August 1, 2021

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Futures: BYU QB Zach Wilson

9 min read
Futures: BYU QB Zach Wilson

Ranking BYU quarterback Zach Wilson above Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence in the off chance of being right about finding a better talent than the “generational” prospect is a silly exercise. Generational prospects such as Lawrence, who was a five-star recruit and won a national championship as a freshman, earn their reputation by looking like NFL-ready stars for years on the biggest stage. Wilson, on the other hand, was a relative unknown before the COVID-altered season allowed BYU to effectively play down a level of competition.

It is hard not to feel like Wilson is benefitting from Patrick Mahomes’ status as the best quarterback in the league. Purely in terms of play style, Wilson’s creative and free-flowing nature is the closest to Mahomes. Few if any analysts would disagree with that. Even the way Wilson carries and releases the ball as a passer looks a bit like Mahomes, especially on the move. Everyone wants the quarterback that looks like the best in the league and Wilson fits the mold.

The basis for any comparison to Mahomes—which, to be clear, is too lofty for any prospect—has to revolve around physical tools, vertical passing prowess, and the ability to create off-script. Wilson is not as talented or as savvy as Mahomes (duh), but it is easy to understand why parallels get drawn between the two based on that criteria.

Bucket throws like this one versus USC in 2019 litter Wilson’s film catalog. Whether the outside receiver was running slot fades (like in the clip above) or nine routes, Wilson constantly delivered a beautiful blend between velocity and touch. Wilson can get just enough arc on the ball to ensure it lands on his receivers’ outside shoulder while still putting more than enough heat on it to get there in time and allow the receiver to stay in stride. Teams that want to take these cheap vertical shots down the sideline should be geeked watching Wilson hit them with such ease.

Wilson showcases the same marriage of arm strength and touch on deeper play-action shot plays too. He gets the luxury of a completely clean pocket with a runway of space to step up into in this clip, which was common for him in 2020, but it is still no easy feat to place a pass between two defenders 50 yards down the field. If the ball had been placed a couple feet shorter, No. 11 for Navy probably catches up and collides with the catch point. If the ball were even slightly further to the right or thrown with a lower trajectory, it’s likely that No. 3 is able to make some sort of play on this ball. Wilson put this pass right in stride and to a spot where his wide receiver could go up for a pretty reasonable high-point catch. No matter the vertical route, Wilson has a rare knack for finding the exact spot in which the defensive back can not make a play on the ball.

My charting numbers also support Wilson’s dominance down the field. Wilson delivered an accurate ball on 44 of 73 attempts beyond 20 yards, good for a 60.3% accuracy rate on those passes. Not only is that better than anyone in the entire 2020 class, but it is also better than the other four potential first-round quarterbacks in this year’s class (Lawrence, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, or Mac Jones). Wilson has some things to iron out, and we will get to them later, but there is no denying what he can do as a deep passer.

While Wilson delivers a beautiful deep ball in rhythm, as the previous two clips display, the gunslinger’s deep accuracy is also aided by how well he can throw on the move. Though I do believe Wilson’s arm talent to be slightly overrated (still very good, but not quite Josh Allen- or Aaron Rodgers-tier as sometimes advertised), the ease at which he can summon all of what he has is rare. Wilson plays with a loose, smooth delivery that allows him to get every ounce of his arm strength and control when working outside the pocket.

This ball travels nearly 50 yards in the air and is still delivered to a perfect low-and-away location where only the receiver gets a chance to catch it. Sure, in a literally perfect world, the receiver would not actually have to get down for this one, but this is still a plenty reasonable play for the receiver to make, especially given how far the ball had to travel for a throw made on the run. From Mahomes to Allen to Kyler Murray, almost every good young quarterback to enter the league lately has this kind of throw in their arsenal. As such, they ought to be looking for them at every opportunity. Wilson certainly fits the bill there.

Wilson does not connect on this throw in the end, but he gives us a peek at how he operates as a passer once he clears the first pass-rusher. Rather than continuing to the sideline or freaking out to double back to his left, Wilson first tries to slide up between the two pass-rushers. He wants to work back to the line of scrimmage and let it rip down the field. Unfortunately, the blitzing defensive back works free just in time and does not allow Wilson to do so. Wilson is able to quickly correct course, break the tackle, and work back towards the line of scrimmage again as best as he can. Incompletion aside, it is encouraging to see a quarterback’s first instinct be to regain depth as quickly as possible while still having the scrambling tools to recalibrate his plan when necessary.

Wilson has a good bit of “figure it out” to his game. In most instances, he brings the chaos upon himself. Wilson enjoys when plays break down and he can use his creativity to get out of jams. Not even the most chaos-happy quarterbacks always get to pick their spots, though, and still have to prove their creativity when the chaos is brought to them. Wilson shines just the same in that area.

Fumbled snaps, bad snaps, and messy exchanges are bound to happen every now and again. Wilson muffs this shotgun snap, but recovers it in a hurry and immediately snaps his eyes down the field. Wilson then continues scanning and working back to the line of scrimmage before making a nifty throw back to the middle of the field. Since Wilson is so comfortable on the move, it is no big deal for him to salvage the derailed play and find a target amidst the chaos. The throw itself is not Herculean, but it is worth appreciating how calm Wilson remains in moments like this.

Wilson can walk into the league and be a dynamic playmaker right away. He has both the talent and the creativity to do so. How well Wilson can handle the mundane, down-to-down stuff when he enters the league is a different question, though. He is far from the dumbest quarterback prospect around and he generally does a good job protecting the ball, but some of his work in completing passes to keep the chains moving is suspect. There are still some kinks Wilson needs to work out.

For one, Wilson runs hot and cold with how well he gets to his checkdowns. There is value in hunting for the big play, as was written about Justin Fields last week, but sometimes it is just malpractice to not flip the ball right to the running back. Wilson puts himself in too many awkward positions because he regularly refuses to rush to his checkdown when he should. It is a boring thing to get worked up over, but giving up free yards in the NFL will punish him.

This was among Wilson’s worst infractions last season. To the top of the screen, Houston has a cornerback in press coverage. Wilson peeks that way during the fake handoff and confirms that right after the snap. He should now know there is no immediate flat defender and that only a linebacker leaving the box can cover the running back on the swing route to that side. As Wilson brings his eyes back to the middle of the field, he should have caught both linebackers trying to cover a tight end, which would leave the running back uncovered. Rather than flip it to the back right then and there, Wilson continues his progression and tries throwing an out route late to the far side of the field. Wilson has to be better about taking the shortcut when the defense gives it to him.

The good news is this is neither a detrimental flaw nor an unfixable one. Remaining this way would make his game less consistent, but it is not a death knell. We have also seen some young quarterbacks get much better at this before. Josh Allen, for example, simply refused to throw checkdowns his rookie year. Just did not do it. By 2020, his third NFL season, Allen developed a passable sense for when to just take the free yards and hunt for the big throw on the next play. That should be the hope for Wilson.

Where Wilson does give some reason for legitimate concern, though, is how consistently he throws over the middle of the field in rhythm. So many of Wilson’s throws to the middle of the field in the BYU offenses were about having pass-catchers sift through space rather than having them work through time-sensitive landmarks. Wilson does a great job throwing Y-cross and seam routes that fill up the BYU offense, but sharp in-breaking routes such as digs and basics can give him issues, especially if he is working to them on the back side.

Here’s a clip from 2019, when Wilson had to face real defenses. Wilson works back to the 10-yard square-in on the back side of this concept (to No. 13) upon his first hitch after finishing his dropback. Presumably, Wilson knows the safety in the middle of the field followed his eyes with the crosser towards the right side of the field. If Wilson takes that information and fires to the square-in right away, there is a clear window there for a completion. Wilson plays this as if he needs to see the route wide open rather than anticipating it being open, ultimately leading to him being late and looking elsewhere to save the play. This may be asking Wilson to take in a lot at once and play with great timing, but that’s what it’s going to look like in the NFL, and he did not make it work here.

To be fair, the throw Wilson does end up making is not what deserves criticism. It’s clear that Wilson does not expect the tight end on the crosser to turn up the field at the end, so I won’t knock Wilson for how awkward this throw looks with no receiver in the area. The issue is just that he never should have gotten to that throw in the first place since he could have thrown the square-in.

As mentioned before, Wilson is going to make splash plays. Whether that means shot plays off play-action or scrambling around to find plays outside the pocket, Wilson has the means to rip off plenty of explosive plays. At the same time, Wilson generally does a good job protecting the ball. Wilson loves breaking structure and looking for chaos, but it is not too often that he actually puts the ball in harm’s way. He knows how to walk the line pretty well, which is not always the case with these quarterbacks whose selling points are tools and off-script ability. So while his consistency in structure may waver, he will not be forcing many turnovers while still creating explosives. Not a bad combination.

Wilson is also exceptionally accurate to every part of the field. Again, whether or not he will always be getting to the correct throw in the first place may take some projection, but when he does get to the right guy, you can bet a good chunk of change he is going to nail the throw. In that respect, he is not akin to Allen coming out of college, whose processing and accuracy were both inconsistent. Wilson absolutely checks the box on the latter and that raises his floor, especially out of the gate.

Truthfully, though I find myself being tougher on Wilson than most, he is still a good quarterback prospect at the end of the day. Wilson is a bit of a projection in terms of how he will manage the pocket and play structure in the NFL, but the tools are undeniable, he has the playmaking mentality most of the league’s young stars do, and he is accurate to all levels of the field. Wilson is worth a top-10 selection and should be a nice consolation prize in the Lawrence sweepstakes.