It’s easy to say that a bad rookie season foretells a bad career until you remember the current Las Vegas Raiders QB
The narrative is pretty well-accepted across the NFL: quarterbacks who stink in their rookie year rarely turn it around.
Though Josh Allen has become the gold standard for quarterback turnarounds, there is another relatively recent example of a rookie signal-caller who struggled mightily, then turned it around to have a strong career. Perhaps he does not have the ceiling of Allen, but he is nonetheless a strong quarterback who is often underrated.
Harken back to the 2014 then-Oakland Raiders and their second-round rookie QB, Derek Carr. Carr is still a somewhat polarizing player, with differing opinions of how good he really is and how far he can take his team. But at the time, he joined a putrid Oakland Raiders squad fresh off yet another miserable season at 4-12.
Carr’s rookie season isn’t remembered as so terrible, partially because he threw 21 touchdowns to 12 picks, but mainly because he was an MVP candidate by the time his third season came around.
But take a look at this comparison of Carr and Wilson’s rookie-year stat lines, using a combination of traditional statistics and advanced analytics:
|Category||2014 Derek Carr||2021 Zach Wilson|
|Yards per Attempt (YPA)||5.5||6.1|
|Big-Time Throw (BTT) Rate||2.1%||2.5%|
|Turnover-Worthy Play (TWP) Rate||3.9%||3.8%|
|Average Depth of Target (ADOT)||8.5||8.0|
|Pro Football Focus Grade||50.3 (31st of 33)||59.3 (31st of 34)|
|DVOA||-14.9% (33rd)||-32.3% (34th)|
|Approximate Value (AV)||5||5|
Though Carr was obviously somewhat less inefficient than Wilson, the main difference in these statistics has to do with sacks: Carr took only 24 sacks in 16 games, while Wilson surrendered 45 in 13 games started. Obviously, that has something to do with the quarterback, but it’s also a testament to the offensive line.
Although Carr threw fewer picks per game than Wilson, his turnover-worthy play rate was just about the same. Wilson’s Pro Football Focus grade is slightly better due to his rushing ability. Notably, the two put up identical Approximate Value, which is Pro Football Reference’s stat that is often used to evaluate and compare draft picks.
Meanwhile, Carr did not have a receiver who cleared 700 yards receiving. His top threats were Andre Holmes and James Jones. Wilson was stuck in a similar situation, with most of his top targets missing significant periods of time.
By the time the next season came around, though, Carr had improved tremendously. His PFF grade jumped to 76.0, good for 10th out of 36 quarterbacks. He threw for 3,987 yards, improved to 7.0 yards per attempt, and tossed 32 TDs to 13 INTs. Although his turnover-worthy play rate remained the same, his big-time throw rate leaped all the way to 6.1%, the fifth-best mark across the NFL. He put these numbers up despite a big spike in his receivers’ drop rate to 11.2%, tied for the third-worst.
As a result of their quarterback’s improved play, the Raiders went from 3-13 to 7-9 in Carr’s second season. By his third year in the league, they were 12-4, and only Carr’s late-season injury kept them from making a serious playoff run during his MVP-caliber campaign.
No one expects Zach Wilson to make that kind of statistical leap. 32 touchdowns is quite ambitious for a quarterback who did not even make it to double-digits last season.
However, with the weapons Wilson has around him, expecting close to 25 touchdown passes in 17 games is not out of the realm of reasonable expectations. Keeping his interceptions down to fewer than one per game is normal. Throwing for close to 4,000 yards in 17 games averages out to 235 yards per game, and 7.0 yards per attempt is just about the NFL average for a quarterback in today’s game.
I like the Carr comparison better than Allen for a few reasons. First, Carr is a similar height and weight as Wilson; Carr is listed at 6’3″, 218, while Zach is listed at nearly 6’3″ and says that he is currently 221 pounds.
Second, Carr’s team was truly putrid in his rookie season. Additionally, Carr is not a particularly mobile quarterback. While Wilson has better escapability and general rushing ability than Carr, he is nowhere near Josh Allen in that area, making their games very different.
If the Jets can get a Derek Carr-like turnaround from Zach Wilson, they could be poised to make some noise in the AFC playoff picture sooner rather than later.
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