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Does Zach Wilson’s height contribute to some of his struggles?

Zach Wilson, Height, NY Jets
Zach Wilson, New York Jets, Getty Images

We have seen other QBs who lack height struggle over the middle of the field

At the 2021 BYU Pro Day, prior to becoming the No. 2 overall pick to the New York Jets, Zach Wilson measured in at 6’2 1/10″ tall.

It’s hard to know if the Jets considered that before they took him. 6’2″ is not exactly short for a quarterback; after all, guys like Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson are all listed there.

However, when you consider that the average NFL offensive and defensive linemen are at least 6’4 3/4″, it makes you wonder whether the bar is set a little too low. Can a 6’2″ QB really see over a 6’5″ offensive or defensive lineman right in front of his face?

Throwing over the middle

We’ve definitely seen quarterbacks like Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, and Jalen Hurts struggle to throw over the middle of the field in past seasons because they can’t see over the linemen. Let’s take a look at quarterback percentages of throwing over the middle of the field so far in 2022, though.

Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Tua Tagovailoa actually leads all 35 qualified quarterbacks with 39.8% of his throws coming over the middle this season. He is listed at 6’1″ on the Dolphins’ website but measured an even 6’0″ at the Combine.

Jimmy Garoppolo, at 6’2 1/4″, is second at 39.0%, and he’s made a career throwing the majority of his passes in the middle third. Mac Jones, at 6’2 5/8″, is fourth at 34.8%. Surprisingly, Russell Wilson is seventh at 32.5% despite having often thrown fewer attempts over the middle in the past. Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield (6’0 5/8″), and Andy Dalton (6’2″) are also in the top half.

Among quarterbacks who throw over the middle the least are Mitchell Trubisky (6’2 1/8″), Jalen Hurts (6’1″), Cooper Rush (6’2 5/8″), Geno Smith (6’2 3/8″), and Justin Fields (6’2 3/4″). However, Joe Burrow (6’3 1/2″) is 25th, followed by Jameis Winston and Davis Mills, another two above-6’3″ QBs. Kenny Pickett and Kirk Cousins round out the group of below-average throwers over the middle.

Zach Wilson, incidentally, is 18th, throwing the ball over the middle 28.9% of the time. That’s just about dead average.

This season, we do not see any particular statistical patterns between quarterback height and preference in throwing over the middle.

Perhaps the preference to throw over the middle has to do not with height, but with how much pressure the quarterback faces up the middle. If the defense has penetration up the middle, it’s certainly going to be hard for any quarterback to see over them. Even a 6’5″ quarterback will struggle to see over a 6’5″ defensive or offensive lineman who is right in his face.

Though the stat isn’t perfect, we can estimate each team’s pressure rates up the middle by combining the total pressures allowed and pass block snaps of their guards and center. Here are the top and bottom five teams in terms of pressure rate up the middle.

RankTeamQBQB height (inches)Pressure rate up the middle (Guards + center)QB over-the-middle rate (rank)
1BucsTom Brady76.43.40%37.9% (3/35)
2PanthersBaker Mayfield72.633.61%30.1% (12)
3PackersAaron Rodgers743.74%28.5% (19)
4RavensLamar Jackson74.253.78%32.3% (8)
5JaguarsTrevor Lawrence77.633.83%29.2% (16)
28JetsZach Wilson74.15.90%28.9% (18)
29CommandersCarson Wentz77.256.23%27.6% (23)
30RamsMatthew Stafford74.256.42%27.9% (21)
31BearsJustin Fields74.756.59%25.2% (29)
32TitansRyan Tannehill75.887.06%32.2% (9)

While there doesn’t appear to be an obvious correlation that jumps out, it does seem that the quarterbacks with less pressure up the middle are somewhat more willing to throw over the middle.

Tua, the quarterback throwing over the middle the most this season, has a pressure rate up the middle that ranks 20th out of 32 teams. Jimmy Garoppolo, who is second, has the eighth-lowest pressure rate up the middle. Mac Jones is fourth and has the 11th-lowest pressure rate. Again, there’s somewhat of a connection, but it’s not terribly strong.

The main takeaway from this may be that for Zach Wilson, his struggles in stepping up could be connected to high pressure rates straight up the middle. That is most likely directly correlated with the fact that Laken Tomlinson has been one of the worst guards in the league this season. Wilson appears to be seeing ghosts due to that constant barrage.

At what height does it even matter?

As I said before, you don’t hear too much about a quarterback’s height if he is at least 6’2″. Shorter than that, you’ll start hearing rumblings, such as about Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts, and Russell Wilson. To many, Wilson shattered the narrative that a shorter quarterback couldn’t play the position at a high level, as he is only 5’11” but put up a possible Hall of Fame career with the Seahawks.

Zach Wilson may appear shorter than 6’2 1/10″ on the field, but that’s partially a function of his slighter frame overall. You can see in this picture of him next to the 6’3″ Lawrence Taylor that Wilson is not all that much shorter than him, if at all.

Have QBs 6’2″ and under succeeded in the NFL?

Looking at the list of 26 pure quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame, we find that more than half of them were listed at 6’2″ or under. Sonny Jurgensen was 5’11”; Len Dawson, Fran Tarkenton, and Y.A. Tittle were 6’0″, with Steve Young in the same range; Bobby Layne, Otto Graham, Norm Van Brocklin, Bob Waterfield, Bart Starr, and Johnny Unitas were 6’1″, with Kurt Warner coming in that range; and Joe Montana and Joe Namath were both 6’2″, with Brett Favre coming in at 6’2 3/8″.

You do notice that many of these quarterbacks played in the old NFL eras of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. It’s possible that NFL players as a whole were shorter then, but it could just be that due to the differing nature of the game, the height of a quarterback was not quite as important.

In more recent times, Drew Brees is a certain Hall of Famer who came in at 6’1 3/10″. The aforementioned Russell Wilson is certainly near if not at a Hall of Fame level at 5’11”, and Aaron Rodgers is there at 6’2″. Watson, Jackson, Prescott, and Mahomes have all put together excellent careers thus far while standing at 6’2″.

Sure, Wilson is at the shorter end of 6’2″. However, so is Patrick Mahomes.

Admittedly, many of the top QBs in the NFL stand at 6’3.5″ or above, including Tom Brady, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, and Matthew Stafford. However, Tua and Hurts, standing at 6’0″ and 6’1″, respectively, are putting up career years. Rodgers and the other above-mentioned QBs have done just fine.

Stepping up in the pocket

Here is where we get to the crux of the matter. Zach Wilson has struggled immensely with stepping up in the pocket. At the first sign of pressure (real or imagined), Wilson tends to bail the pocket.

I don’t believe that this is a height issue, although it’s possible that putting more distance between himself and the linemen will give him more space to see. I believe it’s a weight and frame issue.

Wilson is one of the slighter quarterbacks in the NFL. He came in listed at 209 pounds, which is small for a 6’2″ quarterback. According to Robert Saleh and Wilson himself, he put on about 10-12 pounds of muscle in the offseason, and he does look somewhat stockier. However, having sustained two knee injuries in just 17 career starts, Wilson is afraid of taking a pounding.

Lamar Jackson currently weighs in at 230 pounds, a weight he’s worked hard to build up to for durability reasons. Patrick Mahomes is listed at 225 but appears larger than that, and his build is much broader than Wilson’s. Russell Wilson’s weight varies by which site you check, but he’s generally acknowledged to be around 215-220 pounds, which he carries on a stockier frame. Jalen Hurts has gotten up to 223. Rodgers is 225. Tua is more similar to Zach at 216, but even he appears broader (and he has also suffered several injuries already). Dak Prescott is at 229.

Meanwhile, Kyler Murray weighs 194 pounds. We’ve seen Murray both get injured and run around rather than stepping up in the pocket. Although he’s played at a Pro Bowl level in the past, there is a certain aversion to putting himself in harm’s way. He’d also circle around vs. staying in the pocket to deliver the ball.

Batted passes

It’s natural to assume that shorter quarterbacks have more passes batted down. Indeed, Jimmy Garoppolo, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Jalen Hurts, Justin Fields, and Zach Wilson are all in the top 12 out of 35 QBs in this category.

However, Josh Allen has been one of the leaders in the NFL in this category over the past few seasons, and he’s tied for first this season with 11 batted passes. That could conceivably have to do with a spy approach to defending Allen, but it also casts suspicion on the idea that height is the main factor that causes batted passes. Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert are tied for third with 10. Joe Flacco, at 6’6″, had four passes batted down on just 155 attempts. Clearly, there is more at play here.

However, the fact that so many quarterbacks who are not particularly tall have many passes batted down definitely makes sense. It’s easier for linemen to get their hands on the ball when it’s coming from a lower trajectory. That’s just one of the realities that a shorter quarterback will have to deal with, and it’s one that Zach Wilson has suffered with from time to time.

So is Wilson’s height getting in the way?

The condensed answer appears to be “no, for the most part.” Wilson does have more passes batted down due to his height, but he throws over the middle at an average rate. His pressure rate up the middle seems to affect him far more than his height, and that could be partially due to his slighter frame and recent injury history.

What can be taken out of this? To me, it means that a 6’2″ height shouldn’t be overly concerning for a highly-regarded prospect. Yes, batted passes may be somewhat of an issue, but it’s not stark enough to warrant undue attention. Shorter than 6’2″ could be a larger issue, but quarterback frame and willingness to take a hit is more important.

For this season, it means that the Jets need to a) consider using their backs to provide pass protection help inside rather than outside and b) work with Wilson on moving forward rather than backward.

In short: QB height is somewhat overrated.

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Allison Scott
Allison Scott
1 year ago

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Last edited 1 year ago by Allison Scott
Mike Palazzo
Mike Palazzo
1 year ago

They need to drill into Zach’s head. Stay in the pocket and avoid pressure by sliding in the pocket while keeping your eyes down field. If you get sacked then let it be. If you can run forward then go for it but stop running backwards. Even if they have to run drills during practice that simulates pressure and having him sliding in the pocket to avoid it then do it because it really seems like its almost embedded in his brain to Bail and run backwards.

Last edited 1 year ago by Mike Palazzo
1 year ago

It’s just really difficult for me to fathom that Zach is afraid to run (for positive yards). As you said, running backwards gets you hit plenty too. If contact were the issue then he would be much more likely to throw the ball away, which we all know he is resistant to doing, to a fault.
If the game plan included a run option I think Zach would embrace it. This is exactly what Chicago did to get Fields going.
I’ve said before that I think he is immature in both stature and mentality. These attributes will invariably get better w/ time. Zach is a film junkie and a gym rat.
If coaches can drum “don’t run” into his head to the point that he actually doesn’t run, why can’t they drum the things into his head that they want him to do?
I think the whole batted ball, throwing over the middle factors come down to moving well WITHIN the pocket, which Brady is the poster child for. We all know Brady is no running threat, but he slides in the pocket to create sight lines and throwing lanes. Zach is just too jittery in the pocket. Since we’ve started having these Zach discussions I’ve really paid attention to other QB’s stepping up and taking hits after they throw. Jacoby Brisette was incredible at this on Monday night. Zach doesn’t do it at all.

1 year ago

I’m not sure we can deduce “he’s afraid of taking a hit” from numbers. We really don’t know his mindset, for all we know his mindset is “avoid being hit” to avoid injury. He may be trained to think that’s the “smart play.” A little different than he’s afraid. He does need to press upfield more, it’s been well documented.

I was with you in the beginning when you said height is an issue, as you posted the numbers I’m leaning your way here and thinking maybe it’s not.

I do think the height limits him in this way: I think he’s still learning how to “use his eyes.” I think as his vision gets “cloudy” by being around traffic and then he doesn’t trust his eyes. This is pure conjecture on my part but I think he loses sight of the field when he’s in the “group” which causes double pumps, late throws and missing open guys.

He does well escaping, and I think it helps him see, but he can’t refocus and find anybody unless he’s looking deep. I’m speculating but I think if he were a bit taller he’s be able to get his “eyes right” quicker.

Jim G
1 year ago

I was thinking that his reluctance to step up into the pocket was related to two knee injuries within less than 10 months. I was making a comparison to Saquon Barkley, who suffered knee and ankle injuries less than 12 months apart in 2019 & 2020. In 2021, he was very tentative as he approached the line of scrimmage, but this season he is attacking the line of scrimmage with good results to show for it.

Also, consider that Zach’s knee injury this August was a non-contact injury, so it was going to happen at some point. These injuries, or at least a fear of injury, is understandable under the circumstances and may explain Zach’s reluctance to step into the pocket. Add in more pressure up the middle and we have a very understandable situation.

Matt Galemmo
1 year ago

Interesting, because you wrote before that you did think height was a factor, but it appears the data changed your mind. I appreciate that.

If the theory is he’s shy of contact, which is a reasonable theory, then I’d like the coaches to design plays that actually create contact. Run a QB draw or two, and let him bounce off some people. We’ve seen him be tough, too, and my theory is you can get him into the game sooner (he has a propensity to get better as the game progresses, last week notwithstanding).

1 year ago

The graphic you put up has an error. Zach is 74.1 inches tall not 72.1 inches tall.

1 year ago

Zach just needs to step up in the pocket when it is there. If I’m Lafleur/Calabrese, Zach needs to work on being mobile within and manipulating the pocket. Flacco isa horrible mentor for this aspect but His idol Rodgers does it. So maybe Zach will be more receptive.