What the analytics predict for Zach Wilson’s rookie season
The former BYU quarterback walks into a New York Jets organization looking to rebuild an offense that was one of the worst in the NFL last season
The New York Jets were miserable on offense during the 2020 season — they ranked last in the NFL in total yards and scoring offense, and second-to-last in passing offense.
It was little surprise, then, that the team hit the reset button, which included drafting former BYU quarterback Zach Wilson with the No. 2 overall selection in the 2021 NFL draft.
What kind of impact are analysts expecting of Wilson in his rookie season?
Zach Wilson’s projected passing numbers for 2021
Considering the uphill climb the Jets have to becoming competitive week in and week out in the NFL, it’s understandable why Wilson is in or near the bottom third of the projected starting NFL quarterbacks in 2021 — Pro Football Focus has him at No. 30, while NBC Sports puts him at No. 23.
When it comes to individual numbers Wilson could put up this season, there’s perhaps a brighter picture.
In a recent PFF Forecast podcast, the hosts were debating statistical projections for the upcoming season when the discussion shifted to Wilson, and how Wilson’s 2020 season at BYU forced them to adjust their analytics formula.
Co-host Eric Eager mentioned PFF has Wilson throwing for 3,939 yards and 22 touchdowns this season — well above the numbers put up by the Jets’ starting quarterback in 2020, Sam Darnold, who threw for 2,208 yards and nine touchdowns, though only in 12 games.
“(Wilson’s projected numbers are) probably a little low but the supporting cast is way better than what Darnold had but not amazing,” Eager said. “Let me just put it this way: I like Zach Wilson as a quarterback better than I’ve liked most quarterbacks coming out of college probably since Patrick Mahomes and Mahomes is because he plays for my favorite team.”
In his breakout 2020 season, Wilson had the highest single-season passing grade of the PFF college era (95.5).
“I had to adjust some of the models we’ve been building for fantasy down a little on rookie quarterbacks because he was breaking the scale with some of the things he was doing last year. I’m extremely bullish on him,” Eager said.
By comparison, those numbers are similar to ESPN’s modest fantasy projections for Wilson at 3,863 yards and 19 touchdowns, to go with 260 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
“Though undersized (6-foot-2, 214 pounds), the BYU product checks a lot of boxes, sporting terrific arm strength and accuracy, as well as mobility,” his ESPN fantasy profile reads. “His collegiate efficiency was elite, as his completion rate (74%) and INT rate (0.9%) were both near the top of the class despite a gunslinger mentality that led to him pushing the ball down field at one of the highest rates (10.2 average depth of throw).”
What else stands out about Wilson?
In assessing Wilson as a first-year fantasy producer, PFF’s Ian Hartitz believes he has the tools to be great and brings entertainment value to the field with his playground-esque style of play.
“The best news about Wilson being a starting NFL QB is the potential for weekly high-end entertainment,” Hartitz wrote. “It’s rare to see anybody at the position play with such a playground style, let alone succeed while doing so. I’m not convinced Wilson will break out in 2021 and prove to be the next great rookie QB, but don’t be surprised if the result (for better and for worse) makes for excellent television.”
How Wilson projects against other rookie quarterbacks in 2021
Wilson’s projected numbers from PFF are just below the 2021 draft’s first pick, former Clemson quarterback and now Jacksonville Jaguar Trevor Lawrence, and a bit better than Justin Fields, the former Ohio State quarterback taken by the Chicago Bears.
NFL.com’s Cynthia Frelund also rates Wilson No. 2 behind Lawrence among rookie quarterbacks, as to who will be the most productive in 2021. Using both PFF analytics and assessing his time at BYU, Frelund pointed to some positives for New York to build on as it tries to reinvent its offense.
“Only two teams fared worse than the Jets’ passers last season in terms of completing passes when not under pressure (64.1%, ranking 30th, per Next Gen Stats),” Frelund wrote. “At BYU last season, Wilson’s 11.5 yards per attempt when not under pressure was the best in the FBS. Based on Wilson’s résumé, it seems like one of the most probable ways new Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur will look to create passing gains is by using play-action. PFF shows that Wilson earned 12.6 yards per attempt on play-action passes in 2020, third-most in FBS, and connected for 20 touchdowns with zero interceptions on such passes.
“While he’ll have to adapt to NFL speed, and while the O-line will be a unit to track through the preseason, his ability to execute play-action and quick passes will create a foundation for securing first downs. Last season, Wilson ranked fourth in the FBS on quick passes with a 79.5 completion percentage, and he was fifth in yards per attempt on such throws, with 9.1. Wilson also performed well against the blitz, posting the third-most touchdown passes (16) and fourth-highest completion percentage (69.7) on such plays.”