Garrett Wilson: A Prospect of Extremes
NFL Draft - Ohio State has become one of the top wide receiver factories in college football. Year-in, year-out, the Buckeyes produce an NFL wide receiver or two, a few of whom have gone in the first round. The Buckeyes are set to do so again this year with Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Both are expected top-20 picks worthy of a profile, but for this installment of the Draft Film Room, we will focus on Wilson, the flashier and more volatile prospect between the two.
Wilson is an exercise in beauty being in the eye of the beholder. On the one hand, Wilson is an explosive athlete with real-deal speed, good hands in space, and an eccentric route-running flavor that could be a nuisance for NFL cornerbacks. On the other hand, Wilson is more of a highlight package than someone who wins down after down, and his route-running flashiness is more of a fireworks show than a well-crafted approach. In total, Wilson's skill set is still generally received as a legit first-round talent because the potential payoff would be exceptional.
Wilson's best trait is his stop-and-start athleticism. He can bring his body to a halt at the drop of a hat and explode in another direction just as quickly. In many ways, that trait alone informs most of Wilson's best routes and plays. Screens, short crossing routes, stop routes, and vertical routes with the option to hit the back shoulder make up a majority of Wilson's best clips on film, in large part because they all hinge on his ability to come to a dead stop or explode out of one, or both.
The route combination helps Wilson get open for free, but what happens after that is all him. Wilson makes the catch in stride and waits until the last moment before the defensive back catches up to him to plant his foot in the ground and cut back the other way. The defensive back is left whiffing at air, giving Wilson the runway he needed to score one of his four touchdowns against Purdue.
Wilson made a killing on deep stop / comeback routes like this. Sometimes he can look like he is counting out the steps before he settles to break, but when he commits to selling the outside vertical and snaps it off, he is tough to keep up with. In both clips, Wilson (top) does a great job getting vertical and widening out to the sideline to sell the go ball. As soon as each corner opens their hips and begins to hoof it down the field, Wilson is able to stop in a heartbeat and work back to the quarterback.
Of course, part of the success of those stop / comeback routes has to do with Wilson's threat as a field stretcher. If he was no threat to actually take the top off, defenses would not respect him accordingly and it would be easier to anticipate when he wants to break these routes off. While Wilson is not quite in the elite tier of downfield speed, he has more than enough juice to warrant respect as someone who can be a home-run threat.
Wilson's (bottom) release looks pretty fancy here, but that is not what makes this play go. The cornerback remains fairly patient and square on top of Wilson, waiting for the Buckeyes receiver to jam his foot in the ground and go. Wilson's suddenness when he finally committed to the outside shoulder is what made it difficult for the cornerback to strike and get hands on him. That sliver of unimpeded time to accelerate up the field was all Wilson needed to create a valley between himself and the cornerback, giving the quarterback a clear target near the pylon.
For as lethal as Wilson can be on shallow yards-after-catch plays and vertical branches of the route tree, he is sort of limited to those opportunities. At this stage in his development, Wilson plays out of control through many of his other routes. He either takes too many steps to settle into a break or takes one long, herky-jerky step into the break that often disrupts his timing and hurts his ability to get out of his breaks cleanly. Additionally, Wilson does not handle press coverage particularly well right now, both in his approach and in his physicality. All of that makes for a receiver whose projected usage in the NFL looks incomplete as things stand right now.
Let's start from the ground up and look at Wilson's ability to work against press. When teams ask their corners to jam and get hands on the receiver right away, it is game over for Wilson. He often dances and stutters around too long at the line of scrimmage when anticipating a jam, and he does not have the strength to power his way through contact.
Wilson (top) knows he is getting jammed here, but does not have a good answer. His first step off the line does not gain any depth at the cornerback to attack them and force their hand. Instead, Wilson effectively sets himself up to get punched with his short step, does not actually avoid the punch, and finally resorts to a frantic stop-start move while the cornerback already has hands on him.
Wilson (bottom) does a little bit better to run at the cornerback and force the issue in this clip, but it does not matter. Wilson does nothing to turn his shoulders and make himself a smaller target to hit, granting the cornerback free access to thump him right in the chest. Given his slight frame, Wilson just does not have the strength to absorb such a clean hit and stay on his path.
It is not just immediate press that throws a wrench in Wilson's game, either. Cornerbacks can contest Wilson on his breaks and get his head spinning. Sometimes Wilson's stop-start suddenness can beat this preemptively, but when cornerbacks sit and pounce on his routes correctly, Wilson does not free himself consistently.
After his initial stutter off the line, Wilson (top) is clearly jogging through the next couple steps when gaining depth, which lets the cornerback know straight away that Wilson is likely not going vertical. In turn, the cornerback lets Wilson get to him and strikes, completely knocking the Buckeye off balance. Wilson loses his footing, loses a yard of depth on the route, and stumbles out of the break in a daze trying to find the quarterback. Granted, the throw misses by a mile anyway, but Wilson too easily allowed his route to be disrupted here.
Wilson's other route-running issue, in addition to some of the sequencing issues in the last two clips, is that he gets clunky at the top of his route. Wilson loves to take an exaggerated final step leading into the break, but he struggles to consistently snap the route off cleanly after that. He regularly ends up drifting upwards a bit and does not get the separation out of the break he wants.
Wilson (top) does not snap off this route well. He tries to convert the hop and elongated last step into a clean inside break, but he does not execute. Rather than being able to take a flat angle out of the break, Wilson sort of rounds it out and drifts into the cornerback. The cornerback now gets to put hands on Wilson when may not have been able to otherwise and slow him down from running across the goal line.
To say Wilson is a bad route-runner is probably a stretch. He has clear routes that he succeeds on, and even the ones where he is less consistent, there are still flashes of crisp timing and breaks. Still, Wilson's inconsistency getting in and out of clean breaks is something he needs to address as a pro if he wants to take the next step. Wilson clearly has the athleticism to be a devilish route-runner, too. It is just a matter of getting that out of him.
The last major pillar of Wilson's game to touch on is his hands. Overall, Wilson has good hands. He locates the ball well (when he doesn't have to track over his shoulder, that is), has surprising range to find the ball outside his frame, and rarely, if ever, suffers from random drops where the ball hits him square in the hands. Wilson is also comfortable going to the ground and digging one out of the dirt. All of those traits give Wilson a high-floor in the hands department as well as some clear strengths a smart quarterback can play to.
Here is Wilson (top) on a simple shallow route from right to left. The quarterback puts the ball a half step behind where it needs to be, but with Wilson, that does not matter. Wilson comfortably takes to the air, spins, plucks the ball out of the air and continues on as a ball carrier, all in one smooth action. That is not the toughest catch in the world, but premium picks need to catch those consistently and Wilson does.
This time around, Wilson (bottom) has to lay his body out. Wilson runs a simple curl route, but because the underneath defender is lurking on the inside half of this throwing window, the quarterback has to leave the ball a bit outside. In doing so, the quarterback loses some MPHs and the ball ends up short. Wilson, thankfully, tracks the ball well and makes a leaping effort to scoop the ball just before it hits the dirt.
All that being said, Wilson does falter in some areas as a catcher, primarily when being heavily contested. That is not to say Wilson never makes impressive catches in traffic, but it is not something he does consistently enough to be considered a reliable strength of his.
Wilson (bottom) does not know how to fight for space when contested right now. Some of that is his light frame, some of that is that he rarely has a good plan of attack. In this case, Wilson has to be able to body the cornerback and fight for inside positioning. The throw should not be that far inside to begin with, but sometimes a quarterback is going to misfire and need the receiver to pick up the pieces. This play was Wilson's chance to do that and he could not.
To tie this all together, Wilson is a good prospect. Wilson's ability to work the vertical tree and be a fairly threatening ball-carrier should be enough to make him a decent player. However, Wilson's route tree has a long way to go, as does his work getting off press and fighting through contact later in his routes. There should be some degree of concern that there are too many holes in Wilson's game right now to take on a heavy workload right out of the gate.
Wilson should be a super role player early on in his career while he works towards rounding out his game. Limiting Wilson to screens, free-release YAC opportunities, vertical routes, and a handful of gadget plays early on make sense as an avenue to get him involved without stressing him with a full route tree and the expectation of beating physical corners on the outside. Down the line, Wilson has the potential to bloom into something closer to a Stefon Diggs-type, but that will take time — time he will no doubt be afforded thanks to his expected draft status and athletic profile.