Zach Wilson can try to take a page out of the book of the Bills cannon-armed passer
Wow, that was real news. Tell us something we didn’t know.
“But… but… look at the second half! He played well!”
C’mon, he barely threw the ball five yards past the line of scrimmage.
We all know the score on Zach Wilson’s rookie season. It was one of the poorest in NFL history from a statistical angle. Wilson showed improvement following his return from injury, which stands out far more on film than in the box score or analytics.
The gold standard for a highly drafted quarterback who destroyed the early narrative and became a star is Josh Allen.
Allen completed less than 53% of his passes in his rookie season. He remained under 60% in his second year but turned it around in Year 3 to finish second in the MVP voting.
Unfortunately, Allen is an outlier in the history of first-round QB picks. For every Josh Allen, you get 10 Sam Darnolds.
What did Allen do differently to buck the trend?
More importantly, is there anything Zach Wilson can learn as he tries to follow in Allen’s footsteps?
Minimize turnovers when kept clean
A quarterback’s play when they are kept clean is one of the most transferable stats from year to year.
Play under pressure is considered highly volatile, but how a QB plays when he has time to survey the field gives a strong indication of his vision, decision-making, and understanding of defenses.
As a rookie, Allen’s turnover-worthy play (TWP) rate at Pro Football Focus was an exorbitant 4.1%, the fourth-worst mark among 33 QBs with at least 100 dropbacks. He threw seven interceptions when kept clean.
In Allen’s second season, he cut that number by more than half. His TWP rate went down to 1.7%, the seventh-best mark among starting quarterbacks. Allen maintained that improvement in his third season, with the same TWP mark. (Interestingly, that number rose to 2.6% in 2021, evidencing the problems Allen had in some of his surprisingly poor starts last season.)
Wilson’s rookie season was not nearly as poor as Allen’s in this category, but he still struggled. He had a 2.8% TWP rate when under pressure, tied for the 8th-worst mark among starting quarterbacks.
However, if you compare that to some of Wilson’s other numbers, tying for 24th in the NFL in a statistical category is not so bad and is something to build on.
Can Wilson improve his decision-making when he can see the whole field, as Allen did from Year 1 to Year 2?
Improve on intermediate passes
Passes from 10-19 yards are an NFL quarterback’s bread and butter in today’s NFL.
As a rookie, Allen put up a 58.7 PFF grade and a 63.9 QB rating on mid-range throws. He generated a 5.6% TWP rate, 1 TD to 4 INTs, and a 48.8% completion percentage.
In Year 2, intermediate throws were one of Allen’s biggest improvement areas. His PFF grade soared to 86.4 after he improved his completion percentage to 61.7%. His NFL passer rating in these situations was 110.9, his best number of any passing range. Although Allen put up 5 big-time throws and 6 TWPs, he generated 10.2 yards per attempt in this range and put up 8 TDs to 3 INTs.
In 2020, Allen’s breakout year, he put up a 90.5 PFF rating on intermediate throws with 11 touchdowns, 4 picks, and a 9.0% big-time throw rate, which was good for 7th-best in the NFL. His 115.3 passer rating on intermediate passes further demonstrates his success.
For all the ballyhoo about Wilson’s struggles in throws within 0-9 yards of the line of scrimmage, he actually did not struggle with that nearly as much as with mid-range throws.
Wilson performed poorly on intermediate throws last season. Although his PFF grade was actually slightly better than Allen’s 2018 performance in that category (61.6), his passer rating was 44.4, which means he was barely better than spiking the ball into the ground on every play.
Wilson put up a 10.7% TWP rate in the 10-19 yard range, nearly double Allen’s from his rookie season, and threw 2 TDs to 8 interceptions in those situations.
However, Wilson did suffer from an 18.8% drop rate on intermediate passes, which may mitigate some of the numbers (and perhaps explain why his PFF grade is not quite as bad as his passer rating).
Can Wilson, like Allen, vastly improve his numbers on intermediate throws in Year 2? That may be one of the biggest signs foretelling a Year 3 breakout.
Maintain yards after contact when rushing the ball
Allen showed an ability to run the ball from Day 1 in the NFL. At 6’5″, 238 pounds with 4.75 speed, he’s the size of a linebacker and runs like a tight end. Good luck trying to tackle him.
Allen has consistently rushed with the best of them in the NFL. He put up 631 rushing yards in his rookie season at 7.1 yards per attempt (YPA). He also sported an impressive 4.17 yards after contact and 0.31 missed tackles forced per rush while scoring 8 TDs.
Wilson, although a lot smaller (6’3″, currently 221 pounds), showed that he can run the ball with elusiveness rather than power. He can make himself small and evade tacklers when rushing.
In 2021, Wilson put up 3.96 yards after contact and 0.50 missed tackles forced per attempt, albeit on only 12 rushes. He also scored 4 TDs on the ground. Although most of that mileage came on one superb TD run against the Jaguars, he flashed the potential of his legs.
Wilson will most likely never be a Josh Allen while toting the rock, but the Jets don’t really expect or want him to be. Keeping the threat of the run in opponents’ minds, taking advantage of opportunities that arise, and maintaining that elusiveness will make Wilson a well-rounded threat.
Find the top target
It has been well-documented that Josh Allen’s Year 3 breakout perfectly coincided with Stefon Diggs’s arrival in Buffalo.
Indeed, having an All-Pro target who caught 127 balls for 1,535 yards and 8 TDs with a 76.5% catch rate will do that for a quarterback.
Still, Allen had to find Diggs for that to happen. Although Diggs had been a good receiver prior to coming to Buffalo, his best production has come in Buffalo.
Still, Allen had made things work in Year 2 with John Brown, who put up 72 catches, 1,060 yards, and 6 TDs in 2019.
Wilson played without many of his top targets for chunks of Year 1. Still, especially earlier in the season, he failed to target Elijah Moore, who was open all over the field as both film and analytics show.
Just when Wilson was starting to get into a groove with Moore, the latter was lost for the season.
The Jets QB needs to improve in finding his top targets in Year 2. Moore is ready to be the Jets’ WR1. He does not need to be Stefon Diggs to make a big difference in Wilson’s development. Can No. 2 find No. 8?
Overall, Zach Wilson does not need to be Josh Allen, nor is he expected to. But if Allen is considered the prototype for quarterbacks whose success came after a poor rookie season, then Wilson can take some of these lessons in the hopes of becoming a top-tier NFL quarterback.
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