Why Zach Wilson Isn't 'Perfect' Fit In Wide Zone Offense

Photo: Rick Bowmer/Pool Photo-USA TODAY NETWORK

The BYU offense was as fun as it got last season. A big part of that was potential top-five pick and NFL darling Zach Wilson: his arm, his magic, his poise. But another big part of that was the scheme.

Under offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, now hired away to Baylor, the Cougars majored in a wide zone rushing attack from a variety of alignments—the gun, under center, and in the pistol. The wide zone rushing attack has ripped through the modern NFL, experiencing a revival with the unique twists added by such offensive designers as Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur, Kevin Stefanski, and Arthur Smith. All of those pro offenses, and BYU’s offense, look different from one another when put under a microscope. But their roots are the same: they want to run the ball in wide zone paths, and then throw play-action off of it. At the college level, BYU attached a heavy dose of Air Raid-inspired passing concepts to their dropback and play-action passing game to take advantage of the wider hashes and strength of Wilson’s arm.

Because of the wide zone running game and accompanying play-action passing attack, many have tabbed Wilson as a perfect fit for the offense in the league—and he very well can be. With his accuracy on the move and arm strength, Wilson can turn rollouts into explosive plays downfield. With his quick release and springy feet, he can quickly flip from RPO and play-action mesh points to deliver accurate balls into tight windows. He has the traits that could shine in that system, and many have made the connection between Wilson and the New York Jets—who own the second overall pick—in that the Jets’ new offensive coordinator, Mike LaFleur, is a branch off of the Shanahan tree.

Of course, most quarterbacks shine in that system. Smith resuscitated Ryan Tannehill’s career by using the play-action passing game to open up intermediate windows and deep shot opportunities, which maximized Tannehill’s big arm. Shanahan got to a Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo by using the running game threat to move linebackers and create YAC opportunities in the quick game. McVay also got to a Super Bowl with Jared Goff by simplifying his reads and using boot-action to cut the field in half, minimizing Goff’s post-snap processing responsibilities. Stefanski jacked up both Kirk Cousins and Baker Mayfield in consecutive seasons by rolling right-handed quarterbacks out to their left. LaFleur worked with Aaron Rodgers to install tons of RPOs and check-with-mes at the line, to give Rodgers the control over the passing game that many other QBs in the same system lacked.

You’ll notice that the wide zone rushing attack is seemingly making a lot of middling quarterbacks better, and an already great quarterback an MVP-caliber player. This brings us to Wilson. If he’s a perfect fit for this system, which has yet to find a quarterback who it doesn’t help, how good of a prospect is he really?

That’s an unfair question, of course. But it’s a helpful framework for us to understand how Wilson’s schematic advantages play into his NFL projection. 

Wilson’s sudden rise to the top of QB boards is linked directly to BYU’s sudden increase in wide zone play-action passing. As detailed by Seth Galina of PFF, Wilson went from 12 play-action passes off of wide zone run-action in 2019 to 88 in 2020, and his yards/attempt on play-action passes climbed from 7.7 to 12.4 over the same time span.

Remember, while the Cougars did work the typical split-zone flat route rollouts and deep crossing patterns we’d expect from this system, they also have an Air Raid background. Much like Oklahoma does under Lincoln Riley, BYU regularly gave Wilson the option to work to the isolated backside receiver on an array of vertical or out-breaking routes: back-shoulder fades, deep comebacks, speed outs, or true 9-balls.

Take this play as an example. BYU has Wilson’s favorite target, Dax Milne, isolated to the bottom of the screen on the far side of the field. There’s no way safety help could get there, so Wilson knows he has a one-on-one opportunity to hit the speed out, if he wants it.

But BYU is also showing split-safeties, and the tight end to the top of the screen will run a seam route right down the middle of those two safeties. After the snap and the play-fake, Wilson picks his eyes up to the speed out from Milne and sees that the field safety has bailed hard to that side of the formation—Western Kentucky is trying to take away Milne’s space. At this point, Wilson should know that his tight end going up the pipe has a leverage advantage over the linebacker with potentially no safety help.

Instead, Wilson hammers the speed out. It’s not a bad play—and good on him for being decisive and quick, as the safety had no chance to get to this ball. But a huge play was left on the field. And particularly, it was left in the middle of the field.

Wilson’s arm allowed him to access this long throw, and others like it, regularly, and with solid accuracy. But such a route isn’t featured in the NFL version of the wide zone offense. It doesn’t make sense. The wide zone run-action moves the linebackers and the safeties, opening up the middle of the field to be attacked with slants, crossers, digs, and posts. The outside corner is unaffected by this wide zone action, and accordingly the value of the play-action pass is lost on this target, while the dangers (allowing free rushers; quarterback turning back to defense) remain.

For Wilson to be a “perfect fit” in the wide zone offense, he would need to throw more often over the middle of the field, and with better timing and anticipation as well. Because Wilson has such significant range and velocity on his arm, he’s more likely to throw deep or out-breaking patterns, avoiding the risk of layered throws between zones in the middle of the field. Such throws require crisp timing, clean footwork, and anticipatory vision—as well as functional height to see the windows develop. Those are not Wilson’s strongest traits. They aren’t bad! But they aren’t his strengths.

As such, we see Wilson bounce on his play-action drops, not landing on the top of his drop ready to fire like a Garoppolo or a Rodgers, but instead waiting to read the field and make a decision before he sets to throw. We see Wilson identify crossing targets as they work between layers of the zone, but infrequently does he move zone defenders with his eyes to create throwing windows or make throws to “NFL open” receivers that require touch and anticipation to hit.

Take this play against Houston, in which the Cougars run a common two-man route concept that is meant to manipulate the deep middle safety. Even as the post safety climbs with the vertical route, Wilson shows no interest in taking the intermediate crosser from the snap, opening his hips to the deep route, and hitching into an ill-advised, interceptable throw.

Yeah, the crosser runs into the referee—but that’s not the point. Wilson doesn’t want to throw that route, even though it’s clearly the correct read here. The play works perfectly, as the jet motion pulls the strong safety down and forces the single-high look. The wide receiver even eventually frees himself from the ref and uncovers into space. Wilson never gives it a glance.

It got to the point that BYU would run their wide zone play-action looks, but just give Wilson vertical routes to read and throw, without filling the middle of the field at all, as they did on this opening play against Western Kentucky.

For all of the reticence Wilson shows in working the middle of the field off of play-action, you can get away with such limitations in this system. Mayfield, who often appears as a Wilson comparison, has a similar aversion to the intermediate middle of the field (perhaps for height-related reasons, as we can find similar sensations in Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson’s film). By moving Mayfield out of the pocket, Stefanski can open up his field vision and use his mobility as a check-down. Wilson was used in similar ways at BYU, but still left open intermediate throws on the field.

Here’s a three-level flood on wide zone boot-action for Wilson. The reads will vary across coaching staff, but typically you’ll only alert to the vertical route, reading from quick flat route to the late crosser coming from the other side of the field.

As Wilson gets into his rollout, it’s clear early that the flat will be taken away, and that the tight end is buttoned up on the vertical route. The late crosser, however, opens up clearly, as the wide receiver is winning the foot race against the trailing cornerback across the formation.

Wilson should throw this ball to the open space, over the first level of players and into the bucket of green (well, blue) grass. It’s a touch throw, and one that he doesn’t like to make, so he instead elects to hold on to the football and tuck it for a minimal gain.

So Wilson is still growing as a middle-of-the-field passer—and yet he was so successful in this style of play-action passing, which usually hammers the middle of the field. And that’s the beauty of the wide zone approach. It can be—and often is—adjusted to fit the proclivities of the quarterback that runs it; it can—and often does—excel despite his flaws. With it, you can stress the defense, and then give the quarterback the throws that he likes best, while enduring those mistakes he makes on the field. If Wilson likes that outside ball best, that’s fine—but when he throws it, he won’t receive as much of the benefit from the wide zone action that other quarterbacks would. In that Wilson doesn’t have quality touch and anticipation in the middle of the field, every inch that the wide zone run-action moves the linebackers will help him make those throws—when he’s willing to attempt them.

To be a perfect fit in an offense that seems ideal for most quarterbacks, then, is just fine. There’s nothing wrong with that, and in the case of teams like San Francisco or New York—both in need of a substantial quarterback upgrade—Wilson’s playmaking ability will be a welcome sight in the building. But we should view with caution the meteoric rise of a player now cast as the clear-cut QB2 and challenger to Trevor Lawrence for QB1, in that he executed an offense that has told us many lies over its recent surge in the NFL.

Wilson is a good prospect—but with one season of explosive play in a tremendous context, his evaluation deserves more doubt than it’s currently receiving.

Written By:

Benjamin Solak

Senior CFB Writer

Director of Special Projects and Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-host of the Locked On NFL Draft Podcast. The 3-Wide Raven.

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