As we move through college pro days, I continue my in-depth study of the quarterback position related to the 2021 NFL Draft. For the third edition of breaking down this year’s top passers, I’ll again begin with an explanation of my evaluation process followed by a film analysis of BYU QB Zach Wilson.
After starting seven games as a true freshman at BYU, Wilson wrapped up his three-year collegiate career with an astounding senior season. In 2020, Wilson completed a school-record 73.5% of his passes for 3,692 yards, 33 touchdowns, and just 3 interceptions. He also ran for 10 scores on 70 rush attempts.
For his career, Wilson completed 67.6% of his throws for 7,652 yards (255.1 YPG), 56 touchdowns (6.7%), and 15 interceptions (1.8%). Appearing in 30 games, Wilson took to the ground more than 200 times, accumulating 642 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns.
Before 2020, Wilson wasn’t even in the top quarterback discussion, let alone getting Day 1 consideration. But after a productive year and a solid BYU Pro Day, Wilson is arguably this year’s second-best QB prospect. And while BYU quarterbacks haven’t garnered this much attention since maybe Ty Detmer, no quarterback hailing from Provo, Utah, has been drafted in the top five in almost 40 years. Something to keep in mind.
Zach Wilson Film: Introduction to the process
When it comes to evaluating young quarterbacks, there are five major characteristics I’m looking for. They are awareness, competitiveness, arm talent, mechanics, and arm strength. With each major attribute, I look for several sub-traits therein.
Measurables do play a role, but they’re my “cherry on top” following film analysis. Therefore, I’ll discuss Wilson’s size, athleticism (or lack thereof), and production in a limited capacity — especially with much of that information being unofficial at this time.
With that said, let’s get this Wilson film analysis started with a list of the five games I used for the evaluation process. In chronological order, I studied October’s game versus Houston, November’s matchup with Boise State, and three games from December, which includes Coastal Carolina, San Diego State, and UCF.
The Five Major Characteristics
First, and most importantly, I need to see mental awareness. How football savvy is he? Regarding football intelligence, I want to see some semblance of identifying coverage, solid decision-making, and poise when things amp up or break down. Why do I hold awareness so high in my evaluation? High football intellect can mask a multitude of physical shortfalls. See Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.
According to the tape, Wilson’s shown an ability to decipher pre-snap alignments and mismatches, albeit against weaker defenses than I’d like. With that said, I will not judge Wilson for something he couldn’t control. Against the five opponents I studied, Wilson consistently made the proper read and took care of the football, throwing just 1 interception on a Hail Mary attempt.
As an off-script athlete, Wilson uses his feet to prolong plays and does well to keep his eyes downfield. However, his comfort within the pocket is inconsistent. As I stated in my analysis, Wilson holds onto the football too long at times. At other times, when the pocket is clean, he shows a tendency to jump the gun.
All in all, Wilson’s film shows a bright quarterback capable of putting the ball in the hands of his playmakers with quick processing, progression reads, and great anticipation. While he takes care of the football, sometimes his propensity to outplay his competition works against him when a team does find a way of applying pressure and disguising coverages.
Secondly, my desired quarterback must ooze unwavering competitiveness. Within that, I’m looking for leadership traits exuded by actions and performance through both preparation and gameplay. Is this kid clutch? How does he handle getting hit or making mistakes? If I’m running an offense, I need to know the signal-caller takes charge, is mentally and physically tough, and loves to play football.
There’s definitely moxie with Wilson. I don’t have to talk to this young man to find out how competitive he is. The way he plays the game is enough. The film tells me that Wilson thoroughly enjoys playing football. By all indications — meaning interviews and articles — Wilson is a film junkie who uncovers all stones as his team’s captain and leader.
However, similar to my analysis of Trey Lance, Wilson must do better to protect his body at the next level. Nevertheless, you love to see him put it all on the line for an extra yard or two. He’s got a bit of Baker Mayfield’s attitude to his game, and I like that. As long as he remains under control, putting his team ahead of himself, nobody will misconstrue his confidence for arrogance. Plus, his ball-out style will quickly earn the respect of his future veteran teammates.
My third most important trait for the quarterback position is natural accuracy. I’m not talking about completion percentages here. While throws are being completed, the manner in which a ball is located can significantly alter a play’s result — for better or worse.
When watching Wilson’s film, do his throws leave yards on the field with off-target passes? In other words, I have to know that my quarterback has sufficient arm talent to lead his receivers and add proper touch when necessary to optimize play execution.
Watching Wilson whip the ball around the yard is beyond enjoyable. He emits the sort of talent the NFL is clamoring for right now—an off-script, route-extending playmaker. His desire to always make a play does backfire every so often, but it benefited Wilson and the BYU Cougars for the most part.
Between the quarterbacks I’ve studied to this point (Mac Jones, Trey Lance), Wilson is the most accurate overall. However, as I stated in the analysis above, throwing scripted timing routes is not Wilson’s best asset. He needs a long leash. Make the call, let him take note of the coverage, and watch him make plays.
The fourth characteristic to review is a player’s position-centric movements. When it comes to quarterbacks, I’ll be looking at their drop, setup, and release.
A passer’s footwork and throwing motion play a pivotal role in timing, accuracy, and pocket mobility. We’ll also touch on athleticism and escapability in this section. But let it be known, being athletic doesn’t always mean fewer sacks — and vice versa. See Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger.
While Wilson’s mechanics are everchanging depending on any given play’s needs, they’re still more textbook than not. Whether he’s rolling to his right or left, throwing across his body, or delivering a prototypical five-step fade, Wilson is mostly disciplined in his footwork and throwing mechanics. No red flags here.
Furthermore, Wilson is very athletic. Not only is he capable of escaping the pocket and throwing on the run, but he’s athletic enough to be used in zone-read schemes or on QB draws at the next level. In 2020, he averaged a rushing score on every seven attempts. Wilson’s ability to move will be a tremendous addition to any NFL offense.
The fifth and final main attribute to consider is throwing with velocity. As discussed with accuracy, catchable throws off-platform don’t necessarily require a strong arm. In general, arm strength is what makes every throw easier. With the additional speed of players at the next level, quarterbacks are often asked to throw into tight windows that close as quickly as they unfold.
We’ll dissect Wilson’s deep ball for this portion of the film analysis — added zip for passes outside the numbers and tight-window throws.
Of all the attributes I hold dear, arm strength may be Wilson’s lowest grade. But as specified in the above film analysis, Wilson has plenty of zip to make sideline throws, strength to heave prayers, and pinpoint velocity to fit the ball into tight windows.
Conclusion on Wilson’s film study
Outside of Trevor Lawrence, Wilson has started more college football games than the other top QB prospects. On the other hand, it wasn’t until this past year that he began turning heads. Sure, his true freshman season showed promise, but Wilson’s improvement from his sophomore to junior year was ludicrous.
I say this to bring up a concern with Wilson as a top NFL prospect. While he has plenty of experience, he’s only done so at a high level for a little less than one season. To top it off, he did it against lesser talent than one would hope. Yet, given his instinctual prowess and motivated demeanor, this concern isn’t enough for me to turn down drafting him in the top half of the first round.
At 6-foot-2 and 214 pounds, Wilson’s size doesn’t concern me. As it stands, the average height of an NFL starting quarterback is around 6-foot-3. Plus, his weight falls right in line with the position requirements. However, as a mobile quarterback, Wilson must protect himself better than he did in college.
Furthermore, Wilson is precisely the type of quarterback I’d want right now. I’d require a competitor who puts in the work — a “first in/ last out” type of guy. That’s Wilson.
Additionally, I’d expect my quarterback to deliver accurate passes at all levels, no matter the condition of the pocket. Off-platform throws and release point adjustments are more than necessary. Wilson is highly capable of doing those exact things.
Add in his fire and moxie that’ll further inspire an offense every Sunday, and I’m sold. Sure Wilson’s not a perfect prospect, but finding weaknesses in his game is nitpicking at best. For that reason, Wilson has every opportunity to be the best passer from this class two to three years from now.
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