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Zach Wilson - 2021 NFL Draft Prospect Profile

The NFL Draft Prospect Profile Series features prominent 2021 NFL Draft prospects with film analysis and scouting insights. I have experience working in college football and have been studying the NFL Draft for over 15 years. My analysis is based on film study and analytics.

A common misconception about the NFL Draft is that the college and pro games are very similar. They are not. Besides the obvious difference in speed and skill level, a college field has different hash mark distances and different rules. There are specific schemes and plays that NFL teams copy from college and vice versa. But the differences between the two are understated in NFL Draft coverage. There's a reason many highly-productive college players are not considered legitimate professionals.

To that end, scouting prospects is not about evaluating college performance, it’s about projecting traits that translate to the next level. This is not limited to just physical traits. There are certain football traits that are evident in college film and will translate to the pro game. For example, a wide receiver being able to get in and out of breaks efficiently will not change from college to pro. On the flip side, an edge rusher who got most of his sacks due to hustle or missed offensive line assignments may not have shown translatable traits on film. We will continue our draft coverage this year with another special QB in Zach Wilson of BYU.

Be sure to check all of our fantasy football rankings for 2024 fantasy football drafts:

 

Zach Wilson: Profile

Zach Wilson is one of the hottest names in draft circles right now, and for good reason. The 6-2, 210-pound star QB just led BYU to an 11-1 season, capped off by a dominant 49-23 win against a pretty good UCF team in the Boca Raton Bowl. Wilson was brilliant all year, throwing for 3692 yards, 33 touchdowns, and just three interceptions on a 73.5 completion percentage. QB late-risers coming out of nowhere have become the norm in recent years, as Wilson is this year's version of Joe Burrow. As a sophomore in 2019, Wilson threw just 11 touchdowns to nine interceptions on 62.4% completions. How did he improve so much? Apparently, by grinding during the pandemic last spring. It also probably helped that he was even further removed from shoulder surgery in 2019.

Wilson has leapfrogged Justin Fields on many internet draft boards, but his ultimate draft fate has yet to be determined. He's currently the Vegas favorite to be drafted second overall. In my view, any ranking of the top-four signal-callers in this class is acceptable, as all four have the traits of first-overall picks. I do believe this is the best top-5 in the history of QB draft classes.  Zach Wilson is worth the hype, but the margin between all of these signal-callers is razor thin for me. For now, I rank Wilson a hair below my QB2 Trey Lance, and just slightly ahead of Justin Fields.

 

Arm Talent (Not Just Arm Strength)

Wilson's most impressive trait is his whippy arm. He is the quintessential gunslinger in the sense that he can throw from all different arm angles and platforms. He is creative and instinctive on second-reaction plays, can throw on the run, and has a quick release.

When you hear the term "arm talent" sometimes, it's being used as a synonym for "arm strength." In the clip below, Wilson shows off his arm strength on a 60-yard bomb.

But arm strength is not just about the deep ball. In the clip below, Wilson checks the boundary, comes back to his receiver over the middle, steps up in the pocket, and delivers a high-velocity strike. Watch closely at the receivers' hands jolt back as the ball hits his gloves. This is special arm strength.

But arm talent is not just about velocity or pass length. In the clip below, Wilson showcases his creativity out of the pocket with a jumping cross-body laser in the face of pressure that's just absurd.

Wilson is instinctive in terms of manipulating the pocket, but to be fair, he did have unrealistically amazing pocket thanks to a stellar BYU offensive line on most reps. He took sacks against better opponents, but nothing on his film suggests that he will cave under pressure. His accuracy, ball placement, and instinctive ability to deliver the ball like a point guard give him franchise-changing upside as a second-reaction passer. The clip below shows him work all the way back to a backside dig in the face of a DT, step up, and deliver an accurate strike.

Another example of arm talent is being able to place the ball on time with velocity. In the clip below, Wilson places the short hitch route on the outside shoulder to complete the pass in the end zone. The deep balls are nice, but these placements are the types of throws that are underrated when talking about arm talent.

 

All About His Mental

Zach Wilson can make basically any throw. He has enough athleticism to escape trouble and even gain some yards with his legs (15 career rushing touchdowns). There have been murmurs about his personality and some smoke about him not being a captain, but many sources discounting any negative claims about his intangibles. Sticking to the film, his toughness is actually a plus, as I saw him get a block on a reverse against Louisiana Tech and come back firing after taking a brutal beating at the end of the first half against Coastal Carolina.

While psycho-analyzing QB prospects from the outside seems like a fool's errand, I try to evaluate the film to make connections. Jameis Winston has made questionable off-field decisions in the past, and his questionable decision-making was also evident on film as a draft prospect. He basically refused to check down at Florida State, and those bad habits have hurt him as a pro. I was right as one of the lone voices picking Winston to bust. To be clear, I do prefer my QB prospects are captains, but I do not see anything on Zach Wilson's film that gives me pause about his intangibles.

However, his decision-making is not impeccable. Wilson knows he can fit balls in where few others can. Some of those tight-window throws are going to picked as he learns the difference between college and pro defensive backs. Is it a negative that he plays with so much confidence? Only if he doesn't learn from early-career mistakes.

My main critique of Wilson is his tendency to miss zone defenders, especially in mixed coverages with lurk or robber-free players. Even against match coverages, Wilson at times will see his receiver beat his initial man, and deliver a ball with no understanding of the next zone over. In the clip below, the slot receiver runs a shallow cross, beating the mike across his face.  The nickel is waiting in the next window, but Wilson throws it anyway, allowing his teammate to get crushed.

Wilson carved up man coverage against Houston, but there were too many instances on film against other teams where he would miss additional robber defenders, leading to hospital balls. The clip below shows Wilson read man coverage, see his receiver win, and ignore the post safety.

Yes, the receiver made the catch. Yes, it's an example of arm talent, a quick release, and trust in his teammates. But there are too many instances on the film of putting his receivers in tough positions.

There are a bunch of reasons that QBs bust. Traits-wise, Zach Wilson has everything. But if he stays healthy and fails, it will likely be due to the mental aspect of the game. The good news is that he showed improvement as he took command of the BYU offense, and has a quick-enough internal clock.

 

NFL Outlook

Zach Wilson is as exciting an arm talent as we've seen in the past decade. I've refrained from mentioning Patrick Mahomes so far, but it's hard not to notice similarities in their arms, creativity, and physical measurables. Mahomes has obviously been an exceptional pro, but he has had some issues dealing with injuries. With his smallish frame, lack of physical strength, and propensity to take some hits given his style, Wilson does carry some durability risk. Not to mention a shoulder injury that plagued him earlier in his career. With that said, he has the upside to develop into a franchise QB depending on the situation he's drafted to.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more prospect profiles and other NFL Draft content.

Read past Prospect Profiles here:

Trevor Lawrence - QB, Clemson

Trey Lance - QB, North Dakota State

Justin Fields - QB, Ohio State



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