NFL Draft

2021 NFL Draft Player Profiles: BYU QB Zach Wilson

From now until the 2021 NFL Draft takes place, we hope to showcase as many prospects as possible and examine both their strengths and weaknesses. Most of these profiles will feature individuals that the Pittsburgh Steelers are likely to have an interest in, while a few others will be top-ranked players. If there is a player you would like us to analyze, let us know in the comments below.

#1 Zach Wilson/QB/BYU6021, 214 lbs.

 The Good

– Acceptable hand size (9 1/2”) for the QB position
– Played both under center and in the shotgun for the Cougars’ offense
– Good athlete in terms of speed and explosiveness for the position
– A very capable runner with the ball in his hands when he needs to tuck it and go
– Was well-utilized on QB designed runs up the middle as well as having a sense to scramble out of the pocket with the play is breaking down
– Good to have in the RPO game with the RB to make the read man have to decide, having the legs and open field speed to make defenses pay should they not respect his running threat, especially in the red zone
– Has a good amount of elusiveness as a runner, being able to side-step defenders and make quick lateral cuts without losing a lot of speed
– Knows how to avoid contact as a runner, knowing when to hit the dirt and slide to avoid a big hit
– Great arm talent as a passer with the arm strength to throw it 50+ yards on a dart
– Has a pretty deep ball with the strong arm and ball placement to drop it in the bucket to his receiver in-stride
– Really has some great velocity on his throws, putting some zip on the ball when he needs to fire it in quick and put it on his man accurately
– Can fire it in quickly to the sideline on the deep out as the receiver makes his break
– Has the arm talent and powerful hip drive to make a lot of off-platform throws when pressure is in his face or on the run to get the ball to his receiver on target
– Can make the sidearm throws or drop it over the defender’s head when the direct path of the pass isn’t present
– Great on the play action game with his mobility out of the pocket and ability to roll out into a pass
– Accurate thrower of the football while on the run, having the arm and hip drive to make the pass even when his feet are not set
– Has the movement ability to work outside of the pocket and extend the play when pressure is coming at him
– Plays with a strong base in the pocket as a passer, having the footwork for solid dropbacks and to step up well into his downfield throw
– Throwing motion is pretty clean with a smooth release and delivery
– Has that sense of when to tuck the ball and run or go to the check down, taking what he can get rather than try and force to ball somewhere it shouldn’t go

The Bad

– Has average height but can stand to add some size to his frame for durability at the next level
– Two surgeries to his throwing hand and shoulder over the past year
– Has some strength as a runner and getting out of tackles, but isn’t going to break out of a lot of sacks or move the pile as a runner
– Had one crazy productive season against lower-level competition, having mediocre performances in a few high-profile games (Coastal Carolina)
– Can struggle when pressure gets to him quickly in terms of adjusting to the broken play when the pocket isn’t clean
– Pressure can throw off his ball placement at times as he braces to take a hit
– Goes through his progressions, but mostly relied on quick reads right off the snap and would lock onto one target on a lot of instances

Bio

– Junior prospect from Draper, Utah
– High-level performer in the state of Utah as a HS athlete, also played varsity basketball
– Played in nine games, starting seven as a true freshman, completing 120 of 182 passes for 1,578 yards and 12 touchdowns with 221 yards on 75 attempts and two touchdowns on the ground
– Had shoulder surgery on his right labrum after his freshman year
– Started nine games as a sophomore, completing 199 of 319 passes for 2,382 yards, 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions while running for 167 yards and three touchdowns
– Hurt his right hand halfway through his sophomore campaign, causing him to miss several games with a minor surgery
– Returned for his junior campaign, lighting up the stat sheet in 12 games played, completing 247 of 336 attempts (73.5%) for 3,692 yards and 33 TDs with only three INTs, adding 70 carries for 254 yards and 10 rushing scores
– Recognized as a team captain

Tape Breakdown

Zach Wilson is just the latest “unknown” QB prospect to take the world by storm in the lead-up to the draft. Having had a fairly mediocre first two seasons as a signal caller for BYU and coming off of shoulder and hand surgeries, expectations weren’t all that high for Wilson. However, he provided some of the best QB play in the nation in 2020, dominating as a passer while showing off his skills as a runner.

Wilson isn’t an elite athlete for the position, but he is a productive runner, having the speed, elusiveness, and vision to be a threat with his legs. On this play, Wilson shows off his ability as a runner, taking the QB draw on the snap up the middle, spinning out of a tackle at the five-yard line and diving into the end zone for the score, stretching out to get the offense on the board.

 

He is dangerous on RPOs and designed runs, and has the ability to improvise on the run to keep it or get outside of the pocket to extend the play. On this play against the Bulldogs, Wilson runs the RPO, keeping the ball and taking off to the right, running past one defender overrunning the play and then diving into the end zone for the score, using one arm to propel himself in on the ground while getting low enough to evade a defender meeting him at the goal line.

 

Wilson also understands ball security, knowing when to check the ball down to the flat, scramble to pick up what he can get, and also when to slide and save himself from a big collision. Here against Houston, Wilson takes the snap and tucks the ball to run when his first read isn’t there as the defense collapses the pocket, taking off downfield and side-stepping a defender in open space, running up the left sideline and showing off his open field speed as he picks up a block from his receiver, picking up nearly 40 yards before wisely sliding down to the turf to avoid the big collision.

Sure, Wilson did miss his running back in the flat on this play and could have gone through his progression, but given the pocket was breaking down and the amount of green grass in front of him, the decision to run proved to be a good one for Wilson here.

 

Wilson’s arm talent can make your jaw hit the floor on occasion, having the arm strength, velocity, and ball placement to make some crazy throws other QBs could only dream of. He can place it on his receiver over half a football field away on-target, and can make a lot of tight-window throws with his man in coverage.

Here against the Cougars, Wilson gets the ball on the flea flicker, sliding to his right for a better angle to throw, and rips it without stepping forward, watching the ball fly off his hand nearly 50 yards in the air to his receiver who has his defender on his back and makes the tough contested grab in the red zone.

 

Or this throw vs. Coastal Carolina where Wilson is in his own end zone and rips it over 40 yards, putting it up to his receiver where he can go get it along the right sideline in between two defenders in the vicinity.

 

His hip power and throwing motion allow him to uncork it deep and also quickly out to the sideline, having the strength to get it there in a hurry to avoid having the defender undercut the route. Here against Louisiana Tech, Wilson is running to the right outside of the pocket, and then rips it 45 yards downfield on the run to #5 Dax Milne along the sideline, putting it right on the numbers for his man to toe-tap the ground as he goes out of bounds for the big chunk play.

 

Wilson also makes some incredible plays when working outside of the pocket, having the arm talent to throw across his body, around defenders with the sidearm, and also drop the ball just over a defender’s head to his receiver from a variety of platforms.

Like this throw, where Wilson rolls out to his right and makes this crazy throw across his body as he whips his torso to put a lot of velocity on the ball to put it on his receiver in the perfect spot. Now Wilson could have (and likely should have) stayed in the pocket on this play and will need to work on understanding when to stay in when his pocket is clean, but this throw just shows what Wilson is capable of.

 

He is a true weapon in the play action passing game, having the throwing ability to put it on his man, but also makes the defense play him honest as a runner himself. He is an accurate passer of the football both when clean and also when on the run outside of the pocket, able to put it on a receiver when his feet aren’t set.

Here on this play against Louisiana Tech, Wilson fakes the handoff to the back, who sets up to pass protect, looking to the right for his first read. However, pressure starts to get to him off the edge, causing him to roll out to his left, repositioning and setting his feet to throw when he is going to get hit, placing the ball perfectly along the sideline for his receiver to go up and high-point the football over the defender for the impressive touchdown.

 

Another example against UCF where Wilson fakes the handoff on the play action, setting his feet and stepping up to drive the ball with great hip power and arm strength on his receiver, putting the ball right into his lap without the receiver extending his hands to catch the ball with a defender right on top of him. This throw shows Wilson’s phenomenal ball placement ability.

 

Now there are some concerns with Wilson, one being his durability given his slight frame and shoulder surgery he had to repair his labrum in his throwing shoulder. He also played relatively easy competition, not having to go through his reads on most occasions, sticking to his first read more often than not.

He also tended to struggle more when in high-profile matchups, and being a consistent accurate passer when pressure got to him. Here we see a defender coming off of the edge unblocked on the right side off the line, and Wilson feels the pressure and throws the ball out of bounds when he has a man wide open on the out route on the right side of the field.

 

Here we see Wilson trying to rely on his arm a little too much instead of having good footwork on his throws. Sure, he can make impressive off-platform throws, but it would be wise to have your feet set and step into your throw when the opportunity to do so is there, as is the case here against Coastal Carolina. But Wilson whips the ball short, causing his receiver to reach out and dive for the ball since Wilson’s feet weren’t set to deliver a more accurate pass.

 

His one crazy season of production can also give concerns of whether he can recreate that consistently in the pros.

Overall, Wilson is an impressive talent when it comes to slinging the rock. He has the arm talent you can’t teach a passer and can make throws when improvising that others just cannot. Wilson is a leader and can play in just about any scheme you ask of him, having the mobility to be a threat on the ground and maneuver the pocket. He will have to adjust to the speed of NFL defenses and playing top-end competition on a regular basis, along with adding mass and strength to his frame to hold up. However, should a team surround Wilson with the pieces and scheme to be successful, there’s nothing to suggest he shouldn’t be a productive starter with high upside very quickly in his NFL career.

When searching for a good pro comp for Zach Wilson, Derek Carr instantly came to mind for a bevy of reasons. First, both played against smaller-school competition coming out, with Wilson at BYU and Carr at Fresno State. Second, both players have nearly identical measurables in terms or height, weight, and athletic gifts. Third, both players have impressive arm talent, having the ability to make nearly any throw on the field and operate in a spread or under center system.

Carr does get a lot of grief in the media for not airing it out as much as he should, but that shouldn’t be a knock to his arm talent as a passer, as he can uncork it as well. Wilson may have similar traits to guys like Mahomes or Rodgers, but Carr is a more realistic comparison at this stage in his career for all of the reasons mentioned as a prospect.

DISCLAIMER: I am not suggesting that Zach Wilson is in play for the Pittsburgh Steelers at #24. He should be off of the board in the top three picks of the draft based off of reports, barring some unforeseen slide on draft day. I merely want to point out his strengths and weaknesses as a football player and acknowledge that he has the tools to be a great player in this league should the team that drafts him take his development seriously and surround him with the pieces to capitalize on his immense talent.

Projection: Early Day 1

Games Watched: at Coastal Carolina (2020), vs UCF (2020), vs Louisiana Tech (2020), at Houston (2020)

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