In one season, Zach Wilson went from fringe NFL prospect to no doubt top 10 NFL draft pick whose arm strength and ability to make off-schedule plays has drawn comparisons to Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Wilson, who the 49ers scouted during his senior season at BYU, wasn't a top-rated prospect and has had to work to earn everything in his football career. In doing so, he's been motivated by another BYU legends journey: Former 49ers star Steve Young.
Wilson told NBC Sports' Peter King that he listened to Young's book "QB: My Life Behind the Spiral" and was moved by Young's story, especially one passage in which Young discusses not cashing checks from the 49ers because he didn't think he had earned the money.
"Like Steve not cashing his checks. It’s so cool his mentality of, ‘I haven’t earned it yet.’ He’s always hungry for more and some people just feel like they’ve arrived. He was just not like that at all," Wilson told King. "That was such a cool lesson for me to learn. Even if I am fortunate enough to go early in the draft and make it to a good team, I haven’t done anything yet. You have to keep working for it.
“I think that’s what’s interesting about my career as well. I wasn’t a big recruit. I didn’t have a lot of offers. I went to BYU as just a normal three-star recruit. Nothing special. Nobody expected me to play early. I ended up having a chance to play as a freshman, something that I had to work for—nine quarterbacks in the quarterback room at the time. And then I was nobody last year and I was fighting for my starting job back and having shoulder surgery. Things didn’t go as well as we wanted to and the coaches opened up a competition to try and win the starting spot back. I was so determined to try and win that job back and prove that it was mine.”
Wilson battled labrum and hand injuries during a rocky 2019 season, prompting BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick to tell Wilson that the Cougars were going to have an open competition for the starting spot in 2020, but he believed that when healthy, the competition would only raise Wilson's game to new heights.
Roderick was proven right as a fully healthy Wilson lit college football ablaze in 2020, throwing for 3,692 yards, 33 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
Wilson currently is projected to be a top-10 pick thanks to the ability to make any throw on the field with the cannon strapped to his right side.
Wilson's athleticism, mobility, pocket awareness, savvy and ability to make plays outside the pocket make him an intriguing option for any team in need of a franchise quarterback, including the 49ers.
It would cost the 49ers, who own the No. 12 pick, a hefty price to jump up and grab Wilson. It's not a move I expect them to make, as they have greater needs on the roster outside of the quarterback position and would like to replenish their draft capital instead of dealing it away.
But Wilson could just be the ideal quarterback for the 49ers to make a move for. He's got a dual-threat skill set that makes him perfect for the modern NFL and is well-versed in running an offense based on the outside zone run as the 49ers employ.
Per PFF's Seth Galina, BYU ran outside zone on 52 percent of its plays this season, and Wilson took 18 percent of his snaps under center. That means Wilson, unlike some quarterbacks entering the NFL, would feel comfortable running outside zone play-action and bootlegs. This season, Wilson used play-action on 38 percent of his dropbacks and recorded a passing grade of 92.9.
Now, about that arm strength. Per PFF, Wilson threw 38 passes from the left hash to within 10 yards of the right sideline with a grade of 96.4. Flip that -- throwing right to left -- and he had a grade of 90.5 on 29 throws.
That's pretty, pretty good.
Young, who has praised Wilson's game, was glad to see the young quarterback take lessons from his experience as an NFL quarterback.
“Nobody knows how much grit you have till you have to have it,” Young told King. “So you’ve got to fight for a job. Say you get benched. Look at you; don’t look at anyone else. Most often, victimization takes over, but it never does any good to play the victim. Work on yourself. Work on your game. You better have that level of grit to fight for a job and to fight to win a game, because in this game, you’re going to be tested over and over again.”
Wilson likely will find his NFL home in either New York with the Jets, Carolina, Atlanta or perhaps a team like Chicago or Washington that trades up to nab him. The 49ers will sit patiently at No. 12 and see which players tumble to them, hoping to address either their need in the secondary, at edge rusher or along the offensive line.
But there's no doubt Wilson would star in Kyle Shanahan's system. But it's unlikely we get to see Wilson truly follow in Young's footsteps.