Zach Wilson: Scrambling

There have been glimpses of the issues facing Wilson in terms of his NFL stardom, so it’s time to look at the positive aspects.  In this article, we’re diving into his athleticism and how he fits the mold of the evolving landscape of QBs in the league.

First of all, there needs to a discussion on the changing landscape itself, because pure pocket passers are becoming few and far in between.  Look no further than the varying reports on Mac Jones in this draft.  Lately, we’ve seen an influx of uber athletes like Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, and Josh Allen enter the league and succeed.  Their success derives from arm talent mixed in with mobility, which causes a dilemma for opposing defenses. 

Take for example, a simple mesh concept, that is prevalent in college (and making it’s way to the NFL).  The route is fairly simple, two opposing crossing routes, and the idea is to have one LB or CB lag behind (or slow down to get through traffic) and then a routine pass with minimal risk.  You will see this in almost every college playbook at this point.  The reason why it’s so effective in college is because QBs are given more freedom to be mobile so the linebackers in the middle can’t be overly aggressive to jump the route.  If you have a QB with mobility, you have to protect the edges, thus your rushers would have an added responsibility of outside contain.  If the rushers don’t adhere to outside contain, you’ll see the ultra-athletic QBs run outside into green space.  This places an importance of linebackers up the middle being vigilant of the mobile QB moving up in the pocket for a run.  Therefore, if you run a mesh concept, the linebacker has to discern whether they want to jump the passing lane, or hold back for a possible rushing lane.  The end result of this is a play that gets receivers being open consistently. 

There are a few reasons why the play hasn’t taken off to quite the same level in the NFL.  The primary reason is the financial investment in the QB for these franchises, whereas in college, you can always recruit the next prospect to fit the system.  If a QB is drafted, and produces good results, the team is financially invested in that player for a decade, and replacement options aren’t readily available (as Jets fans should know).  You don’t want to risk your franchise QB running up the middle and getting lit up by defensive lineman or linebackers.  The second reason is the defense is just too fast where the linebackers can jump the passing lane without completely compromising the running lane.  This is what plagues a QB who can be mobile like Sam Darnold, because he’s not fast enough to the point where linebackers can’t recover.  He’s a scrambling QB, that can run down the field if there is open space (especially if it’s man coverage across the board and defenders aren’t facing him).  This is a very useful tool when plays break down, and the occasional surprise QB run.  The QBs that can take advantage of almost any situation are exceptional runners like Jackson/Murray/Allen who can either outmaneuver linebackers or in Allen’s case overpower them, thus they can have these transitions. 

A good example of how the NFL adjusts to these guys can be seen with Lamar Jackson, who had an MVP year when he first broke out.  Defenses couldn’t adjust to his running ability combined with his passing ability.  However, with more tape on Jackson, defenses realized he wasn’t very good at throwing outside the numbers, that his passing chart focused more on the middle of the field.  Defenses adjusted by crowding the middle of the field, simultaneously impacting his running lane, and preferred passing destination.  Lamar Jackson needs to readjust now and show an ability to throw passes outside the numbers consistently to achieve the same level of success as his MVP year.  Therefore, it’s vital that you combine athleticism with arm talent.  

While we’re here, also want to touch up on Patrick Mahomes, because he’s someone that gets mentioned in the same range as Wilson.  The Chiefs expertly crafted their roster to fit his talent, which is why he’s an All-Pro QB.   One, they built a very good OL to protect him from standard rushes, thus it took a blitz to put pressure on him.  The regular season match up with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is a good example, where the defense blitzed Mahomes with single high safety look and got absolutely torched.  They pair the good offensive line with top tier speed down the field, creating a vertical stretch.  It’s nearly impossible to play with single high safety against the team because they have guys that can run by any defender.  The vertical stretch and necessity for two middle field safeties causes the intermediate part of the field to be less guarded, which allows an elite TE like Travis Kelce to feast.  Furthermore, they added a dynamic receiving threat in Clyde Edwards-Helaire because their roster construction is focused on spacing.  Their receivers occupy the safeties and corners down the field, Kelce occupies linebackers in the short to intermediate area, and their running backs occupy defenders in the short area.  This is where Mahomes being mobile like Darnold comes into play, because he can now buy time with his legs until a receiver becomes open.  The defense is stretched thin vertically AND horizontally because of the specific talent on the roster.  So, if Mahomes can buy an extra second, chances are one of the receiving options can wiggle open down the field.  If the defense is clamping down on them, chances are Mahomes can scramble up the field.  This is where his elite arm talent comes into play because it almost doesn’t matter where the defense becomes weak, because he can get the ball to that spot.  The only way to effectively shut it down is to bring a pass rush without compromising downfield integrity, which is exactly what the Buccaneers did in the Super Bowl.  They kept their safeties back, and got pressure on Mahomes (partially through a great defensive line, and partially because the Chiefs were hurting on the offensive line), throwing off the entire system.  It’s the biggest reason why the Chiefs went ultra-aggressive on offensive lineman in free agency, because it’s vital for their system to protect Mahomes when there isn’t a blitz.  I expect them to pick an OL in the draft as well with their first pick.   They know how to maximize his talent, and build a roster around it.

How does this relate to Zach Wilson? The Jets aren’t set up in the same fashion as the Chiefs, so it presents a problem for roster fit.  The Jets receivers aren’t world class burners, but rather fast guys that are good at route running.  The offensive line is a major question mark, aside from LT, which creates the issue of pressure without blitzing.  The tight end position is also a question mark, because Chris Herndon looked lost for most parts of the year.  In essence, if we think Wilson’s physical traits compare close to Mahomes, the situation that he will be put into for the NFL certainly does not.  If the Jets believe Wilson is the answer, they should have targeted faster wide receivers (Curtis Samuel/Will Fuller) in free agency so the field can be stretched vertically. 

Nevertheless, I want to highlight a few plays from Wilson that show off his athletic ability, and how he fits into the mold of scrambling QBs that are becoming the norm in the NFL. 

1)

This is a play against Boise State the results from a communication breakdown for protection.  Notice the RB on this play, he expects the right tackle to engage with the defensive end on the blitz, which is why he runs outside to block the linebacker.  However, the right tackle doesn’t engage with the defensive end, which causes mayhem.  The RB reacts too late, at which point Wilson is facing a direct rusher, when the numbers should have matched in terms of blocking. 

Wilson does a very good job of escaping the first rusher, and this is going to be very similar to the film on Darnold or Mahomes in terms of escaping the pocket.  The big issue here is the second defender because this is Geno Smith territory of scrambling backwards.  This would have been a good time to throw the ball away, but Wilson escapes the tackle.  This is a good example of college scrambling vs. NFL scrambling because it’s very likely Wilson gets sacked for a large loss here by the linebacker.  The ability to make the first rusher miss in this instance will still translate over, but making a linebacker miss while running backwards will not.  In this case, I want you to just notice the ability to make the first person miss because it shows his ability to scramble from pressure, which can help elongate plays. 

The second aspect of the play is both impressive and concerning.  This throw is absolutely amazing, because it’s a jump throw 35 yards down the field to the spot for the receiver.  There is a bit of miscommunication here as well, as the receiver turns up field, and the throw is made with the assumption he was going to float down the field.  The pass goes right over the guy’s head as he falls down.  The throw is great, very good velocity and if we are assuming the miscommunication, then good ball placement.  The decision making is terrible, and plays into the hero ball aspect of his game.  This is a broken situation, where he should stay in field goal range on 3rd down. 

The athleticism is great, to escape the pocket, and then make that throw down the field, but the decision making is suspect on the play.  If the defensive player looks back, there is a chance he can make a play on the ball.  It’s great to see the ability, but the riskiness of the play is concerning. 

2)

This is a first down play against Northern Alabama.  This play is a myriad of bad decisions, that gets bailed out with his scrambling skills. 

The first issue here deals with the play call, because the blocking scheme seems off with the timing.  Often times, BYU uses a chip release up the middle with their tight ends, full backs, and running backs.  Notice No. 13 on the play look to make a block up the middle, and then release.  It’s up for speculation if he’s supposed to chip block the defender, or release into the route.  Check out the timing of the slant route towards that side because they are going for a high-low read on the slot defender.  If the defender goes up with the slant receiver, then the quick out to the tight end will be open.  If the defender peels off to the tight end, the slant, go, in route will be open.  Unfortunately, Wilson doesn’t pull the trigger at all, and keeps backpedaling into the end zone.  For a blitz, this has to be the hot read and the options are right there for him to take advantage.  Instead, Wilson doesn’t take the hot read, and then faces major trouble. 

This play highlights one of the biggest issues regarding Wilson, which is his tendency to float back in the pocket.  The line of scrimmage for this play is the 9 yard line, and he ends up about 2 yards deep in the end zone before running out.  If the defender is a better tackler, this is a safety on a play where there was an easy hot route, 9 yards away from the end zone.  In the NFL, this makes the lives of offensive lineman harder because they can’t push the defenders away from the pocket because the pocket is moving backwards.  Often you will see tackles with their back towards the play because they are walling off the defense from circling around them to the QB, but that’s only achieved if the QB stays in the pocket.  Wilson shows a distinctive tendency to float backwards at the sight of pressure, which is going to be a major issue in the NFL.  

The next aspect of the play is the actual scrambling ability, which is the athletic trait we were talking about earlier in the article.  He has the ability to chew up yardage in the open field because he’s Darnold level mobile.  Wilson runs about 40 yards on the play and shows that if the defense breaks down, he can take advantage.  This is not Lamar Jackson mobility, but there are other plays that show he can run a QB scramble as well.  He didn’t run at his pro-day, probably because he wouldn’t have timed well, but he shows enough speed to make Josh Rosen jealous.  

The final aspect of this play is absolute stupidity, as he decides to break a tackle here while leading with his throwing shoulder.  The defender goes lower, so the shoulder isn’t hit, but that’s his No. 1 asset, and he puts it in danger in a no-win situation.  This goes back to the hero ball tendencies as times, because he needs to learn to slide here.  He’s not a frail athlete, but also needs to know that these hits will increase his chances of getting injured, which is already a problem for him.  This is also an issue that plagues Trevor Lawrence in this draft, and where he acts like a power rusher rather than a QB. 

Overall, the main point of this article was to highlight his ability to escape trouble, even if some of that originates from processing issues.  He has the mobility to be a scrambling QB in the NFL, but not a mobile QB, and reminds me very much of Darnold’s scrambling prowess.  He’s not going to be running a read option, but has the ability to move around in the pocket to buy some time. 

Circling back to the Patrick Mahomes comparison for mobility, they are similar.  Both of them can buy time, but they both require very specific systems in terms of talent, especially a very good OL to function properly.  Both of them can take advantage of defenses and scramble for yards, but neither of them will be a threat with their feet alone. 

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