Zach Wilson scouting report: The quiet star of the 2021 NFL Draft class

Zach Wilson has silently evolved into one of the best passers in college football and fits the exact athletic mold every NFL team vies for, a star to be?

One of the best keep secrets of the 2021 NFL Draft, Zach Wilson is not only one of the most efficient passers in the country, but one of the best playmakers as well. His exact skillset is what teams are searching for at the quarterback position to build out high-variety gameplans with explosive chunk gains and lightning decision-making.

The 2021 quarterback draft class has a clear top-two with differing skill sets (Trevor Lawrence & Justin Fields), and then a clear subset of tier two quarterbacks who could still become bonified stars. North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance is considered the favored mobile-threat of the class, continuing the line of impressive quarterback products from the program.

Florida passer Kyle Trask has been one of the most consistent pocket-passers of the class, offering a conventional option for franchises pursuing insurance.

Wilson appears to be the leading candidate among these quarterbacks but could be held back by a lack of recognition from the football community. Thus far in the 2020 campaign, BYU has played a selection of mid-tier programs including Navy, Louisiana Tech, and Houston. The most significant opponent remaining on the 2020 calendar is Boise State, leaving out a proven top 25 program from Wilson’s resume.

Wilson has an NFL frame, standing at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds. This fits the current mold of athletic quarterbacks, such as Deshaun Watson and Joe Burrow. Combined with this is Wilson’s quickness getting out of the pocket and speed to beat conventional linebackers to the corner.

Zach Wilson was used more heavily as a runner in his freshman season and has become a highly-efficient running threat within the red zone (six touchdowns on 32 carries). An offensive coordinator can also rely on Wilson to provide an effective counter-punch in the running game via the option. There can be a tendency for Wilson to put himself in harm’s way though, and his coaching staff will need to teach him how to properly slide and avoid unnecessary contact.

When Wilson was forced to leave the pocket on developing passing plays, he showed a sufficient sense of the pass-rusher and was able to slide out of contact. Once on the move within the pocket, Wilson could break out of the phone booth with his elusiveness and short-space quickness and extend plays with his legs. Wilson also displayed the patience on the run to wait for breakdowns in coverage and punished secondaries.

Zach Wilson, 2021 NFL Draft

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

A lot of these plays where Wilson needed to buy time with his legs were developing deep shots that required excellent vision and patience. Even while on the run from an incoming pass-rush, Wilson keeps his eyes downfield and spots the open man. When Wilson is forced to wait on these long reads, he is always looking to get the ball to a playmaker rather than take it himself.

Once Wilson does uncork his shot downfield, he has an uncanny ability to use impressive footwork and creates a stable base to throw from on the move. This is one of the biggest parts of his overall accuracy and consistency from snap to snap.

The most impressive portion of Wilson’s game though has been his short-intermediate production through the air. He has developed impeccable timing with receivers on out-breaking routes, and been confident in moving from read to read across the field. When presented with zone coverage, Wilson understands defender spacing and is able to find receivers settling into soft-spots in coverage.

One of the greatest strengths of Wilson’s throwing has been his ability to identify and execute against one-on-one man coverage. There was never an issue of identifying the coverage and where to go with the ball, but Wilson has used two different approaches in hitting his deep targets:

  1. Driven Throws – keep a flat arc and muscle the ball to the boundary, used to beat off-coverage sitting on top of the receiver by cutting underneath with a well-timed reception
  2. High-Arc – high release angle throws requiring immense accuracy and touch, used to beat tight man-trail coverage by taking the top off the defense

Wilson has been impressive driving the ball downfield but is still in the process of developing his deep touch. Very few quarterbacks are able to throw downfield with touch. Some of these elites include Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and rookie Justin Herbert. Wilson still has room to grow in his arcing shots, but with time can develop this crucial portion of his game for an explosive offense.

Wilson has shown the ability to develop though, displaying noticeable statistical improvement between his three years at BYU:

  • 2018: 182 att, 65.9% comp, 1,578 yds, 12 TD, 3 int
  • 2019: 319 att, 62.4% comp, 2,382 yds, 11 TD, 9 int
  • 2020: 136 att, 78.7% comp, 1,641 yds, 12 TD, 1 int (5 games)

Wilson made a significant jump from a ball-carrier to a passer in his sophomore season, with an expectable inefficient statistical performance of 11 scores and nine interceptions. So far in the 2020 season though, Wilson has become a completely different passer. Through five games, Wilson has kept a consistently impressive completion percentage and continued to convert on his chances through the air.

A portion of this production though can be labeled as ‘manufactured.’ Wilson has operated within a BYU offense which places an emphasis on spacing and motion, creating misdirection in the defense and having designated reads on designed plays. This offense places an emphasis on exterior playmakers and places a label on Wilson as a ‘distributor’ or ‘game-manager.’

Although these names may carry negative connotations, this is exactly what NFL teams desire. As long as a coaching staff can supply the offense with the right content in the offensive gameplan, A quarterback with a comprehensive understanding of the offense and inherent decision-making skills can elevate an offense. Wilson has shown to be a quality fit at BYU and comes from a system that compares admirably with the future trends of the NFL.

Not every quarterback can even operate effectively within this gameplan because of the demand for a quick-release that gets the ball to the outside before defenders can react. Wilson is able to turn on a dime and get the ball to either side of the field, skipping the process of setting his feet in an effort to shave wasted motion on such a short completion.

With these short throws, there is a small detail that has held back his receiver’s playmaking ability at BYU. A crucial part of completing these seemingly routine throws is to lead your receiver up the field to create momentum out of the catch. Tom Brady was highly noted for doing this with his receiving backs such as James White and Shane Vereen.

When Wilson is getting the ball downfield or making throws through coverage, he has tightly-wound mechanics that get the ball out quick with good velocity and control. Additional velocity comes with a well-tucked front arm, and arm angle can be adjusted on the fly to manipulate throwing angles (a modern trend among young playmaking quarterbacks).

The single mechanical concern I observed in Wilson’s game appeared occasionally on intermediate throws in which he attempted to put more velocity on the ball against tight coverage. When Wilson sees a tight window and wants to beat the defender to the passing lane, he will take a longer, aggressive step with his front foot.

Once his front foot plants so far out, he is unable to bring his back hips around and will leave his back foot trailing behind the throw. This forces Zach Wilson to make the throw using his upper body, affecting his release and accuracy. Many of his more casual quick-release throws have better mechanics incorporating his lower-body than these overreaching grasps.

Player Comparison: 2019 Kyle Allen, QB, CAR

While I believe Wilson has every bit of the talent to become an NFL star, he displays many of the same traits and tendencies that made Kyle Allen so effective in 2019. Both of these players are scheme-friendly fits who can extend plays with mobility to generate production. The element of Allen’s game that has held him back though is his downfield passing.

Allen was never able to unlock the full potential of the Carolina offense because of the limitations of his arm talent, but Wilson does not have to follow the same fate. The tape at BYU shows Wilson can let loose on any given play, but the question is whether his arm talent will translate to the NFL stage. Wilson will need to compete alongside the likes of Trevor Lawrence, Justin Herbert and Patrick Mahomes if he is to fit into a spread-motion offense.