Former Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson had a tough year—from his head coach being fired for a scandal before the season, to losing the opportunity to play for the BCS National Championship in Week 2, to losing his status as a first-round draft pick.
Things might have started to turn around for Wilson when he was eventually picked by the quarterback-needy Oakland Raiders in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft. Only quarterbacks Matt Flynn and Terrelle Pryor—and their combined three NFL starts—now stand in Wilson’s way of becoming an NFL starter.
It could be a good situation for Wilson if he can earn the starting job, as opposed to having it handed to him because Flynn is ineffective. Wilson just has to prove to the Raiders that he can do a few things, and they will have no choice but to make him the starter.
Take a Leadership Role
The Raiders are looking for leadership after purging just about every veteran player that was not brought in by general manager Reggie McKenzie. Leadership has been part of the problem in Oakland, and 2013’s great roster purge will enable new leaders to establish themselves—Wilson needs to be one of them.
It’s tough to ask any rookie quarterback to become a leader right away, but Wilson’s unique situation at Arkansas last season may have prepared him for the challenge. Few college quarterbacks had to be the glue for their college team like Wilson did last year.
Here's what Wilson had to say after his team lost 52-0 against Alabama (via Andy Staples of SportsIllustrated.com):
There's been a lot of people jumping off the bandwagon. It's my responsibility as a leader to keep everybody in this organization and this team in that locker room together. I'm going to make sure of it going forward.
While calling out his teammates publicly for their effort might not have been the approved method of a quarterback like Peyton Manning, it seems like Wilson realized then that he was responsible for keeping the players together—even more than the coaching staff.
The lessons Wilson learned while dealing with a tough situation better prepared him for the NFL. If Wilson can prove to the Raiders that he can lead the team, he's probably going to get his chance as the starter at some point.
Become an Expert
It goes without saying, but every NFL quarterback has to have a total grasp of the playbook. In a sense, the quarterback’s job is to know what every offensive player is supposed to do on any given play and also process what the defense is doing.
The mental aspect of being an NFL quarterback is probably the most challenging. If Wilson is going to earn the starting job, he’s going to have to become an expert on the playbook. Wilson will have to study harder and longer to overcome the fact that he is a rookie learning a new offensive system.
Head coach Dennis Allen has maintained that Wilson has “a long way to go” as far as learning the offense, saying so Week 1 of organized team actives, Week 2 of organized team activities and again after Day 2 of minicamp.
Wilson even spoke about the challenges of not getting all the reps during minicamp and acknowledged that the he’s still learning (via Raiders.com):
There’s a curve there, and you’ve got to do that as quickly as possible in order to play full speed and play like you can play. I think that’s the most frustrating part is that you want to go out and just complete every pass like you did and just roll. I think we will get there, sooner or later, but I’m excited. I think we’re headed in the right direction.
How long it takes Wilson to get comfortable with the offense is still a huge unknown. Wilson also acknowledged to the media that Oakland’s offense asks the quarterback to do a lot at the line of scrimmage, so the offense isn’t going to be watered down just because Wilson is a rookie.
If Wilson can prove his mastery of the playbook, the Raiders will eventually be forced to give him his chance.
Demonstrate Improved Mechanics and Footwork
Wilson developed some bad habits last season at Arkansas that he is going to need to fix to earn the starting job in Oakland. If Wilson can’t correct these issues, he likely won’t be successful, even if the starting job is handed to him.
Should Tyler Wilson be the starter Week 1?
Former Raiders coach Jon Gruden noted how Wilson has an exaggerated first step from the shotgun in his television special prior to the draft. Wilson also has a slower delivery and a bad habit of throwing off his back foot, which causes his accuracy to suffer.
Many of Wilson’s flaws pertain to real or perceived pressure from the defense. Wilson didn’t get much help from his offensive line, and his bad habits grew out of his desire to buy himself more time, but he'll have to prove to the Raiders that these flaws are in the past.
Even if Wilson is able to correct these issues in practice, some of them might come back under game conditions. For Wilson to earn the starting job, he’s going to have to demonstrate to his coaches during preseason games that old habits don’t die hard.
Don’t Try to Do Too Much
One of Wilson’s biggest flaws is also a reason why fans tend to like him so much. Wilson was fearless in the pocket and was willing to take the hit in order to deliver the pass last year. The problem was that Wilson was simply trying to do too much.
There is obviously a time and a place for a quarterback to hang tough in the pocket to try to buy an extra split second, but Wilson took far too many hits. It’s not reasonable to think that Wilson can stay healthy taking that kind of punishment at the NFL level.
Wilson isn’t the biggest guy, so he can’t bounce around like a pinball like Ben Roethlisberger without significant physical repercussions. Wilson's play was reminiscent of Brett Favre without the cannon arm or a poor man's Tony Romo.
One of the main reasons Wilson would subject himself to the punishment is to try to make plays. If Wilson can buy that extra split second in the pocket, he can make a play that otherwise wouldn’t be there.
The problem with that mentality was when the play wasn’t there and Wilson took a big hit or forced throws. As a result of this mentality, Wilson missed the biggest game of the year with a concussion and threw seven more interceptions as a senior than he did as a junior.
Wilson would make throws with defenders draped on his arms, off his back foot and generally just in situations in which he had no business throwing the ball. In the future, Wilson is going to have to anticipate receivers getting open and be smarter about taking big hits.
Pocket passers like Peyton Manning, Eli Manning , Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan have learned to protect themselves from taking big hits. These quarterbacks know when to get the ball out to avoid big hits and when to stay in to take the big hit in order to get big plays.
Wilson will end up doing a lot more harm than good if he continues to play like a gunslinger. If Wilson can’t tame his own toughness, he’s going to have a hard time earning the starting job.
If Wilson can prove to the coaches that he can play controlled and within the confines of the offense, he'll probably be the starting quarterback sooner rather than later.