Zach Wilson Poses the Top Fit with New England
By: Brady Atkins
It finally happened. It finally happened. And it’s still hard to fathom.
For the first time since 2008, the New England Patriots missed the NFL playoffs. For the first time since 2002, the New England Patriots finished with fewer than 10 wins. And for the first time since 2000, a year before the eternal Tom Brady became a starting quarterback in the league, the New England Patriots finished with a losing record.
Ding dong, ding dong, the NFL’s witch, the league’s most inevitable force over the last two decades, is finally dead. What a world.
And not just dead, but the Patriots will head into the 2021 offseason facing a need to rebuild that they haven’t since the Earth was still cooling. The New England offense, more than anything, is in desperate need of a facelift. The NFL’s 27th ranked offense in both points and yards per game, a group ranked 23rd in offensive DVOA, finished as the franchise’s lowest ranking unit since 1992– well before the days of Tom Brady, and even Drew Bledsoe.
It’s not easy to pinpoint one clear issue within the Patriots’ usually well-oiled machine. Rather, the New England offense typically looked like an amalgam of broken parts, from a 31-year old starting quarterback with more interceptions than passing touchdowns to a collection of four running backs who, despite 318 combined carries, managed a total of just eight touchdowns. From a wide-receiver group who could not manage a 1,000-yard pass catcher, or even an 800-yard pass catcher, to an offensive line that gave up a sack on 7.8% of Cam Newton’s dropbacks— seventh-most in the league.
What are you supposed to do if you’re New England? Free agency is a good start, as the Patriots are lucky enough to head into the offseason with over $57 million in salary-cap space— the fourth-most in the league. The team could throw their money around if they wanted to, and maybe they should, but how far is a spending spree on skill position players bound to get a team facing a pressing issue at quarterback?
Allen Robinson, TY Hilton, and Sammy Watkins headline a pool of free-agent receivers for 2021 that the Patriots could target, but without a sure hand under center to hold an influx of talent together, New England could face yet another season stuck in the middle of the NFL pack.
Picking at 15th overall after a 7-9 finish to 2020, New England will be far out of reach for the biggest names in the rookie quarterback class. And after floundering through one season of a veteran stop-gap at quarterback, older free-agent targets like Matthew Stafford just might not be the answer for New England.
In order to get back on track, in order to rebuild the Patriots to the year-after-year Super Bowl contender they were just a couple of seasons back, there is one man, and maybe only one, who is capable of lifting the Patriots back to those typical heights.
BYU’s very own Zach Wilson.
Who Is Zach Wilson?
Wilson is a 21-year old quarterback, coming off his third season in college and his third season as the BYU Cougars. He fully emerged in 2020, his junior year, rocketing himself into discussions as a first-round quarterback, in the class of North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and, in some cases, Ohio State’s Justin Fields.
But don’t go calling Wilson a one-year wonder.
The BYU product’s career tracks a fair bit like a recent big-name quarterback, Heisman Winner and 2020’s top-overall pick, Joe Burrow. Wilson, like Burrow, showed promise in his early years of play before exploding in his last season. As a freshman, Wilson threw for 12 touchdowns and added three more on the ground, all in just nine games.
And after a slight step back the following season as a sophomore, Wilson hit his potential– a player with 33 passing touchdowns to just three picks, along with a completion rate of 73.5% and 10 more touchdowns on the ground. He led BYU to their fourth-best season in program history in 2020, and their best since 1996.
Wilson has proven to be a winner, and someone who can elevate a team around him, as the quarterback hasn’t seen BYU bring in a top 50 ranked recruiting class since he joined the program in 2018. He still led the Cougars to as high as eighth in the AP Poll, doing so without a wealth of talent around him– similar to a situation he would inherit should he find his way to New England. A roster not quite packed to the brim with talent, but one that, with the right player, could unlock a potential that has the team competing on a high level.
The question that remains now is whether or not Wilson’s accomplishments can be translated to a professional level. A quarterback who dominated in college, but did so against a 12-game schedule of teams outside of the Power Five conferences.
Wilson can only do his best against the teams he’s scheduled to face, but it’s a fair question to ask. Can Wilson’s turnover-averse style of play stand up against two meetings a year against the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills, two defenses ranked first and second in total turnover percentage? Can Wilson’s touchdown production, both on the ground and on through the air, be enough to outpace elite offenses within the conference, like the Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans, two teams ranked in the top four in offensive DVOA?
The Immense Talent of Zach Wilson
Those questions of Wilson’s talent might be the very reason why his fit with the New England Patriots is picture-perfect.
If he can bring a similar level of carefulness to the professional level, his presence on the field will only help in four meetings against defenses who thrived at creating turnovers. If he can be a scoring machine like he was with BYU, one who helped lead the Cougars to the third-ranked scoring offense at the FBS level, an inept 2020 Patriots offense might morph to one more than capable of keeping pace with the league’s best offenses– with the help of a Belichick led defense, of course.
Those are the strengths of Wilson’s play, but there’s more. Wilson’s completion percentage was good enough for second in all of college, behind only Alabama’s Mac Jones. His 10 rushing touchdowns have him tied for fourth amongst FBS quarterbacks. With his third-ranked yards per passing attempt, Wilson’s stat sheets come together to paint a picture of an ultimate ‘do-it-all’ player. One who excels at everything just enough to find a starting spot at the NFL level.
He’s not Lamar Jackson, or prime Cam Newton for that matter, but he’s more than athletic enough to keep plays alive in the face of pressure, and to be a scoring threat in goal-to-goal situations. He doesn’t have a Josh Allen arm, but he has skill with his accuracy on throws both short and long to make just about any pass an NFL offense could ask from him.
Wilson’s an accurate passer with an arm, a mobile enough guy to find the end zone 10 times through 12 games as a quarterback in 2020. His skill set is diverse enough to fit in well with just about any offense in the league.
But for Wilson to truly excel, his best bet would be stumbling to an NFL roster that can emphasize the strongest points of his already strong game. A team that can adapt their offensive style, make Wilson comfortable, and thrive as they push the right buttons for the quarterback to be as dominant a pro as he was in college.
We need an offense with a quarterback friendly scheme that brings out the best of the man under center. Any ideas?
Wilson, The Patriots, and Football Harmony
The multi-talented Zach Wilson is capable of fitting into many different offenses across the NFL. But for someone like Wilson, who has succeeded in college at so many things, he could use a team that is willing to adapt to the player that he is.
Enter the New England Patriots, coached by a living legend in Bill Belichick– a three-time Coach of The Year winner and six-time Super Bowl champion, who earned that level of success for many reasons. One of those reasons? His unrivaled flexibility and ability to adapt to offensive schemes that build around a player’s weaknesses while propping up their strengths.
Through 20 seasons as a New England Patriot, Tom Brady built up a legacy as the greatest of all time while playing in an offense that shifted over time. In 2007, Brady’s seventh as a starter with the quarterback hitting the peak of his powers, the New England offense produced big play after another, and ended with Brady being the first quarterback in league history to hit 50 passing touchdowns, while leading the league in yards per pass attempt.
As the years progressed, Brady continued to flourish, but turned into a different player in a different system. His yards per attempt began to decrease through the years as his accuracy began to see a slight uptick. Even in his late 30s through to his early 40s, Brady was still a regular Pro Bowl player– now getting there in an offense that gave the quarterback easier, quicker throws as his raw arm talent began to fade.
The beat continued after Brady left as well. In 2019, the Patriots last year with the future Hall of Famer, New England lived and died through those quick and easy passes, as Brady finished with 613 passing attempts– the fourth-most in the league. In 2020, with Newton under center, a more turnover-prone, less accurate passer, the Patriots dialed back their passing game to the point where Newton finished with only 368 passing attempts, 25th in the NFL.
The Patriots have never been rigid in who they are on offense. For as long as they’ve been football’s most dominant force, they’ve been a team that has constantly evolved to fit the skill of their players. With Wilson, the Patriots could enter a world of possibilities as they work to make an offense fitting of the quarterback’s caliber.
New England has shown they’re willing to use their quarterbacks as threats on the ground. For all of Newton’s issues in 2020, the quarterback finished with 12 rushing touchdowns in 15 starts– similar to Wilson’s ground production of 10 touchdowns through 12 starts.
New England has shown they’re willing to give their quarterbacks easy looks to take advantage of their accuracy. If Wilson struggles at first to adapt to the speed of the NFL, New England has the kid covered. For years, and multiple Super Bowl wins, the Patriots were working with an older Tom Brady without the arm talent he had in his younger years. The throws became shorter, quicker, and easier for the quarterback to hit so long as he had the accuracy skills.
New England has even shown they’re willing to let their quarterback sling it, although you have to travel a ways back to find that era. But should Wilson get his footing, the Patriots could let him lean on that deep ball accuracy that propelled Brady to one of the greatest quarterback seasons ever back in ‘07.
Are the Patriots prospects of landing Wilson complete wishful thinking? It might take some luck, but New England may have a reasonable path to their potential franchise savior without needing to trade. Other quarterbacks of the 2021 rookie class like Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields come from schools with higher profiles than Wilson’s, that have competed for championships every year they’ve been starters. Their path to being top five picks might be set in stone.
Same for a player like Trey Lance from North Dakota State, who has the advantage of multiple seasons worth of hype over Wilson. With three potential players to be taken above Wilson, the Patriots’ path to drafting the kid from BYU might not be impossible. Difficult, but within reason.
To return to form, the New England Patriots might need the efforts of Zach Wilson. To reach his full potential, Zach Wilson might need the New England Patriots.
All that happens now is for the world to wait and see what happens, to see if they need to, once again, fear the brilliance of the New England Patriots.