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Impressions of Zach Wilson

RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl - BYU v Central Florida Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Through the years one of my great frustrations has been the inconsistency of my Draft evaluations. They haven’t all been bad. During the 2017 NFL Draft when I picked a player for the Jets as they were on the clock my class included Jamal Adams, Dalvin Cook, Carl Lawson, and Desmond King. That would have been the best Jets class in more than a decade. Still I have plenty of errors on my resume, some of them big. All you can do is try to learn from your mistakes and figure out how to improve in the future.

This is obviously a big Draft for the Jets. They very likely will be picking their next “quarterback of the future.” It seems like this happens every couple of years. Hopefully this time they get it right.

I also want to get it right. I figured the best way to do that was to leave no stone unturned. I decided to watch every pass and run from BYU quarterback Zach Wilson’s 2020 season. I didn’t want to be overly swayed by highlights or lowlights. I wanted to get a good feeling of what Wilson can and can’t do. What better way to figure that out than to just watch everything? My focus was quality over speed.

Before I begin I want to tell you what this article is not.

This is not a prediction. I will not tell you a gold jacket in Canton, Ohio, awaits Wilson in approximately twenty years. Nor will I tell you Wilson is destined to be the next in a long line of Jets quarterback busts.

One thing I’ve learned painfully through the years is the prediction business is different from the scouting business. Each player has things he can and cannot do at any moment in time. Wilson’s college tape is only a snapshot in time of his capabilities as he enters the NFL. Any great NFL player improves upon entering the league, and the improvement happens at different rates. It also depends on things like finding the right fits in coaching, teammates, and scheme.

Take Justin Herbert. I have seen plenty of people ridiculing some of the scouting reports detailing his flaws a year ago. I’m not sure the reports were necessarily inaccurate, though. Many of these problems were visible in Herbert’s college tape at Oregon. I think it’s possible he greatly improved many of his flaws very quickly because he found the right fit and had the capacity to learn at a rapid pace. When a player isn’t a finished product, we tend to throw out arbitrary timeframes for their development saying, “He’ll need to sit for one/two years.” Some players just have the capacity to grow quicker.

Others might be close to being great entering the NFL. They need to clean up one seemingly minor issue. For whatever reason they never figure out how to do it.

So much can change depending on the circumstances the player finds himself. At one end of the equation, fit didn’t matter much for somebody like Peyton Manning. His talent level was so high that I think he would have been an immortal player no matter where he ended up. At the other end of the equation, somebody like Christian Hackenberg would have failed even if he would put into the most ideal environment possible. Most players selected early in the NFL Draft fall somewhere in between, though. Their success is partly dependent on their own skills but also partly on going to a team that is the correct fit. Players like Ryan Tannehill are the most obvious of these examples, but it is true in many other less obvious cases. The environment Wilson enters in the NFL will likely have an impact in his eventual success or failure so I think it would be pointless to make definitive proclamations about his future.

This article is also not a complete scouting report on Wilson. His NFL success or failure will be partially determined by things that don’t appear on the film. These are things like worth ethic, toughness, leadership, and that capacity to learn. I have heard plenty of people speculate on these issues by discussing things like his family’s wealth, his status as a team captain, the meaning of Twitter emojis he posted, and even his prom date. Without any context, I don’t think these things tell us much. More than anything I think people use these things to reinforce a narrative about the player they have already chosen to believe. I don’t have enough information to speak to any of these things so I won’t.

I also must note that all 22 film is not readily available in college football the way it is for NFL games. On numerous plays the network covering Wilson’s game provided a replay with the all 22 film. On most of his throws the TV view gave me a good sense of what happened. I feel like I had enough to come to my conclusions. That said, there are some throws I couldn’t evaluate, and it is possible something wasn’t visible even on some of the throws I felt I could evaluate.

Finally, the conclusions drawn here are mine alone. I’m a football fan and a Jets fan. Over the last few months I naturally have read plenty of analysis on Wilson and looked at plenty of statistics. During this process I did my best to ignore those and try to come up with my own conclusions. I am aware that other analysts might have drawn conclusions completely different from my own. I am also aware that some PFF number might paint a different picture from what I have to say. That doesn’t make me right. It doesn’t make me wrong. It doesn’t make anybody else right or wrong either. This is not meant to be THE definitive analysis of Zach Wilson. I encourage you to get analysis from as many trusted sources as possible, watch the film, and draw your own conclusions. Above all else, I hope this article will be a productive resource for you on that endeavor.

Now on with the show...

The first thing that stands out to me about Zach Wilson is his arm.

When terms like “arm strength” and “arm talent” are thrown around discussing a prospect, people tend to think only about maximum velocity or the ability to throw it deep.

To be clear Wilson has an excellent fastball.

He also has a tremendous deep ball.

Playing quarterback isn’t just about the maximum ability of the arm, however. There are different types of throws you have to make. Sometimes your throws need to have zip but enough arc some degree of arc to get over the head of a defender.

Take this throw where Wilson has to put enough mustard to get it to the sideline on time but enough air under it to get it over a defender.

Or take this clutch touchdown late in the fourth quarter against Houston. The ball needs enough arc to get over the defender down the sideline. But it can’t have too much arc or it will go out of the end zone. Wilson again has enough arc to get it over the defender but enough zip to get it where it needs to be.

I kept a spreadsheet of notes on each play I charted. For that one my notes said, “Oh my God.”

Having arm talent also means you can throw with authority off different platforms. Wilson can still put a ton of velocity on his throws when he is on the run.

He also can drop it in the bucket against his weight.

And he can deliever with numerous arm angles to fit balls past defenders where it needs to get. Here he slings an accurate fastball ball sidearm while on the move.

Here is an accurate pass with zip with a three-quarters delivery against his weight.

As you can probably tell from many of these clips, this all goes hand in hand with top notch accuracy.

As you can also tell, Wilson has some exceptional playmaking ability. He has enough mobility to extend plays and make something happen even when it seems like everything has broken down.

Of course arm talent and highlight reel plays are great, but these things only get you so far. In the NFL to succeed you need to be able to execute the nuts and bolts on a play to play basis. In many respects I think Wilson fares well here.

Many college offenses are very simplistic and don’t ask their quarterback to do complex things. I thought BYU’s offense was a bit more sophisticated. You would see Wilson make full field reads and get to his second option.

Wilson regularly progressed to his second and third reads from the pocket.

Don’t get me wrong. The ability to make the special play matters quite a bit, but you also have to be able to hit the unremarkable passes from the pocket to move the chains to last in this league. Wilson is further along than many college quarterbacks in this regard.

Another of the big areas where many college quarterbacks struggle upon entering the NFL is making tight window throws. They just don’t make these types of throws and only seek wide open windows. It doesn’t work in the pros where separation is tight and doesn’t last long.

In fact sometimes you have to get a covered receiver open yourself by using the defender’s leverage against him. On this front, Wilson isn’t afraid to make back shoulder throws.

Succeeding in the NFL is partially about taking what the defense gives you, but the difference-making quarterbacks don’t stop there. They figure out ways to create big plays even when nothing is there. Wilson does this in numerous ways. We have discussed his ability to extend plays and his arm talent, but he also uses his brain to do it.

He is adept at using his eyes to manipulate the coverage.

Here you can see him use his eyes to get the deep defender to bite on the receiver crossing the field. Meanwhile a post route develops behind this deep defender where the corner in coverage is expecting help in the middle of the field.

Once again Wilson keeps his eyes in the middle of the field drawing the safety away from being in a position to provide inside help on the intended receiver.

I am sure Wilson’s receivers appreciate that he doesn’t put them in harm’s way. You can see on this play he throws it a bit behind his receiver.

I don’t think this is inaccuracy, though. Hitting the receiver in stride would have led him into a big hit.

On this throw you see Wilson put the ball low so the receiver has to slide. Again a big hit would have likely been the result of a pass hitting him in stride.

One last thing I will say for Wilson is that I think his ball handling is impressive. He really sells fakes well, and defenders fall for it.

The Jets are installing an offense based on many of the principles of the system the 49ers run under Kyle Shanahan. Pretty much any analyst will tell you that every single living quarterback is a great fit for a Shanahan offense. With that said, play action concepts that put the quarterback on the move are a staple of systems like this. When you think about Wilson’s ability to sell a fake along with his ability to throw on the run, it all sounds very intriguing.

I just told you a lot of good stuff about Zach Wilson. Quite frankly there aren’t many quarterback prospects entering the Draft who have this many positives in important areas. Of course no prospect is perfect, and I do think there are some areas Wilson needs to improve.

The primary area where I think Wilson needs to get better is decision-making. That probably sounds odd. He only threw three interceptions all season long.

I’ll take it another step further. On two of the interceptions I give him no blame at all. One came because a receiver stumbled after absorbing contact and couldn’t look for an on target pass. Another came on an interception at the end of a half.

In fact, my gut tells me the other interception wasn’t his fault. I believe that was a miscommunication between Wilson and his intended receiver. Wilson tried a back shoulder throw while his receiver continued up field. Based on the leverage of the play if somebody was wrong, I think it was the receiver.

So yes, I am here telling you it is quite possible there was not a single Zach Wilson interception in 2020 that was his fault. Yet here I am questioning his decision-making. How can this be?

Well just as you sometimes there are interceptions that aren’t the quarterback’s fault, there are also sometimes really poor decisions that the quarterback is lucky to get away with.

This is just a sampling of some of the ludicrous decision-making I saw out of Wilson. To be honest I was floored by the rate at which these awful decisions occurred. I saw the stats before I began this study. I knew about the three interceptions. I also saw sites like PFF give Wilson low “turnover worthy” throw numbers. It leads me to question what those numbers really mean because in the first half of the season I saw Wilson make multiple mind-boggling decisions like this in almost any game. Maybe some of these aren’t turnover worthy throws in college, but decisions like this against defenders with NFL level ball skills are high risk passes.

In some ways I feel like Wilson might be hurt a bit by his own success making highlight reel plays.

You see a guy hit a pass like this, and you are amazed.

Perhaps hitting on a play like this encourages Wilson to make other high risk throws. I’m not sure this pass is a completion against NFL caliber defenders. Patrick Mahomes makes plays like these seem more common than they are. Most of the time this play has a Sam Darnold result.

Playing quarterback in the NFL is all about finding the right balance between aggressiveness and recklessness. You might love a play like that and think it can be replicated in the NFL. Until I’m proven wrong I’m inclined to think throws like this end poorly in the pros.

It isn’t the worst thing in the world for a young quarterback to have to channel some of his aggression. Again, I’d much rather have a rookie who needs to tone down his aggression than somebody who is afraid to throw into tight windows, but I do think Wilson needs to learn when and when not to take chances. It seems like he’s always looking for the big play, even when it can’t be made, and there is a smaller profit right in front of him. It wouldn’t surprise me as a rookie if there was some real pain caused by trying to force passes into areas where he shouldn’t.

I will say that during the second half of the season I noticed the rate of really poor decisions seemed to go down so perhaps this was a positive sign of growth.

Another criticism I have of Wilson is that he’s too quick to abandon a clean pocket.

Take this play.

There was no reason for him to leave the pocket so soon.

He rolled himself into a much tougher throw.

On this play leaving the pocket left him with only the receiver in the flat as a realistic option.

There isn’t any way for him to look down the field or deliver it to a deep receiver even with his arm talent and playmaking ability. He limits himself off the snap.

This play was a highlight reel touchdown.

This goes back to the question of whether a play this spectacular will work against NFL defender. Even if you argue Wilson is capable, why risk finding out? If he stayed in the pocket he would have seen an open receiver.

You absolutely want somebody capable of making plays outside the pocket, but you also don’t want to rely on it unless you have to. Leaving the pocket reduces the area of the field you are capable of seeing and delivering the ball to. Seeing part of the field by evading the pass rush is far better than taking a sack, but leaving the pocket instead of scanning the entire field is less optimal.

These were plays where the pass rush wasn’t a factor. How about plays where there is pressure? To be honest, Wilson didn’t face pressure at a particularly high rate. As displayed above he showed playmaking ability when he was on the move. While I think he’s good moving East and West, I don’t think he has as much of a feel for navigating North and South within the pocket.

On this play Wilson has room to climb the pocket to buy himself some extra time, but he takes a hit.

Here Wilson’s guard is beaten but tries to shove his man up the field. Wilson again misses an opportunity to climb the pocket and takes a hit.

Other critiques I have are of the general variety and are things virtually every young quarterback struggles with entering the league.

Wilson does need to gain experience understanding game situations.

Earlier if you were disagreeing with my take about Wilson needing to understand risk, this is a play that helps to prove my argument. This was a fourth down play. The defender made a nice play. You can blame the receiver for being outfought for the football. Ultimately, though, there is one objective here. The first down has to be gained, and Wilson decided to not throw to a wide open receiver for a guaranteed first down, instead opting for a far riskier throw that would have gained more yardage. This is how open the underneath receiver was.

Here Wilson puts a ball in great danger.

There were less than 5:00 remaining in the fourth quarter. His team was ahead by 8 points. They were near or in scoring range. This is perhaps the situation where it is most important to be careful with the football, and he made a throw.

This does overlap with the general improvements in decision-making, but understanding score and time is an issue for plenty of young quarterbacks and is overcome with experience.

On that note, Wilson unsurprisingly can be caught off guard when an unfamiliar concept is thrown at him.

Here Wilson is totally caught off guard by a corner blitz.

Here he is fooled as the edge defender drops into coverage in a zone blitz.

Now I don’t think there’s anything particularly alarming about either play. This was quite possibly the first time he saw these two concepts in a game situation. College defenses aren’t that complex. NFL defenses are, though, and it is probable that Wilson will see new concepts for the first time every single week of his rookie season. It’s important to keep this in mind. Growing pains and slow progress are typical for young quarterbacks because of what you see in these clips. Sam Darnold isn’t the first inexperienced quarterback Bill Belichick had seeing ghosts.

My final point is on Wilson’s athleticism. He is not a statue-esque passer. He clearly has mobility and can extend plays. Combined with his ball handling he might have a role in the run game. I just wouldn’t expect him to have a Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen sized impact as a runner.

I saw one too many times where he wasn’t able to outrun a big guy to think he will be a true impact player with his legs.

If you want somebody who can keep plays alive while under pressure, Wilson is your guy. If you want somebody who will be able to pick up yards on scrambles, Wilson is your guy. If you want somebody you can call a periodic designed run for, Wilson is your guy. If you want a game breaking runner at quarterback, I’m not sure Wilson is your guy.

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Overall Zach Wilson is a very intriguing prospect with all of the tools necessary not to just be a competent quarterback in the NFL but one who can elevate his team. In this league it is possible to win without such a quarterback, but it is a lot easier to win when you have that type of guy.

Wilson does have his flaws. Some of these flaws are standard fare for virtually any rookie quarterback entering the NFL. Some legitimately need improvement and could threaten his success. But no prospect is perfect. There aren’t many quarterbacks who enter the NFL at a starting point like Wilson. As much as anything I note his flaws just as a warning. Sometimes there is a tendency to watch Wilson light up college football and assume it will come as naturally in the NFL. We all hope that will be the case if the Jets pick him, but there are possible signs of growing pains to come. Fans might need to have patience if he works through them, especially if he goes to a team that is not fully built.

Through much of the 2020 regular season much of the discussion in the Jets fanbase focused on whether the team would get Trevor Lawrence. Lawrence is clearly a special prospect. The Jets probably won’t be getting him, but Wilson is a very viable alternative. I’m not sure Wilson’s ceiling is much lower than Lawrence’s. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if he ended up the top quarterback in the class. The biggest difference between the two might be their respective floors. Lawrence has the toolkit to be a competent NFL quarterback today. Of course anything is possible, but unless Lawrence suffers injuries or goes to a totally incompetent franchise, he likely will at minimum be a legitimate starter. Wilson’s weaknesses make his floor lower.

Still I wonder whether sometimes we overemphasize things like a player’s expected floor. Go back six years, and that was one rationale for the Jets picking Leonard Williams in the top ten. At a minimum he was likely to be a quality starter. During his Jets career, Williams more or less came in at that floor as a solid but unspectacular starter, and he was viewed as a failure by a large portion of the fanbase. And this was as an interior defensive lineman. There are few things more frustrating to fans than the quarterback who is solid but not good enough to lift up his team. Perhaps Lawrence’s high floor relative to Wilson isn’t as big of a deal as we have made it out to be.

I think Wilson’s positives make him a viable option with the second overall pick. This is based on the things we know. It is up to the Jets to do their homework on the things we can’t know like his work ethic, leadership skills, and capacity to learn. If they are satisfied with these things and have put together a good plan to develop Wilson by putting him into an offense built around his skillset, he might be the right pick for this franchise.