It's been a good long while since a quarterback prospect headed into an NFL draft with the sort of hype surrounding Clemson's Trevor Lawrence in 2021. Not since Andrew Luck in 2012 have we seen a young signal-caller labeled a "generational prospect" for as long as Lawrence has.
Barring arguably the biggest upset in draft history, it will be Lawrence who hears his name called first when the Jacksonville Jaguars kick off the festivities in Cleveland on April 29.
All that hype has essentially split the quarterbacks (and the teams that covet one this year) into two groups. There's Lawrence and the Jags at 1.01 and then everyone else—and something of a perceived canyon between them.
But fortunately for the teams like the New York Jets (1.02), Atlanta Falcons (1.04) and Philadelphia Eagles (1.06), there's a young quarterback whose stock is on the rise as the draft draws closer. A passer who just completed over 73 percent of his passes for 3,692 yards and 33 touchdowns with just three interceptions. A youngster who some scouts reportedly believe might actually be a superior prospect to Lawrence.
Trevor Lawrence may be the king of the mountain at the game's most important position in the 2021 draft. But BYU's Zach Wilson isn't that far behind—or at least not as far as some believe.
Wilson's junior season in Provo, Utah, was outstanding: In addition to nearly 3,700 passing yards and those 33 touchdowns, Wilson added 10 more touchdowns on the ground and posted a passing efficiency of 196.4.
BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said he expects Wilson to enjoy similar success at the professional level, partly because of his considerable physical gifts and at least in part because of his superb work ethic, per Steve Serby of the New York Post:
"On a football field, he's a guy that could easily be a coach right now. You want a guy to be highly competitive, but not a lot of people are willing to sacrifice and put in the time to prepare like he is.
"Imagine a player who loves the game of football and when I'm working late nights, he's here as well. And then when I'm watching film, he'll come in and watch film with the coaching staff and hang out. He lives for ball, that's what he does, and he's a great student of the game, and his work ethic's unbelievable, and his teammates love him."
When Serby mentioned Wilson has been compared to Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, Sitake didn't go that far. But he didn't exactly shoot it down, either.
"I don't know if you can compare it to Aaron Rodgers. I know he loves the way Aaron Rodgers plays, and idolizes the way he plays," Sitake said. "He studies a lot of quarterbacks that play in the league right now. The guy's a very, very advanced student of the game."
That Rodgers comparison isn't the only one scouts have made between Wilson and an NFL star. Per Matt Miller of The Draft Scout, at least one NFL talent evaluator sees quite a bit of Patrick Mahomes in the 6'3", 210-pound Wilson.
"What he does as a thrower, and as a runner, is exactly where we are as a league right now," an NFL college scouting director said. "He throws some of those 50-50 balls with his shoulders square to the defense after running around in the pocket and I'm seeing Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech all over again."
That same scouting director ranked Wilson as the No. 1 quarterback in the class of 2021—ahead of Lawrence. He's not alone, either. Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting considers Wilson the top prospect under center in the class, and he's heard from "multiple" NFL teams that feel the same way:
Per Dick Harmon of the Deseret News, former NFL player Mark Schlereth of 104.3 The Fan in Denver is also of the opinion that Wilson might just be "the guy" at quarterback in 2021.
"I'm not so sure that I wouldn't take Zach Wilson over Trevor Lawrence," Schlereth said. "Dude, his live arm, compact throwing mechanics, and unbelievable feet in the pocket. [It's] just the balance, the quickness to set the foot energy [that] becomes ball velocity out of his hand."
Cue Jets fans who have been desperately searching for a franchise quarterback since forever suddenly catching the vapors. Possibly fainting.
Before we go any further, some brake-tapping is most assuredly in order. The opinion that Wilson is the No. 1 prospect at quarterback remains in the minority. As Albert Breer wrote for Sports Illustrated, there are plenty of scouts who believe Lawrence is on a whole other level.
"You hear everyone talk about generational talent, well, the only one I've studied who's like him is Andrew Luck," said one evaluator. "Between those two, I'd rank Andrew slightly ahead of Trevor. But it's close."
As impressive as Wilson's 2020 campaign was, Lawrence was nearly as good statistically—3,153 passing yards, 24 touchdowns and a passing efficiency of 169.2 in 10 games on the way to leading Clemson to the College Football Playoff for the third straight season. It was also the third straight stellar campaign in a collegiate career that included numerous starts against the best defenses in the nation.
Wilson's toughest opponent in 2020? Coastal Carolina. In that contest, the 21-year-old managed just 240 passing yards and a single touchdown pass.
However, there's a flip side to that whole "level of competition" argument. Lawrence benefited at Clemson from playing on an offense choked with NFL-caliber skill-position talent. Wilson's No. 1 receiver at BYU last year was Dax Milne, who is a marginal NFL prospect at best.
Wilson may not have faced elite defenses, but he also didn't have much margin for error with his passes. Time and again in Provo, Wilson was tasked with fitting the ball into a tight window. As Drae Harris wrote in his scouting report for The Draft Network, Wilson did just that—all while showing dramatic improvement relative to the year before:
"Wilson plays the game with good athleticism overall, as evidenced by his ability to escape and evade pressure both in and out of the pocket. This athleticism makes him a viable threat in the zone-read, giving opponents another thing to defend. In the passing game, he has made tremendous strides since the 2019 season. Some of these feats are 'rare.' In fact, his ability to throw the ball with timing and anticipation is elite."
Wilson will have one more opportunity to state his case as the draft's top quarterback during his pro day on March 26, but even if he has the workout of a lifetime, his odds of overtaking Lawrence as the first overall pick are essentially nonexistent. Lawrence is bigger (6'6", 220 lbs), more athletic and has a collegiate resume and catalog of outstanding film that is unparalleled in recent memory.
But the gap (at least in the eyes of some in the scouting community) between Lawrence and the presumptive No. 2 quarterback in the 2021 draft isn't as chasmic as many believe. Zach Wilson is accurate. Plenty athletic in his own right. And, from all indications, ready and willing to put in the hard work and film study required for success at the NFL level.
As it turns out, teams like the Jets, Falcons and Eagles that missed out on the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes might not be missing out on getting a signal-caller who can turn around the franchise after all.