As the Chicago Bears meander through another season with a good defense, a bad offense and below-average quarterback play, it seems wise to keep an eye on the college football world and the quarterbacks who could be available in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Last month we looked at North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, whose evaluation is complicated by his school opting to only play one game this fall. In a much different situation is BYU’s Zach Wilson, whose school is one of very few that have played eight games this season. BYU is off to an 8-0 start, partially because their original (tougher) schedule got blown up, and partially because Wilson has turned into an easy first-round draft pick.
In terms of storylines, the Bears drafting a BYU quarterback (who wears a headband and famously took two BYU cheerleaders to his high school prom) 38 years after selecting Jim McMahon No. 5 overall would be fun. Parts of Wilson’s game – particularly his athleticism and ability to scramble – are similar, but the BYU junior can really throw the football and he’s only getting better.
Listed at 6-3, 210 this season, I’m a little skeptical, but maybe that’s just because Wilson still looks like he’s 14 years old, when he’s actually 21. Still, he’s big enough to play quarterback at the NFL level and his athleticism and arm strength are attributes teams are craving in today's NFL.
It’s a little up-and-down. After becoming the youngest quarterback to ever start for BYU as a true freshman in 2018, Wilson threw 12 touchdowns and only three interceptions in nine games, including a perfect 18-for-18 MVP performance in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. But after requiring shoulder surgery in January of 2019 and dealing with some other injuries, Wilson struggled during his sophomore season, throwing 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. BYU went 4-5 with Wilson as the starter in 2019, but 2-0 in the games he missed due to injury. There was enough doubt that the coaching staff announced an open quarterback competition going into the 2020 season.
But if there’s a Joe Burrow in this year’s draft, it’s Wilson. After an unremarkable 2018 season at LSU, Burrow lit the college football world on fire in 2019 in what may have been the best college quarterback season ever. Wilson isn’t quite enjoying that much success, but he kept his starting job and is rising up draft boards in a similar fashion. In eight games this season, Wilson is completing a ridiculous 75 percent of his passes, while averaging 11.37 yards/attempt. He’s thrown 22 touchdowns and just two interceptions. More importantly, the tape screams NFL.
Wilson’s athleticism has seemingly improved each year at BYU. He easily eludes pass rushers and, this year, he has shown the ability to make many different throws from tough positions on the run. He can sit in the pocket and process, but he’s especially dangerous outside the pocket. BYU has designed QB runs/keepers in their offense, but it appears they are relying on those less this season.
Wilson’s best attribute is his ball placement. He’s not just accurate -- he has a knack for placing the football away from defenders where only his receiver can get to it. He throws a good deep ball with the necessary touch and can do so from awkward throwing positions.
There do not appear to be any character concerns. Wilson is considered a good leader who watches a lot of film and works to get better. He spent his spring quarantine period frequently driving 10 hours from Utah to Huntington Beach, Calif. where he trained with former BYU quarterback John Beck at 3DQB (a place many NFL quarterbacks, including Mitch Trubisky have trained).
Are Wilson’s improvements this year a result of his offseason training or BYU’s schedule? As an FBS independent, BYU’s schedule was originally loaded up with Power Five opponents like Utah, Stanford, Michigan State, Missouri, Arizona State and Minnesota. But as those conferences canceled non-conference games, BYU was left scrambling and they didn’t play a ranked opponent until last week when they beat Boise State 51-17 on the road.
The competition hasn’t been ideal, but Wilson and the Cougars have left no doubt, with only one contest being decided one score. Wilson’s sophomore struggles will be questioned, but injuries played a role. Decision-making will also be scrutinized, including an odd sequence in last week’s game when Wilson decided to run around and throw a pass well short of the end zone as the first half clock expired.
While there aren’t many physical attributes to question, Wilson doesn’t always have a great feel for the rush and sometimes holds onto the football too long.
BYU only has two games left on their schedule: Nov. 21 vs North Alabama and Dec. 12 vs San Diego State. That said, they could add one or two more, perhaps even targeting a Power Five team that doesn’t make its conference championship game. That’s the type of game that would help the evaluation of Wilson.
Given the strength of schedule, BYU isn’t a serious contender for the College Football Playoff, but they could make a New Year’s Six bowl game against a really good opponent.
Wilson also needs to declare for the NFL Draft. He could still return to BYU for his senior year. But some around the league are already projecting Wilson to be a top 10 pick, so it would probably be wise to leave now.
As for the Bears, they are unlikely to have a top 10 pick, but Wilson’s evaluation is far from over. We could see five quarterbacks drafted in the first round next spring and Wilson figures to be one who could be in reach for the Bears.