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NFL Player Profile

Is Russell Wilson the most-underused QB ever?

by Ian Hartitz
Updated On: May 18, 2020, 10:28 am ET

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2020 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.

The Seahawks drafted Russell Wilson in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft. Early in his career there was an idea that his success was more due to the Legion of Boom as well as the offense's lethal run game led by Marshawn Lynch. However, we've seen this narrative shattered as Wilson's career has gone on. He's truly one of the most-efficient QBs the game has ever seen:

  • Completion rate: 64.5% (No. 11 among 158 QBs to start at least 50 games over the past 50 years)
  • Pass TD rate: 6% (No. 1)
  • INT rate: 1.8% (No. 6)
  • QB rating: 101.2 (No. 2)
  • Yards per attempt: 7.87 (No. 4)
  • Adjusted yards per attempt: 8.26 (No. 2)
  • Rush yards per game: 31.2 (No. 4)

The fact that Wilson has done all this while supplying an endless stream of highlight-worthy throws has further helped build the legend of Russ.

Of course, the Seahawks' reluctance to throw the ball has resulted in Wilson largely posting great efficiency stats with middling counting numbers. What follows is a breakdown on just how misused Wilson has been throughout his career, and whether or not we should expect Seattle to embrace a more pass-heavy approach next season.

Russ simply hasn't thrown the ball much over the years

Wilson's aforementioned efficiency stats are fantastic. Yet, he ranks 104th among that 158-QB sample in pass attempts per start.

The Seahawks just haven't been willing to truly build the offense around his talents:

  • 2012: 24.6 pass attempts per start (No. 38 among all QBs with 100-plus pass attempts)
  • 2013: 25.4 (No. 43)
  • 2014: 28.3 (No. 40)
  • 2015: 30.2 (No. 38)
  • 2016: 34.1 (No. 26)
  • 2017: 34.6 (No. 18)
  • 2018: 26.7 (No. 38)
  • 2019: 32.3 (No. 30)

The NFL throws the ball more than ever. Wilson's efficiency numbers have declined to an extent when asked to throw the ball more in single-game situations, but it's not like he's stopped being a great QB when the offense has leaned on the pass game:

Russ

    Note that Wilson has had far more games with fewer than 25 pass attempts (44) and between 26 and 35 (71) than with 36 or more (28).

    The Seahawks ranked 11th in points per game, and Russ 12th in QBR, during their most pass-heavy season together in 2017. Wilson has aced pretty much every test, but coach Pete Carroll and company still won't hand even an above-average workload to their franchise QB. 2019 was a new low for the organization, as they wouldn't even utilize Wilson's unique dual-threat talents: he gained just seven total yards on designed runs after going for an average of 151 rush yards per season from 2012-2018 on non-scramble rushes (PFF).

    Obviously the Seahawks possess plenty of smart people in their organization that know far more about the game of football than myself or anyone reading this. Still, the only thought that somewhat makes sense as to why they would continuously limited Russ is the idea that his tendency to scramble in search of chunk plays downfield could lead to too much consistent beating from opposing defenses.

    Yes, Wilson is smaller than most QBs. Also yes, he's never missed a game since entering the league. Having a 6-foot-5 and 240-pound QB is probably ideal if everything else is equal, but Wilson's 5-foot-11 and 215-pound frame is still fairly compact. His elite-level elusiveness and athleticism have more than made up for any stature concerns.

    It simply doesn't make sense.

    Past seasons have been complicated by the reality that the Seahawks haven't exactly been good about consistently surrounding Wilson with top-level receivers and offensive linemen, but hopefully this will be less of an issue in 2020.

    The Seahawks *finally* boast something resembling a decent o-line and high-end receivers

    Carroll became the head man in Seattle ahead of the 2010 season. Since then they've never drafted a receiver in the first round, while the following are the only WRs and TEs selected within the top-three rounds:

    Tate, Lockett and (probably) Metcalf are certainly great selections. The team also traded for Percy Harvin and managed to get an incredibly productive eight-year career from former undrafted free agent Doug Baldwin.

    Still, *one* top-50 pick on a WR or TE in 11 drafts hardly seems like a concentrated effort to set your QB up for success.

    The front office has only done a little better job surrounding Wilson with offensive line talent. They've drafted a still-modest seven offensive linemen in the top-three rounds since 2010, spending three first-round picks on the position along the way.

    The larger issue has been their unwillingness to spend on the unit as a whole in recent years despite unsatisfactory results (Per OverTheCap and Football Outsiders):

    • 2015: No. 30 in adjusted sack rate; No. 26 in dollars spent on the offensive line
    • 2016: No. 25; No. 31
    • 2017: No. 25, No. 16
    • 2018: No. 30, No. 21
    • 2019: No. 24; No. 22

    Good news: Wilson *on paper* has one of his best supporting casts in years. Lockett (10.8 adjusted yards per attempt) and Metcalf (10.5) are literally the two-most efficient targets of Wilson's career among 17 players with at least 50 targets for the Seahawks since 2012. TE Will Dissly (13.1) even tops both WRs if we drop the target qualifier to 40. Throw in the signings of Greg Olsen and Phillip Dorsett, and it's clear that Wilson has his most-competent group of receivers in quite some time.

    And then we have the o-line, which returns three starters from last season in LT Duane Brown, LG Mike Iupati and C Justin Hunt/B.J. Finney. The former two players were above-average players at their position in terms of overall PFF grades. The expected differences entering next season are on the right side of the line. Third-round pick Damien Lewis will likely compete with former second-round pick Ethan Pocic for the starting RG job, while newly-signed veterans Cedric Ogbuehi and Brandon Shell will battle it out for the starting RT spot. The Seahawks still rank a meh 22nd in spending on the offensive line ahead of next season, but at least they've made an effort to get some new talent involved.

    Add it all up and ...

    Expect more greatness from Wilson in 2020, but probably not more pass attempts

    Wilson said the following after the Seahawks' playoff race ended in Green Bay last January:

    “We’ve always been really good at two-minute offense, we’ve always been really good in those end of the half, not always hurry up situations but those up-tempo moments ... The reality is this: I think the defense gets tired and the second thing is I really know kind of what I want and how I want to get after them. Especially in moments. And guys just make plays in those moments ... The freedom of just going after it and scoring as many points, you know? That’s kind of what the Chiefs do, to be honest with you. Andy Reid and (Patrick) Mahomes, they do a really good job at getting up to the ball, playing with their playmakers and finding ways to make plays.”

    Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like the team's run-first offense is going to change with OC Brian Schottenheimer back for next season.

    This is an absolutely massive shame because watching Wilson throw the football is among the game's greatest treats.

    The good news for potential 2020 fantasy investors is the reality that Wilson has continued to rack up fantasy points over the years despite his low volume:

    • 2012: Overall fantasy QB9
    • 2013: QB8
    • 2014: QB3
    • 2015: QB3
    • 2016: QB11
    • 2017: QB1
    • 2018: QB9
    • 2019: QB3

    Wilson is currently going off the board as the QB4-5 in best-ball and re-draft leagues alike. The newfound lack of a heightened rushing floor is concerning; Wilson's average of 21.4 rush yards per game in 2019 was the second-lowest mark of his career behind only 2016 (16.2). It seems unlikely we see him rack up 500 rushing yards in a single season again.

    This reality, combined with the expectation that Seattle will again utilize an incredibly run-heavy offense, has me ranking Wilson outside of this year's top-five QBs. The likes of Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Kyler Murray and Deshaun Watson each boast more pass-happy offenses with higher run-game floors (with the potential exception of Mahomes, but you get the point).

    I'd probably take Wilson over Josh Allen at this point, but either way it's clear we need to treat the 31-year-old QB as more of a mid-range fantasy selection as long as the Seahawks continue to prioritize neutralizing their future Hall of Fame QB.

    Ian Hartitz

    All things NFL. Great day to be great. You can follow Ian on Twitter @Ihartitz.