2021 NFL Draft Rookie Profile: Zach Wilson (Fantasy Football)
Evaluating QBs is not an exact science and anyone who wants to take a stab at predicting future outcomes for the most important position in sports needs to handle them with humility. There is so much that can change year-to-year including players that weren’t even remotely on our radars.
We need to (as the Footballers and Bruce Lee say) “stay water” in our thought process.
Scouts had to recalibrate their QB charts in 2020 after BYU’s Zach Wilson burst onto the scene with an absolutely bonkers year. How wild and unexpected was his performance?
For kicks, I went back and looked at where most NFL draft pundits ranked him among prospects. (Narrator: It was a fruitless Google search.) Heck, Wilson wasn’t even named among the top-30 QBs in the pre-season watch list for the Davey O’Brien award (nation’s top QBs) in 2020 nor any other pre-season impact performer in any publication I could find. It’s quite the meteoric rise for a future top-5 pick…
Let’s look at his college production profile, his athletic measurables and spend the majority of the time analyzing what shows up on film. At the end, I’ll give my thoughts on Wilson’s place in rookie drafts and some comparables in the NFL.
Editors Note: This article is part of our Rookie Profile series going on until the 2021 NFL Draft. For more on each rookie, check out Andy, Mike, and Jason’s exclusive rookie rankings and production profiles found only in the Dynasty Pass, part of the brand-new UDK+ for 2021.
College Production Profile
|Year||Class||G||Pct||Yds||Pass TDs||Int||Rush Att.||Rush Yards||Rush TDs|
As you can tell from the production, 2020 was a major leap forward for Wilson in so many ways. Wilson was the only player in the nation with more than 20 passing TDs and double-digit rushing TDs. His Passer Rating (196.4), completion percentage (73.5), and adjusted yards per attempt (12.6) ranked 2nd behind only Mac Jones. In 12 games, he registered four or more total TDs in eight of them including a monster game in the Boca Raton Bowl versus UCF. He finished his college career off leading the Cougars to a 49-23 win throwing for 425 yards, three passing TDs and adding another two scores on the ground.
However, one of the biggest red flags in his profile is the competition he faced. This tweet bends Wilson’s schedule in a largely negative light:
3 years ago I created a table of Drew Lock’s splits to explain why I was lower on him than the industry
Today, I give you Zach Wilson’s splits using the *exact same* criteria on I used on Lock
Lock 🤝 Wilson
~ difference in play vs good/bad competition is breathtaking ~ pic.twitter.com/N5QbN9lten
— Thor Nystrom (@thorku) March 30, 2021
While this is clearly a one-sided take, the stat that sticks out the most is BYU went 2-8 against teams with 9+ wins and Wilson struggled mightily within those parameters of his data set. In those ten games, he had a 7:9 INT:Ratio including throwing for fewer than two TDs in all but one of those games. Yikes.
Regardless of what you think, we do need to consider the lack of elite competition as BYU is classified as an Independent in NCAA football. It’s not a deal killer but it gives us context when we’re watching his film. The important question to also ask ourselves: what am I not seeing?
Wilson’s pro-day went as well as it could possibly go with every team except the Rams present. While measuring in an inch shorter than listed, he weighed in at a solid 214 pounds which is likely the low-end of his playing weight. He threw 70+ attempts including this one that has likely been replayed millions of times since. His off-balance ability was the main takeaway that had everyone ranting and raving.
In terms of pro comparisons, there was a lot on film that gives you Aaron Rodgers-lite vibes with his improvisation skills. Our own Andy Holloway sees shades of Jay Cutler in terms of arm talent. His ability to pick up extra yards on the ground and consistently hit receivers off-platform is both a blessing and a curse in some evaluators’ eyes. His one season of massive production (and potential 2nd overall selection) had led some to conclude he’s Mitch Trubisky.
What’s On Tape
My method for watching film is simple: get out a pen and pad of paper. Watch each passing attempt taking note of the down and distance and simply write down what I see. For a QB, I focus on accuracy, aDOT, footwork, locating 2nd reads, and how they stand in the pocket under pressure. For Wilson, I took eight of his games:
Games Viewed: UCF (2020), Coastal Carolina (2020), San Diego State (2020), Boise State (2020), UTSA (2020), Utah (2019), Tennessee (2019), USC (2019)
1. Throwing off-platform is a thing of beauty.
This is the trait that has most scouts jumping for joy because it’s not normal. He has that Aaron Rodgers-esque ability to “snap” or “flick” the ball more than it’s pushed. That motion works wonders at the next level where so much of what happens is off-script. While some QBs should never attempt a cross-body throw, for some it comes more naturally.
Here’s an example against UTSA that is picturesque in how he hits his receiver in stride across the body.
To give you the other end of the spectrum, Florida QB Kyle Trask put up a ton of numbers this past year including some monster games against tough competition in the SEC. However, when you watch his film, it’s literally 1st reads on every single play. He was basically a statue in the pocket and it limited the playing field when defenders got in the backfield. Wilson’s ability not only to extend plays but accurately throwing off balance actually works… a lot of the time. There are highlight-reel plays that wow you and tantalize you to see the high-end range of his outcomes.
2. He makes plays deep… with accuracy.
This is the area where I saw the most improvement from 2019 to 2020. For example, in the Tennessee game, Wilson attempted very few deep passes. Apart from a flea-flicker with TE Matt Bushman and one long bomb to Micah Simon on a broken play, BYU chose to work the intermediate part of the field as Wilson completed a meager 18 passes. This wasn’t a knock against Wilson’s ability but the identity of the team was less on his big arm and improvisation skills at the time. Wilson was sacked four times and the game plan didn’t seem to focus on letting him air it out.
In 2020, you see his arm talent on display much more especially on play-action passes. His aDOT of 14.1 on play-action is the highest in this draft class. In the UCF game, he stuck a couple of throws including a 35-yard dart for a TD towards the end of the second quarter. He looked poised and in control for most of that game although the Knights were a step down from where they were narrowly losing the Fiesta Bowl to the Joe Burrow-led LSU Tigers two years prior. Here’s one against Boise State where the way he plants and fires is a complete dart.
And another versus USC in 2019.
3. Sometimes he was too willing to dance around and run.
Take this assessment with a grain of salt as playmaking also can sometimes end up becoming sack-taking. Against Boise State, Wilson is only marked down for three sacks but there were multiple other occasions where he held onto the ball way too long. The end of game stat line looks amazing (360/3) but there were plenty of opportunities where turnovers were waiting to happen.
By far the most emotional game on film was against Coastal Carolina when both teams were 9-0 and ranked inside the top-20. This fumble and recovery may seem insignificant but this is inside 40 seconds left in the half with zero timeouts left when Wilson rolled to his left with basically no plan but to out-athlete two or three defenders. Shortly after this, Wilson was shoved multiple times to the ground after a hail mary attempt turned to an interception right at the half. It led to a skirmish between both teams at mid-field and some chippy plays in the second half.
This was BYU’s lone loss in 2020 and in the second half, I counted five separate plays where I think he took off looking to make a play when there wasn’t really anything there.
What’s Not on Tape
This is arguably the most crucial part of any scouting analysis, in my opinion. It is easy to splice together highlight reel takes and forget that we are looking at college football players; in other words, the majority of players the prospect faced will never be playing on an NFL field and likely will be vying to be your financial planner or turning to high school coaching. We cannot only glean from film watching based on what our eyeballs are showing us. Sometimes it’s best to ask yourself the question: What am I not seeing? This involves asking questions and reflecting.
Here are a couple of takeaways of what didn’t show up:
1. Tons of big-time edge rushers
Beyond the Coastal Carolina game, I didn’t see defenders getting off the edge and disrupting him enough to force him to stay in the pocket. Wilson was blessed to play behind an elite offensive line at BYU and, in 2020, the level of competition he faced was less than stellar as I’ve mentioned before. NFL defenses would want to collapse the pocket and force Wilson to “hang-in” under pressure.
Wilson had the 2nd most average time to throw (2.71 seconds) among 2021 draft prospects behind only Justin Fields. The metric is a double-edged sword: the QB had protection but also was willing to hold onto the ball longer than sometimes they should. In the NFL, the leaders in average time to throw aren’t always players with the best offensive line (see Russell Wilson & Deshaun Watson) but playmakers with the ability to extend plays. Those types of QBs also routinely are among the league leaders in sacks taken which are drive killers.
2. Lots of plays from under center
This is a common note I give QBs coming into the league. You can’t fault a player for running spread concepts at all because this is what they were asked to do. But picking up blitzes under center and recognizing spots in zone looks so much different when you are hugging the center. I made the same comment about Justin Herbert and Marcus Mariota coming out of Oregon. The Chargers adjusted and utilized Herbert’s strengths as a downfield passer while the Titans tried to fit Mariota like a round peg through a square hole under center.
Whichever team drafts him (likely NYJ or SF), they both run West Coast concepts utilizing play-action passing and giving their QB a chance to make a play in space with lots of wide-open looks. At least that’s the goal and given Wilson’s legs, he can do a lot more than a Jimmy Garoppolo could do.
2021 Fantasy Outlook
Wilson’s skillset definitely is translatable at the NFL level. For fantasy purposes, his dual-threat ability teases us with a ceiling for some monster games. His progression from simply athletic in 2019 to game-breaking in 2020 was best seen in his willingness to make something out of nothing and accurately hit his receivers down the field. Evaluation-wise as an NFL QB, he’s behind Lawrence and Fields but firmly the QB3 in this class. I liked his 2020 film better than Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa last year.
For rookie drafts, Wilson slides in right behind Justin Fields for me as the QB3 for dynasty regardless of if he’s taken ahead of him. He doesn’t have quite the upside of Trey Lance but if a team like San Francisco happens to get him at pick 3, he should be a steady performer for years. In 1QB rookie drafts, I’m willing to look his way towards the end of the 2nd round. In SuperFlex, he’s a late first/early 2nd. In redraft leagues, he’s firmly off the radar until he proves himself.