices flowing as he interacts with coaches and staff, passing along inside information to ESPN viewers and web surfers. And when he looks back on the 2020 NFL season (which he called "remarkable" for playing through the coronavirus pandemic) he pointed to a pair of lessons -- No. 1 involving a rookie quarterbacks, Joe Burrow in Cincinnati; and No. 2 involving the GOAT, Tom Brady with Tampa Bay.
"No. 1 ... Cincinnati drafted a quarterback and they didn't protect him," he said. "They left Joe Burrow out on an island and they didn't teach him that his job is to get rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds. You can't hold up the rush in the NFL. Burrow got decimated, sacked and left the season with a gruesome injury.
"Lesson No. 2 ... The Bucs, they protected Tom Brady in the Super Bowl and he won the game. The Kansas City Chiefs could not protect Mahomes and they lost. A 43-year-old quarterback beat the reigning NFL MVP because one was protected and one was not.
"In 2020 the key final point is that NFL defensive coordinators brought the blitz 28% of the time, a 5-year high. The blitz is coming at a historically high rate, and you must protect the quarterback, especially the young ones. I hope the staff teaches Wilson to get the ball out of this young man's hands as quickly as possible."
With 10 picks, at the moment, in this year's draft, and 11 more in 2022, Paolantonio said the next two years will define the legacy of General Manager Joe Douglas. After potentially plucking Wilson with the No. 2 pick, Paolantonio believes the Jets should take an offensive lineman at No. 23 ("another young stud") and then a running back at No. 34, in the second round, using the amassed draft capital to move up if necessary.
"He made a big bet to stay at No. 2 and pick a quarterback when he could have auctioned off that pick for a motherload of picks," Paolantonio said. "I think it was the right move to make, but it's a big bet for Joe Douglas and the organization. The fan base has been long-suffering. You've got the Patriots on their heels, the Bills are rising, the Dolphins are rising, this is the time to make your move. Right now."
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