The 2021 NFL offseason is going to be intriguing when it comes to the quarterback market. We rarely see multiple starting QBs change uniforms after the season, but this offseason is setting up to be like no other.
Matthew Stafford was the first domino to fall when the Detroit Lions shipped him to the Los Angeles Rams for Jared Goff and draft picks. Deshaun Watson — the prize of the offseason — has requested a trade from the Houston Texans, and we could see the New York Jets move on from the young Sam Darnold.
Despite having Jimmy Garoppolo under contract, the San Francisco 49ers have been at the forefront of the rumor mill when it comes to the QBs. Albert Breer said the Niners didn’t make an offer for Stafford, while ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that general manager John Lynch reached out to Stafford and his camp prior to his trade to the Rams. We have also heard reports that the 49ers are interested in Watson, but which team wouldn’t be for the services of a young, dynamic QB?
If San Francisco doesn’t make a trade, another avenue it could explore to add a signal-caller is the 2021 NFL Draft. The 49ers hold the 12th pick, and with Garoppolo’s injury history, they could look to select one of the prospects to come in as a long-term solution at the most important position in the game.
It’s widely expected that the Jacksonville Jaguars will take Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence No. 1 overall, but several other top-flight prospects are available.
One of those players is BYU’s Zach Wilson. The 21-year-old junior completed 73.5 percent of his passes last season for 3,692 yards, 33 touchdowns and three interceptions. Wilson led the Cougars to an 11-1 conference record and a Boca Raton Bowl win over UCF.
As a true freshman, Wilson played in nine games for a BYU team that went 7-6 in conference play. His numbers dipped a bit during sophomore year when he threw 2,382 yards, 11 touchdowns and nine picks.
The growth between his sophomore and junior seasons was astounding. Wilson didn’t force things in 2020, which helped the Cougars win four more games than they did in 2019.
“He really grew a lot in his ability to just sort of let the offense work for him, he’s such a talented guy, physically he’s very gifted,” said BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, “When he was younger, there was a lot of times where maybe he tried to do too much on his own. Instead of just trust in the system and trusting his teammates.”
Roderick — who was the Cougars’ QB coach last year before being promoted during the offseason — saw Wilson’s vision improve during his three years with the program. Wilson made some highlight-reel plays during the 2020 campaign but not just with his arm.
Wilson developed in a dual-threat QB who ran for 286 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. As Wilson’s confidence grew, so did his belief in his teammates.
“People are going to see how great of a great runner he is, he is really fast,” Roderick said. “His first couple years he made a lot of wild plays and he made a few bad decisions here and there too, or maybe he’s trying to do a little too much. But those were much less, they were they were not as forced maybe as they had been in the past. I thought he just showed great maturity and great growth that way.”
Being a top-10 pick doesn’t translate to NFL success. According to this breakdown by Michael Miklius, only 43 percent of quarterbacks selected in the top-10 since 2000 have thrown more than 32 touchdowns in a season. But Roderick believes Wilson has all of the tools to be more like Watson than Marcus Mariota.
“Number one strength is accuracy, he can throw the ball accurately from so many different arm angles and body positions, off balance, on the move,” Roderick said. “I don’t want to make comparisons to anybody but you see those quarterbacks that can do that right. Make those throws when they have to, and can get the ball accurately to someone.”
Roderick gushes about Wilson’s work ethic. The offensive coordinator saw how much time Wilson put into improving throughout his tenure at BYU. Because of the NCAA’s practice-time restrictions, players have to put the work in themselves throughout that week.
“He has a pure, total devotion to the game, that would be the second thing I would say about him, is the guy breathes it 24/7,” Roderick said. “He has a lot of confidence in himself, but he works so hard at the game that he wants to be coached, he wants to be critiqued. He loves to study. We have every NFL game on our server [at BYU] and he watches all of them.”
Wilson’s athleticism is undeniable. According to his former QB coach, he has the escapability NFL teams covet but still needs to work on his discipline.
“Early in his pro career he’s going to have to fight the urge to not try to do it himself,” Roderick said. “Let the playmakers make the plays, and trust the scheme, trust the system. When you go through those growing pains as a rookie, you got to stick with it, otherwise you make those mistakes.”
The Cougars’ offense compares to what 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan runs in San Francisco. Roderick and the BYU staff implemented a scaled-down system to help Wilson fulfill his potential and get the ball in the hands of playmakers. Something San Francisco has on its roster with the likes of George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk.
“Several of the schemes they run are similar to what we do. Kyle Shanahan is a great offensive coach who can tailor what he’s doing to his players strengths, so I think Zach would be a great fit,” Roderick said. “That is one of the nice things about Zach, because of his athleticism, he’s not just a guy who has to play in a certain type of offense. I think he’s a player who has a chance to be good in a lot of different systems. I just think that he would be a great fit San Francisco.”
The 49ers would more than likely have to trade up to get Wilson, who should be gone within the top five.
“I know he’s thrilled to make the next step and will be happy wherever he ends up,” Roderick said. “But if he lands in San Francisco, I believe he would hit the ground running.”
What do you think Wilson’s ceiling is as an NFL QB?