Zach Wilson Scouting: Stare Down Passing

As the 2021 NFL Draft approaches for the New York Jets, there is much debate on who GM Joe Douglas should pick with the second overall pick.  In this series, I am going to argue, it should NOT be Zach Wilson.  Do not get me wrong, he is a talented QB with considerable upside, but there is far too much risk with the pick. 

The first series we are looking at is called “Stare Down Passing” because it deals with Wilson locking onto a target from the start.  In film study, there seems to be a tendency to pick a receiver and wait until there is an opening.  

1)

There are a few issues that pop up on film, and you may notice them as this series continues.  The first one here deals with the obvious stare down, as he’s looking directly at the field side outside receiver running a short slant route.  This issue underlines one of my major questions about the level of competition that he faced during the year.  Most of the defenses he faced didn’t have press coverage against the field side outside receiver (they played off more times than not), which meant a free release.  With Wilson’s arm talent, it then becomes a no-read pass because those defenses just aren’t equipped to handle those throws.  Wilson has a great arm, but that also means that he can make throws in college where the defense just is not prepared.  In this case (a 4th down), Wilson is locked into making that no-read throw, only for the defensive back to play press coverage. 

The second issue is the lack of pocket integrity because he ends up sacking himself on the play.  This is another issue that warrants an article by itself, but I would like to point it out here as well.  Wilson has space to step up in the pocket, or even step up and to the right of the pocket.  Instead, he sees ghosts, and resets himself as if someone was about to sack him, throwing off his footwork, and then trips over the lineman.  This seems right out of Sam Darnold’s pocket presence last year, where it was staring down a receiver and then seeing ghosts.  He also has a tendency to drift backwards in the pocket, which allows him to keep the rushers in front of him, but that is not going to be much of an option in the NFL.

On this play, he doesn’t get off his first read, misses a wide open receiver down the field, or an option to throw the fade route to the endzone.  It’s important to remember that it’s 4th down, so even interception isn’t the worst outcome. 

2)

This play isn’t as bad as the first one because he does go through a progression here.  The first read is the tight end running some form of a seam route, but gets held up by the linebacker, and afterwards triple teamed.  Wilson makes the right read to move on from the tight end, but stares down the boundary outside receiver, and then makes a terrible throw. 

He has a free checkdown that is wide-open and all but guaranteed to get a first down, but he forces it down the field in a relatively clean pocket.  He has enough time to find a checkdown or even try to run on this play, instead of making this poor throw. 

The other aspect I want to highlight here is the lack of communication of defense, because this shows up quite often with this level of competition.  The running back goes in motion, and the linebacker follows him out.  The running back reverses course, and the linebacker isn’t in man coverage, and thus hands him off.  That field side linebacker seems to have B-gap contain responsibilities but notice the linebacker on the other side doesn’t take the running back.  The boundary side linebacker blitzes, instead of taking the running back in motion, which leaves a wide-open receiver.  This form of miscommunication, or just the lack of communication at all, shows up quite often. 

3)

This one is a trick reverse flea flicker, where they are only two routes on the play, and he absolutely locks into his one receiver he expects to be open.  You can even see the others on the field pointing towards the wide-open guy that could walk in for a touchdown. 

Once we move past the fact that he missed the wide open receiver, let’s look at the throw itself.  When Wilson decides to make the throw, the receiver has at least a step on the defender, without a safety in the area, which should mean that the pass should lead him towards the end zone.  Instead, this is essentially just a lob pass where his receiver comes back to make a play on it.  A back shoulder pass works best when the defender is step for step with the receiver, because the receiver can change directions first, giving them a slight advantage.  It doesn’t make sense to make throw one short when the defender is at least a step behind.  He’s bailed out by the receiver basically just shoving the guy out of the way to make a catch. 

This one looks great on the stat sheet and even on the highlight reels, but this is a terrible play from Wilson. 

4)

This is a good throw, but it is another example of staring down the field side outside receiver, when the timing allowed him to read to his right side at first.  The routes to the boundary side break before the field side, leaving enough time to read that side, and then moving on with the progression.  Instead, Wilson looks at the linebacker, and then focuses right in on the outside receiver for a back shoulder pass.  The pass itself is fine, the ball might be a tad low, but this should have been caught. 

The main issue with this is the fixation on the receiver because the level of competition just can’t handle back shoulder passes.  I believe Darnold also possessed this ability in college, to throw the back shoulder pass, but it has not been nearly as effective in the NFL.  I worry about the reads with Wilson because there seems to be a lot of habits that are perfectly fine against the lower tier colleges, that would turn into trouble in the NFL. 

5)

This play technically doesn’t count because there is a penalty on BYU, but I wanted to highlight a couple of issues that bear watching.

One, once again he’s fixated on a target as soon as he gets out of the play action, and then throws the ball across the field on the run.  That level of risk taking has Johnny Football all over it, because the guy is perfectly covered when Wilson pulls the trigger.  To make it even closer to Manziel, he doesn’t even set his feet for the throw, but rather does a fade away jump.  Again, one of those instances where Wilson seems to buy into the gunslinger mentality, when safer options were present. 

Two, why didn’t Wilson just run this ball on first down?  He has open space to at least gain 5 or 6 yards before sliding to the ground.   He has enough speed to be mobile at the college level, so this throw seems overly risky when an easy 5 yards is in front of him.  If not run, why did he make a jump throw? He has ample time to set his feet and throw, yet he chooses to make a fadeaway throw. 

Three, notice No. 20 on this play, he’s the defensive back to the bottom of the screen.  From the looks of it, he has outside contain on a run, and is tasked with following the fullback.  He comes up towards the line of scrimmage for play action, locks in directly with the fullback, until he realizes the fullback is blocking.  Can someone explain why he’s running away from the QB, and thus the ball carrier?  The closest receiver to him is about 25 yards down the field, why is he running away?  If his responsibility is the run/full back, why not engage so the QB doesn’t have a free lane to run down the field?  When the lack of opposing competition is mentioned as a negative for Wilson, I don’t think it pertains as much to physical ability, but rather mental lapses.  In this instance, the defensive back needs to put pressure on the QB, rather than dropping back to the middle of nowhere.  However, I’m pretty sure the call is to drop back into zone cover if it’s a pass, and therefore he drops back as soon as he sees the reality of a pass.  This lack of either communication or situational awareness pops up constantly on film.

6)

When I was watching film, and found a play noteworthy, I entered it into different categories as a time stamp.  I flipped flopped on this one for at least 10 minutes because I think it highlights the strength and weakness of Wilson in one play.  To set the stage, it’s 3rd and 7 on the play. 

Good:  That’s an absolutely magnificent throw, one that you are going to see in the “Elite Arm Talent” article that I’ll write to talk about his upside.  This is basically the definition of throwing someone open, and his tape is littered with throws like this.  He has a gunslinger mentality, but that’s because he has a cannon of an arm that is accurate down the field.  In terms of the pure throw, there isn’t anything you can take away from it, it’s almost perfect. 

Bad:  He picked his receiver from the pre-snap read, stared him down, and bypassed easier options for the conversion.  I believe it was 2019 and the Jets were playing the Raiders, and on 3rd down, Sam Darnold made a great throw to Robby Anderson down the middle of the field.  It was a great throw in a tight window, and I’m pretty sure it was shown on highlight reels as well.  The issue with that throw was that Darnold could have easily ran for a first down without the risk.  That issue of taking the risky throw over the safe gain has plagued Darnold through his Jets tenure, and I get the same emotion watching this play.  Wilson has two delayed release out routes that should be his first read, and likely conversions for the first down.  Instead, Wilson is looking at the outside receiver who is fairly well covered, and makes a risky throw.  At the point of decision, the receiver is actually about a yard behind defender, thus this isn’t an “-if he’s even, he’s leavin’-“ situation. 

I absolutely love the throw, I hate the decision to make that throw. 

7)

The final one I wanted to highlight, mainly because there is hype about Wilson manipulating safeties with his eyes.  In this instance, he’s locked into the outside receiver from the start, but they have the running back rolling out from the backfield, therefore carrying a linebacker.  The defender is going to cross the passing lane for the outside receiver’s in route, thus you can see Wilson execute a pump fake to move him out of the way.  However, he’s so occupied with the outside receiver, he forgets to account for the safety reading the play, and trying to jump the route.  The pass ends up incomplete, and the receiver gets sandwiched.  It actually works out for BYU because the defender is called for a hit to the head, and they get a first down. 

This play is included because Wilson seems to suffer from the same backside blindness that has plagued Jets’ Quarterbacks since Mark Sanchez.  Wilson is locked in on the in route, when this is the perfect opportunity to look at the safety first on the play.  The linebacker following the running back is going to move to the boundary regardless, and this is a 3rd and 12 play.  If Wilson holds the safety at the snap, then the receiver has more time to work towards the middle of the field.  Notice that the pocket is absolutely perfect for Wilson on this play, there is no need to rush this pass. 

Overall, Wilson tends to show weakness in processing, but it’s masked by the level of competition.  There’s too many instances of staring down receivers from the get-go that can lead trouble in the NFL.  I’m not saying these aren’t correctable, nor that Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields don’t have these issues.  However, Wilson’s rise is predicated on an unquestionably great arm and pristine stats, the latter of which is propped up by terrible competition.  In the coming days, I’ll have other articles out that go through some of the highlights (his arm) and lowlights (competition and processing). 

This is merely my opinion, as I’m not an expert.  I’m writing this for on a blog, and not working for a front office thus you are absolutely free the disagree with my opinions. 

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