BRONCOS

Zach Wilson is worth a flyer, but he’s not worth Broncos passing up on a Round 1 quarterback

Apr 23, 2024, 1:33 AM | Updated: 1:44 am

It should not have come as any surprise that the Broncos added a quarterback before the draft, as they did Monday by trading for Zach Wilson. George Paton basically tipped off this kind of move last month:

They did it for practically nothing, moving down 49 picks in the final 50 selections of the draft.

In other words, it was a deal that involved picks in the last 20 percent of the draft. The Broncos got a former No. 2 overall pick for the draft-capital equivalent of a couple of footballs and a bag of kicking tees. And the trade was a George Paton Special, as they walked out of the swap with as many draft picks as they had heading into it.

But there was a reason why the former No. 2 overall pick was available for loose change in the sofa cushions.

And it’s a reminder that the Broncos shouldn’t delude themselves about the odds of turning Wilson into a viable long-term option.

“We’ll see about the draft,” Paton said last month.

That “we’ll see” should still be “absolutely get a quarterback” even with Wilson around.

THE BRONCOS ARE ONLY GETTING ZACH WILSON BECAUSE HE WAS STILL ON THE SHELF

The last eight months bore witness to an everything-must-go sale on all but one of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Trevor Lawrence, the top pick in that draft class, still is secure in Jacksonville.

  • Mac Jones: Traded by New England to Jacksonville for the No. 193 pick
  • Trey Lance: Traded by San Francisco to Dallas for the No. 124 pick
  • Justin Fields: Traded by Chicago to Pittsburgh for a conditional 2025 pick that could be as high as a fourth-rounder based on playing time.

The Broncos acquired Zach Wilson for the equivalent of the 209th pick.

Of course, the existence of these trades three years into the careers of those first-rounders show the risk of picking a quarterback.

But in this particular instance, all were selected after the COVID-19-impacted season that made life easier for quarterbacks who didn’t have to deal with crowd noise and other factors that typically make their process more difficult. Lance played just one game in that COVID-19 season. Wilson didn’t play against any teams that were Power 5 schools at the time. And Fields and Jones flourished in the relatively pristine environments.

In retrospect, the conditions deceived, contributing to the high failure rate with their initial teams. In the 2024 draft class, the success rate should be closer to normal.

But even in an everyone-must-go market, Wilson sat unwanted until this week. The Jets had already signed his replacement as backup behind Aaron Rodgers, adding Tyrod Taylor last month.

Wilson doesn’t lack for experience. With 33 starts, he has 28 more than the rest of the Broncos’ quarterback room combined.

But that doesn’t mean it’s good experience. And while environment can’t play a role, it doesn’t explain a performance that objectively places him among the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL.

Zach Wilson slide

Of course, Zach Wilson started for the Jets in a pair of wins over the Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High after a rookie-season defeat. But his per-game efficiency metrics show that Wilson was hardly a cause of the Jets’ two recent wins in Denver; if anything, he held them back from convincing triumphs:

2021: Broncos 26, Jets 0

  • Passer rating: 42.6
  • QBR: 15.3
  • Expected points added (EPA) per play: minus-0.58

2022: Jets 16, Broncos 9

  • Passer rating: 72.8
  • QBR: 45.3
  • EPA per play: minus-0.23

2023: Jets 31, Broncos 21

  • Passer rating: 78.8
  • QBR: 44.4
  • EPA per play: minus-0.21

A negative EPA/play in each game speaks volumes.

BUT IT’S MORE THAN WHAT HE DID IN DENVER

Since 2021, there have been 115 individual single seasons for quarterbacks having at least 200 plays, per data compiled through rbsdm.com. Zach Wilson has three of them. Here’s where he stacks up.

EPA/play:

  • 2021: minus-0.148, 110th of 115
  • 2022: minus-0.091, 102nd of 115
  • 2023: minus-0.191, 114th of 115

Success rate (percentage of dropbacks with a positive EPA):

  • 2021: 38.7 percent, 111th of 115
  • 2022: 39.5 percent, 108th of 115
  • 2023: 38.6 percent, 112th of 115

There have also been just eight single seasons since 2021 in which a quarterback had an EPA/play below minus-.090 and a success rate below 40 percent. Wilson is responsible for three of them. And unfortunately for Wilson, it is the consistency of negative outcomes — despite an effective defense and ground game and the presence of wide receiver Garrett Wilson for much of his time there — that exacerbates his negative metrics.

Of course, Wilson played for offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett last year, one season after Hackett’s disastrous 15-game stint as Broncos head coach. So, let’s live for a moment in a world in which Sean Payton can spur the same kind of year-to-year improvement in EPA/play and success rate for Zach Wilson as he did for Russell Wilson.

Russell Wilson had EPA/play and success-rate figures of minus-0.004 and 41.1 percent in 2022; those improved to 0.045 and 45.8 percent with Payton.

So, if Zach Wilson improves by 0.049 EPA/play and 4.70 percentage points in success rate — as Russell Wilson did — here’s where he would stack up among the 115 quarterbacks:

  • Projected EPA/play: minus-0.142, 112th of 115
  • Success rate: 43.3%, 89th of 115

And among 41 quarterbacks with at least 200 plays last year, that would increase Zach Wilson’s rankings from 40th in EPA/play and 39th in success rate to 38th in EPA/play and 28th in success rate.

Not the worst. But not sustainable as a starter.

Repairing Zach Wilson and transforming him into a functional starting quarterback would require perhaps the most phenomenal repair job ever completed by Sean Payton, whose past includes the revivals of quarterbacks such as Kerry Collins, Teddy Bridgewater and a post-labrum-tear Drew Brees. But all operated at far higher levels relative to their era than Zach Wilson.

Is the former No. 2 overall pick worth bringing in? For the draft-compensation price paid, absolutely.

Is he worth passing on a Round 1 quarterback coming out of a normal college-football season? The data says no, as the leap required is too great to reasonably expect.

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Zach Wilson is worth a flyer, but he’s not worth Broncos passing up on a Round 1 quarterback