As the lead-up to a quarterback-heavy NFL draft has unfolded, BYU’s Zach Wilson has seen his star rise like no other draft prospect in the last year has.
After putting up pedestrian numbers during his first two college seasons and entering the fall widely seen as a mid-round draft projection, the 6-2, 214-pound signal-caller erupted to rank among the top passers in the nation. In the months since his junior season concluded, Wilson has only further ascended. He could hear his name called as early as second overall after the Jacksonville Jaguars make their selection of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence at No. 1 official.
From leading the Cougars to an 11-1 season to his pro day performance late last month, Wilson has dazzled as a passer, play-maker and athlete. Now, thanks to his knack for extending plays and delivering unconventional throws, Wilson is drawing comparisons to Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. There are even those who believe Wilson actually could wind up outshining Lawrence over the course of their careers.
“Zach Wilson is the top quarterback in the draft for a lot of different reasons, really,” former NFL quarterback Chris Simms, now an analyst for NBC Sports, told USA TODAY Sports. “This is a great quarterback class. These top five, six guys all have elite traits. But when it comes to just pure talent throwing the football, to me, Zach Wilson is the top thrower in this draft.
"There’s a very Mahomes and Rodgers quality to the way he throws the football. And every game you turn on, there’s eye-popping throw after eye-popping throw where you just go, ‘Whoa.’”
NFL MOCK DRAFT:Where will Wilson, other top QBs land in first round?
Less than a week after watching Wilson’s pro day, the New York Jets traded away starting quarterback Sam Darnold, clearing the way for the team to select a quarterback with the second overall pick.
But before selecting Wilson, the Jets — or some other NFL team — must answer an important question: Does the substance match the sizzle?
There’s no denying Wilson has impressed with his play and pre-draft rise. But his potential remains a matter of debate.
Not unlike Joe Burrow, who parlayed a record-setting season with LSU into becoming last year's No. 1 pick, Wilson seemingly came out of nowhere to force himself into top quarterback draft deliberations this offseason.
Wilson showed promise as a freshman before an uneven sophomore campaign. But then came the mammoth leap in 2020, when Wilson completed 73.5% of his attempts and saw his passer rating skyrocket to 196.4. After throwing for 2,382 yards, 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions in nine games as a sophomore, Wilson passed for 3,692 yards, 33 touchdowns and just three interceptions in 12 games last fall.
Much of that growth stemmed from an improved understanding of how to better position his receivers for success.
“The big thing Zach did was he understood the difference between ball placement and accuracy,” Jordan Reid, a former college quarterback and coach now serving as senior NFL draft analyst for the Draft Network, told USA TODAY Sports. “You see the big-time completion percentage numbers, but I think completion percentage can be a little misleading because it doesn’t really paint the whole picture. … But with ball placement, you started to see him put the ball on the right shoulders, leading guys up the field and putting the ball in the right places away from the defense.”
Reid ranks Wilson behind Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields in this year's quarterback class.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to (compare Wilson to) Mahomes or Rodgers, but you do see similar qualities as far as similar throws, him playing the game like a shortstop in a sense with those funky arm angles, disconnecting his upper body from his lower body and being able to throw from some of those funky platforms as he does. I also think his awareness is really high, he has really good accuracy down the field and in the short to intermediate areas as well.”
Wilson’s personal coach, John Beck – also a BYU product and a retired six-year NFL veteran – said “there’s some validity” to the comparisons Wilson draws to Mahomes and Rodgers, but he stressed they stem from throws and plays on the college level similar to the wizardry we see those Super Bowl winners make in the NFL.
Beck believes that Wilson has the potential to grow into a similarly styled playmaker in the NFL.
“Zach is an ultimate competitor. … I love his fearlessness the way he competes on the field,” Beck told USA TODAY Sports. “I think he wants it to be him in those tight games. He wants the ball in those clutch situations and he bets on himself and I love that about him … He’s grown a lot and there’s going to be an adjustment period for sure, but the combination of the physical traits and skills and the mental ones, which is a great combination, that’s going to give him a chance at the next level.”
Eye-popping plays aside, questions do linger about Wilson, including the one regarding competition.
Wilson didn't face the kind of elite competition similar to his peers in Lawrence, Fields or Alabama's Mac Jones. And he struggled with accuracy and decision-making in a loss to Coastal Carolina.
Then there is the durability concern.
Wilson is listed at 214 pounds, but he doesn’t possess the most sturdy frame. Already, he has undergone surgeries on his throwing shoulder and thumb.
Some NFL scouts also have questions about how Wilson’s overall play will translate to the professional level. One talent evaluator, speaking to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity to guard against revealing his team’s draft plans, said that while Wilson might have be more pro-ready than some of the top quarterbacks in the draft, he might not offer the same long-term upside as other passers. The scout pointed to instances when Wilson struggled to execute throws from a shrinking pocket, a common occurrence in the NFL.
An NFC talent evaluator, speaking to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity so as to not reveal any sensitive team information, also said Wilson plays small in the pocket. He worried that his size and need for refinement of his mechanics could present challenges as protection breaks down.
Both speculated that those limitations could cause Wilson to plateau in his development.
A third talent evaluator considers Wilson talented but not better than Lawrence or Fields.
Although those praising Wilson view him as capable of Mahomes and Rodgers-like heroics, one NFL talent evaluator described Wilson as a more athletic Jimmy Garoppolo. That’s not awful, but it doesn’t exactly sound worthy of the No. 2 overall pick.
The Jets essentially are on the clock and find themselves in prime position to land a franchise-transforming quarterback. All signs seem to point to their selecting Wilson. But given the smokescreens common for this time of year, nothing is certain until draft night.
And even then, it could take years to truly learn if Wilson is a pre-draft legend or legit star in the making.