While it seems unlikely that the Falcons will select a quarterback fourth overall, I think the discussion around Atlanta picking Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, or Trey Lance will march on well into April (no pun intended). Personally, I’m in favor of trading down. However, if you tie my hands, I have to give Zach Wilson the edge, and I outlined those reasons here.
Of course, I could always be 100% wrong. If it were easy to do, every NFL team would have a franchise quarterback. A lot is determined by the situation the quarterback goes into, and sometimes, my evaluations are just off. I think all three guys have the tools to be franchise cornerstones, especially under Arthur Smith.
A lot of fans get swooped up when evaluating quarterbacks by a few variables. The first and most egregious is recency bias. Whenever a player goes out and absolutely balls in primetime, naturally, fans like me get excited and think they’re the new QB1. I mean, we had media pundits saying take Fields over Lawrence, for crying out loud. That also plays into prospect fatigue; when a guy is wire-to-wire a top prospect, people will start looking for the “next big thing” to replace them.
The next most dangerous aspect is to fall in love with the box score. While stats are handy — yards and touchdowns are not great indicators of future success in the NFL. If that were the case, Colt Brennan and Graham Harrell would be the best quarterbacks in the league right now. Stats like completion percentage and yards per attempt can still be very telling if they are outliers. Once again, these can be fixed with proper coaching. Josh Allen had a 59% completion percentage coming out of Wyoming, and he has improved every season with Brian Daboll.
Rarely, Air Raid quarterbacks (there are exceptions, see: Mahomes, Patrick) make the jump to the NFL, and even then, they require a lot of coaching. I’m also not a big fan of the “supporting cast” or “quality of the team” argument. Yes, guys like Tua have struggled early on when their receivers aren’t as open as they were used to in college, but plenty of guys with good supporting casts in college like Matthew Stafford have had great NFL careers. Contradictorily, it cuts both ways. Guys with poor talent around them in college can still make an impact in the NFL even if their team held them back in college. You also have to consider the situation they are brought into.
Is Mitch Trubisky at Patrick Mahomes’s level if the Chiefs select him instead of the former Red Raider? Probably not, but I also doubt he would be seen as the bust like he is right now. Is Patrick Mahomes the quarterback he is if he goes to the Bears? I would say no; I think he would still be held back by coaching, i.e., Matt Nagy. That’s why it will be an annoying conversation if Justin Fields goes to the Jets and is expected to be the savior immediately. Usually, you can’t honestly tell who the best quarterback prospect in a draft is because the playing field won’t always be even.
So what makes for a good NFL quarterback? By no means am I saying I’m Andy Reid or Mel Kiper, but these are the things I look at on film when deciding who is going to succeed in the NFL. Lance needs to go to the right situation; he has an absolute rocket arm and has the best scrambling ability of any quarterback in the draft. Fields and Wilson could also benefit from some additional development. Rarely do you find a “finished” product like Andrew Luck, Joe Burrow, or Trevor Lawrence. If Fields gets a chance to sit and learn, he has Russell Wilson potential. I think Zach Wilson has many Patrick Mahomes-Esque traits, but he’s still a long way from that ceiling.
This is the number one evaluation tool that you have to look at when evaluating NFL quarterbacks. Guys have habits; some are good, some are bad. Going back to Zach Wilson, his escapability and patience through his progressions is what draws me to him. The whole “he played at BYU” argument is nonsense. When I watch the film, I see a calm and collected quarterback that effortlessly moves in the pocket.
He can get spooked sometimes, but he mostly keeps his wits. When the pocket breaks, he uses his God-given athleticism to roll out, and he usually delivers a seed. Wilson is cautious with the football — two of his three interceptions in 2020 were off of tipped Hail Marys. You also have to beware of guys like Carson Wentz or Daniel Jones who have no idea the rush is coming until he’s wearing a defender like a backpack.
Those aren’t the only traits to examine, though. Not speaking directly about Wilson, but guys can stare down their first option. Something Matt Ryan is exceptional at is manipulating safeties and linebackers with his eyes. Peyton Manning was probably the best of all-time at this, along with Tom Brady. Jameis Winston has all the arm talent in the world, but he never saw linebackers in Tampa, which led to him joining the 30/30 club. General intelligence, character, and leadership are important — but you don’t get much insight into that until the combine (or Pro Day for 2021). Even then, front offices dig deep into prospects’ past and life away from football.
The traits that I look for the most are pocket presence, poise, and the ability to improvise — which is becoming more common among quarterback prospects. Arm talent is significant, but I’ll touch on that later. Most NFL coaching staffs are competent enough to develop a quarterback, and I certainly think Arthur Smith is very good at playing to his quarterback’s strengths. You have to look at habits, which ones can you break, and which ones are red flags? Remember Tim Tebow’s God awful arm angle? It never got fixed.
This is another significant one. Exhibit A — Dwayne Haskins. Haskins ran a one-read system at Ohio State. It’s exactly what it sounds like. For the most part, you establish the run (usually with a five star running back) with RPOs and sling the ball to an incredible athlete that’s wide open 90% of the time on a short route or screen. I’m not disparaging one-read quarterbacks; they just need a little more seasoning. That’s why I think sitting Fields behind Matt Ryan could still be a successful venture. The issue becomes when a guy like Haskins is thrown into the fire with little to no conceptual understanding of an NFL route tree or progressions.
I’m not saying all one-read offenses are one-read all of the time, but they are usually sprinkled in with other more advanced concepts. That’s another reason why so many Air Raid prospects have trouble adjusting. The offenses are very similar in the sense that they scheme the first option open. Haskins threw for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns at Ohio State, but he is the only first-round quarterback in NFL history to be cut before his second season even finished.
God-Given Gifts: Build, Arm Talent, & Athleticism
I’m not saying shorter quarterbacks can’t be successful, but build is important. There is still an “ideal body” for an NFL quarterback, and it is crucial with a guy on a bad team who is destined to take a beating in year one due to poor offensive line play. Trevor Lawrence is supremely talented, but his larger frame will help him behind a so-so Jags offensive line. As we saw with Joe Burrow, even ideal size can’t save you at all times.
Arm talent is so often overlooked. I audibly giggled when my classmates would say that Jake Fromm would be a fantastic NFL quarterback. Unless you are in an absolute dream system like Jared Goff (was), you need to be able to throw to all levels of the field and each sideline. Please don’t take this as a shot at Goff; he still makes some impressive downfield throws, but his arm talent is what separates him from a lot of upper-echelon quarterbacks in the NFL and held Los Angeles back at times. A quarterback doesn’t have to have a Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen level arm to be impactful, but you have to have something that separates you. Look at Russell Wilson, he has developed some considerable downfield throwing ability, but it wasn’t what he did at Wisconsin. Speaking of Wilson…
Not every quarterback needs to run a 4.4, but you have to have some sort of escapability. Tom Brady is by no means a “mobile quarterback,” but one of his best assets — even in his twilight years — is his quickness and ability to move around in the pocket. Aaron Rodgers probably isn’t the first guy that comes to mind when I say dual-threat, but his ability to throw on the run and improvise has helped him to a Hall of Fame career. I haven’t talked about Trey Lance much. He is as raw of a prospect as he comes, but he possesses all of these attributes. He can run like a Lamar Jackson, has an absolute cannon, and stands at 6’4, 225 pounds. However, he’s only 20 years old and has roughly 19 FCS games under his belt. It’s harder to evaluate the traits I mentioned with that small of a sample size, but he would be a good fit in Atlanta with the raw gifts he possesses.
In short, there’s absolutely no perfect science to evaluating these guys. Some surefire prospects will turn out to be washouts, and guys like Tom Brady will become the greatest to ever do it at his position.
One last example — Johnny Manziel is possibly my favorite college football player ever. Zach Wilson may seem like Manziel to the casual eye, but Johnny did a lot of things wrong at college that he didn’t get away with in the NFL. He broke the pocket on purpose quite often, and he relied on a specimen in Mike Evans to bail him out a LOT. Going to Cleveland in their dog days certainly didn’t help those habits being broken. He was never serious about football, and while that’s yet to be determined with Wilson — the comparison is unfair even though their playstyle looks similar at times. It’s all about context and watching the film to draw your own conclusions. Personally, this is how I like to look at these prospects.