Futures: Studying "The Asterisk"
by Matt Waldman
I’m fascinated by the underdog, exceptions to the rule, and ideas that run counter to convention. I believe there’s merit to the idea that once something in life becomes conventional, it’s no longer the safest path to success. So I think it’s only fitting that I make my Football Outsiders debut with a column devoted to a player Aaron Schatz labeled "The Asterisk," in FO's 2012 Lewin Career Forecast.
Wisconsin quarterback (by way of N.C. State) Russell Wilson has the highest LCF score of any quarterback –- including Robert Griffin –- since the inception of this projection tool. There are two reasons Schatz labeled Wilson as "The Asterisk": the fact that Wilson transferred programs between his junior to senior years, and the fact that he stands just 5-foot-11 (if rounding up). The odds of an NFL team drafting him within the first three rounds seems low, especially considering past history.
But the Futures column is about studying on-field behaviors more than statistical results. I document my obsession with positional technique, strategic execution, and athleticism in my annual publication, The Rookie Scouting Portfolio. I’ll be analyzing players based on my RSP methods from the opening kick of the college season through the NFL draft in this column.
This week, I’m going to show you why Wilson has NFL starter potential and why the 6-foot-0 Drew Brees is a good template for how an NFL team can win with Wilson. There's a catch though: I’m not going to illustrate my points with Wilson’s Wisconsin tape. The Badgers offensive line is bigger than all but four NFL teams, and its ground game gave Wilson luxuries as a senior that he didn’t have as frequently at N.C. State. I’m drawing my analysis from Wilson’s junior year with the Wolfpack versus North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and Florida State -– three ACC powers with a recent history of good NFL prospects on the defensive side of the ball.
We all know that NFL quarterbacks must be able to make lemonade from the lemons that opposing defenses throw at them. Wilson demonstrates this improvisational skill in his game and a good example is a second-and-7 pass from a 3x1 shotgun set versus North Carolina.
UNC’s defensive front runs a twist, and the result is pressure up the middle from first-round prospect Quinton Coples. Coples will force Wilson to escape the pocket to his right, and Wilson scrambles with designs on the tight end in the right flat, outside the numbers, with coverage over the top.
Although the tight end makes no adjustment, Wilson does a great job of getting his receiver open while eluding pressure and never taking his eyes off his intended target. Wilson initially manipulates the defense when he reaches the numbers by raising his throwing elbow to a level where he can release the ball.
When Wilson’s move tips off the defender over the top of the tight end to break inside, the quarterback brings the ball down. With Coples in hot pursuit, Wilson veers to his right to not only avoid the lineman but forces the defender jumping the tight end’s route to pursue Wilson to the sideline.
This slide to the sideline opens a throwing lane for Wilson to make an underhanded throw to his tight end for a three-yard completion and a total gain of five.
Wilson’s toss turns a second-and-7 play that appeared certain to end with a negative outcome into a far more positive third-and-2 situation. Athleticism is only a commodity in the NFL when the athlete knows how to use it. This is one of several examples in Wilson’s career where he flashes improvisational savvy as a passer.
Throwing Receivers Open
The best quarterbacks in the NFL have become skilled at delivering the football to a spot where only the receiver has a chance to make a play on it. Wilson is adept at throwing receivers open in a variety of situations. Here’s a play-action bootleg against North Carolina where Wilson completes a 48-yard pass on first-and-10.
The play begins with an excellent play-action fake where Wilson not only extends the ball towards the runner, but he completes the action by turning his head towards the line of scrimmage just before he begins his roll to the opposite side of the field.
This is a level of detail that Wilson executes consistently with his play-action fakes, and it helps freeze the defense an extra beat before he begins his rollouts. On this play, the N.C. State quarterback unfurls a deep ball that he places 40 yards downfield, intentionally to the sideline, so his receiver can make the best adjustment against his coverage for the reception.
As you can see above, Wilson’s receiver is looking to the inside, but Wilson knows that he is less likely to deliver an accurate deep ball with a throw to the inside, since he’ll have to make that throw across his body. Instead, Wilson places the ball short and to the outside.
Considering that Wilson has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to throw the ball 50-55 yards on the move with accuracy, I believe the placement of this 48-yard completion was intentionally short and to the outside to give his receiver the best chance to make the play.
Wilson also demonstrates this skill to throw his teammates open while under pressure. A good example is this opening play against Virginia Tech. N.C. State comes to the line in a three-receiver, zero-back shotgun set against the Hokies’ double A-gap blitz from their 4-3 alignment.
Wilson knows that his slot receiver at the near side of the screen has drawn a linebacker in single coverage, and he looks to him all the way. With the middle linebacker coming through the A-gap untouched and bearing down on the quarterback, Wilson makes a good throw off his back foot.
Wilson’s pass covers 35 yards from release to reception, landing 25 yards past the line of scrimmage. It's placed down the seam, just enough to the inside so that the receiver can adjust to the ball for a 31-yard gain.
Wilson’s receiver, Jarvis Williams (circled above), is originally tracking the ball over his outside shoulder, but the N.C. State quarterback delivers the ball to the inside, giving the receiver a chance to make a break on it. Dan Marino once said that if he were a scout, that he’d make prospects throw the ball off their back foot and odd angles during workouts. The reasoning being that it is exactly what they’ll have to do successfully to win in the NFL. Wilson would pass this portion of the Marino Quarterback Workout with flying colors.
Wilson throws another receiver open off his back foot later in the half for a 35-yard gain. Virginia Tech brought the same blitz as the play mentioned above on a first-and-10 with 6:27 left in the half. Wilson's throw was lofted between two defenders so that his wideout could high-point the ball for the catch. In fact, Wilson does it a third time in the half on fourth-and-9 with 5:33 left, from a two-by-two receiver, one-back shotgun set. The Hokies sent a corner blitz from the slot defensive back. Wilson targets the slot receiver the blitzer left behind to attack the pocket, and hits his wide receiver in the end zone with a 50-yard throw from the opposite hash. Unfortunately for Wilson, the wideout loses the ball in the sun and the pass ricochets off his face mask. Incomplete? Yes. Inaccurate? Not a chance.
One of the better plays of Wilson’s career is a back-shoulder throw versus Florida State at the top of the fourth quarter, after Wilson has brought his team back from a 21-7 deficit. The play begins on third-and-22 from a two-receiver, one-back shotgun set. FSU sends three and drops eight, including the near side defensive end, who drifts to the middle of the field as a spy for Wilson.
FSU’s three linemen constrict the pocket. With no path to climb the ladder, Wilson has to spin from the pocket to his right.
Wilson delivers the ball, while on the move, 36 yards downfield from release point to reception, hitting his receiver on the back-shoulder for a 28-yard gain.
Wilson’s receiver Williams turns back to the well-placed pass as the defensive back overruns the ball.
First down in the red zone.
What was most impressive about Wilson’s performance in this game is that, for most of the night, FSU’s pressure limited his downfield attempts. The defense sacked Wilson three times in the first half, but the N.C. State quarterback managed to keep his team in the game with ball control passing and his legs -– he rushed for three scores to get the team back into the game. Despite a more conservative second-half approach, Wilson still managed to pick good spots to be aggressive downfield.
Dangerous to his Left and on the Move
The examples above show Wilson making plays when moving to his right, but NFL defenses will eventually learn that they’ll pay when they force the quarterback to his left. Against North Carolina, Wilson executes a play-action boot to his left that falls long of the target when his receiver gets tangled with the corner downfield. Although the pass is long, Wilson delivered the ball 55 yards down field while rolling left.
Here’s a more accurate pass with Wilson moving to his left on a third-and-17 play from a shotgun set with a slot receiver to the left. Virginia Tech runs a five-man zone blitz with its defensive end dropping to the right flat and the linebacker and nickelback coming off the left edge.
Wilson anticipates the blitz, looks to his left, and climbs the pocket while looking to the left flat.
Wilson then delivers a pass to his left, on the move, that covers 25 yards from release point to reception.
Wilson hits the wide receiver just under the defensive back for the 24-yard completion.
Athleticism and the skill to throw on the move to his left will make Wilson a tough player to defend in the NFL, because he can hurt teams when forced to either side of the field. Wilson repeatedly made accurate throws to his left in this game. In fact, he made this kind of throw on the very next play, a first-and-10 pass from a shotgun set with a slot receiver to his left.
Wilson feels pressure and begins to break the pocket up the middle only to see the Virginia Tech defensive tackle coming free.
Wilson bounces the play to his left, locates his receiver turning up the flat to the end zone, and while on the move, lofts the ball over two defenders for a 34-yard touchdown.
The Quick Play-Action Game
A valid criticism of Wilson’s game is that there aren’t as many examples of him making plays where he adjusts to pressure within the pocket. However, it doesn’t mean there aren’t examples of him making plays from the pocket. Here’s a demonstration of excellent timing on a 29-yard play-action pass completed to his receiver in the middle of the field, over the middle linebacker and under the safety. The play begins on second-and-7 with 2:00 in the first quarter, from a bunch right set with 10 personnel.
Wilson begins the play with a great sell of the run fake as he completes a three-step drop.
Note the way Wilson has his back to the defense and his shoulders hunched over as if he’s completing the exchange with the runner. Wilson finishes his drop, takes a hitch step, and delivers a ball with excellent timing to his wide receiver on the deep cross.
Drew Brees: The Ideal Way Wilson’s Game Translates
Like Wilson, Drew Brees’ game is about manipulation of the pocket and the secondary with the help of movement: play action, short drops, bootlegs, partial rolls, and misdirection. I charted the Saints offense in the 2010 NFC Championship game, and 70 percent of Brees’ 33 pass attempts feature movement by the quarterback in order to manipulate the defense. The purpose of this movement is not just to fool the secondary, but also to create wide passing lanes. When a team can consistently create these types of passing lanes, height isn’t as much of an issue for the quarterback. If Wilson can develop the same feel for pressure and build on his read and recognition skills, then the things Brees displays below are well within Wilson’s capability as a passer.
Creating Passing Lanes with Designed Partial Rolls
The Saints begin the game with consecutive partial rolls. The first one takes place on first-and-10 with 9:27 in the opening quarter. The Saints offense has the ball at the far hash with the line occupying the narrow side of the field.
With three receivers on the wide side, Brees has a large area of field to make throws with wide-open passing lanes if he drops to his right, and that’s exactly what he does with a partial roll-out.
The Vikings front seven is essentially left behind and Brees has a wide-open passing lane for an easy, five-yard gain in the right flat. This isn’t dramatic pocket movement, but it’s something Russell Wilson can execute to either side of the field.
The next play is a second-and-5 throw from an I-formation set, with 9:03 in the first quarter. This time Brees executes a play-action pass with another half-roll to the right.
Both the play fake and the half-roll help manipulate the shape of the pocket by inducing the defense to follow the running back to the left side of the line. This creates a pocket with fewer bodies to the right and creates wider passing lanes for Brees to release the ball.
Brees looks initially to his left to hit a deep target, but the progression takes the quarterback’s eyes to the right side of the field, where he delivers a pass that covers 28 yards from its release point to the receiver breaking at the right sideline.
The pass is a little long and falls incomplete, but the photo above is another illustration of what the Saints accomplish with an athletic, mobile passer capable of delivering accurate throws after stretching the boundaries of the pocket. New Orleans’ third play in this series is also play action with a partial roll to the right. It ends with the completion of a wide receiver screen for a first down on third-and-5.
These same concepts also work effectively with the deep passing game, and Brees is among the best vertical passers in the league. Considering the examples from Wilson’s junior year in the Atlantic Coast Conference where he’s effective on deep passes off play action, throws receivers open, and improvises on the move, his potential to develop into an NFL quarterback is better than his height may indicate. Still, it is reasonable to approach Wilson’s NFL prospects with skepticism. Brees never overcame doubts from the organization that drafted him, so it’s likely that the Lewin Career Forecast’s Asterisk will initially be considered a draft day afterthought. However, as Brees, Tom Brady, Marc Bulger, Matt Hasselbeck, Tony Romo, Kurt Warner, and several others have demonstrated, careers don’t end due to an inauspicious beginning.