The downfall of Zach Wilson in 2022 coincided with the rise of Justin Fields. For every errant throw from Wilson, there is an impressive Fields pass or explosive run, and that disparity has many people looking back to the 2021 draft and wondering “How in the world did Fields go from the consensus No. 2 quarterback to the 11th pick, while Wilson went from an unknown to the second overall selection?” These folks always go back to Zach Wilson’s pro day, more specifically, this throw.
As the tweet above aptly says, NFL fans believe this was the throw that essentially fooled teams into thinking Wilson was worthy of a top-three pick. In turn, as Wilson rose up draft boards, Fields fell, and that throw is to blame for Fields’ drop. Both of those statements are absolute malarkey.
Wilson’s pro day happened in March 2021. If that throw had such a drastic effect on Wilson’s draft stock, then surely, he wouldn’t have been considered a top-three pick prior to that impeccable throw, right?
Here’s aN NFL.com mock draft from February 2021 that predicts Wilson will be taken second overall. Here’s one from ProFootballNetwork with Wilson at No. 2 as well. USA Today, Athlon Sports, Game Haus, Sports Illustrated, and Pro Football Focus — all of them had Wilson going second overall by mid-February — more than a month before Wilson made that throw above. The Jets had their sights set on Wilson long before they were allegedly fooled by his incredible Pro Day. At most, the Pro Day solidified their decision to take Wilson with the second overall pick, but it very clearly did not make that decision for them.
Still, the Zach Wilson disaster has numerous NFL fans on edge ahead of the 2023 draft, worried more teams will fall for great Pro Days from unproven college quarterbacks — particularly Kentucky’s Will Levis and Florida’s Anthony Richardson. However, these are drastically different situations. Where Wilson became a sure-fire first-round pick over the course of his final college season, both Levis and Richardson were widely regarded as first-round talents years before 2022.
Here’s a 2023 mock draft by Bleacher Report from before the start of the college football season. Both Levis (projected eighth) and Richardson (21st) are expected to go in the first round. USA Today had Richardson going sixth overall and Levis going 21st. Prior to the college football season, both of these guys were already viewed in high regard by most draft analysts. That wasn’t the case for Wilson.
Here’s a “way-too-early” 2021 mock draft from NBC Sports. Do you see Wilson’s name anywhere? What about in this Bleacher Report mock draft? Sports Illustrated? Nope. Wilson was nowhere to be found on any of these lists. Wilson used the shroud of the 2020 COVID season to convince scouts that he was a natural improviser with the arm talent to make up for his lack of athleticism. BYU played weak competition — only two games against ranked opponents, and the team went 1-1 in those games — dominating the likes of Western Kentucky and Troy. That’s not the case for either 2022 Kentucky or Florida.
As is the case with any argument, there are bound to be outliers. Joe Burrow was projected to go undrafted by most people prior to the 2020 draft. He winds up having arguably the greatest season in college football history and going first overall, leading the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl in just his second season. However, not only should outliers never be the basis for a counterargument, but there’s also a difference between Burrow leading LSU to an undefeated season where he took down Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, and Trevor Lawrence, and Wilson leading BYU to an 11-1 season where the best quarterback he took down was...Boise State’s Cade Fennegan, the guy who filled in for Hank Bachmeier against BYU? Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall, who beat Wilson’s Cougars while throwing the ball only 15 times?
Obviously, hindsight is 20/20. Everyone was fooled by Wilson, including myself. At the same time though, Wilson’s poor career trajectory is creating overreactions from fans comparing him to incoming prospects who’ve taken wildly different paths to achieve first-round status. It’s okay to have concerns over Levis and Richardson. If you dislike Levis because of concerns with his deep ball accuracy or tendency to leave the pocket too early, great! If you dislike Richardson because of his poor decision-making or inconsistent mechanics, power to you! If you dislike either because their college careers have mirrored Zach Wilson… I have no idea how you came to that conclusion.
As for Justin Fields, Wilson had nothing to do with his fall. Fields was supposedly the consensus No. 2 pick. Remember, there was another quarterback taken before Fields in Trey Lance. There were several factors at play, the least of which was Wilson’s rise. Why did Fields fall? I couldn’t tell you, but I can tell you with almost utmost certainty that Wilson was not the reason.
With the horrid start to Wilson’s career, many fans are hoping their teams will avoid similarly ill fates with the loaded 2023 quarterback class. That said, the comparisons some of these quarterbacks are facing to Wilson are unfounded. While there may be some similarities, there are also numerous differences that outweigh them drastically. Stop looking for reasons to dislike these QBs as prospects based on off-field likeness. That’s not a winning combo.