QB Russell Wilson: Undersized-Underrated

Russell Wilson is short by NFL QB standards but matched with the right offense, there is a place for him in the league. Photo by Seth Youngblood.

Author’s Note: For a far more intricate analysis of Wilson at N.C. State throwing under pressure that also features analysis of Drew Brees in comparison, read my Football Outsider’s Future’s Column “Studying The Asterisk”

One of the bigger questions about Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson will be his height. Measured at 5107, 204 lbs., Wilson will be one of the smaller quarterbacks in the NFL. Journeyman Doug Flutie was a legit 5’9″, fellow journeyman Jeff Blake might have been 6’0″. The common knock on quarterbacks under 6’2″ is that they will have difficulty playing from the pocket because they won’t be able to see over the line of scrimmage and they’ll have a higher rate of deflected passes.

Certainly a quarterback under 6’2″ has to bring an extra dimension to the table. Michael Vick brings speed, agility, and a fantastic arm. Drew Brees brings uncanny accuracy, anticipation, and athleticism. Height doesn’t worry me, but the corresponding weight does. You don’t see any sub-6’2″ quarterbacks packing 225-230 lbs. and as QB-friendly the NFL rules have become, it’s still a punishing sport.

However, Wilson’s athleticism makes him an intriguing prospect. The former NC State-Wisconsin starter has a pro baseball contract as a second baseman. He’s a mobile player with a strong arm and good accuracy on the move.

In an offense with a strong ground game like Wisconsin’s, Wilson’s mobility makes the play action game a highly dangerous component that adds versatility to a run-based system. John Elway was the ultimate weapon for Mike Shanahan’s offensive system in Denver. Matt Schaub’ (and Taylor Yate’s) ability to throw on the move adds an explosive dimension to the Houston Texans.

Defenses might not be spread out before the snap, but a great play action game with a mobile quarterback can exploit weaker regions of a defensive scheme. A good example is a play from the first quarter of this year’s Rose Bowl game versus Oregon. The pay below is a long touchdown pass from play action against an aggressive Ducks unit.

Wilson and the Badgers offense comes to the line on 1st and 10 with 12:02 in the first quarter from a 21-personnel, 1×1 receiver, 1-formation set versus the Ducks’ 3-3-5.

Oregon comes to the line with an aggressive look to stop the run, but take away the short pass.

Oregon double covers Wilson’s split end Nick Toon near the line of scrimmage at the far side of the field – not with two DBs as it may appear, but with a CB an LB to the inside in shallow zone to prevent the quick slant as the defender across the line from Toon slants inside on a corner blitz. The SS has cheated to the line to the point that the strong side CB giving seven yards of cushion to Badgers flanker Jared Abbrederis is actually deeper in the defensive back field.

This safety alignment indicates single coverage on Abbrederis and Wisconsin is obviously ready to exploit the Oregon defense and whatever it scouted of the Badgers offense. The power run alignment has drawn nine players within 5-6 yards of the line of scrimmage and focused near the left hash.

Spread offense concepts are the rage because they create single coverage mismatches. But mismatch isn’t a new term in football. With the right offensive ingredients, a packed-in run-heavy set like the one above can place a player on an island – and not Revis Island, but a veritable football paradise.

Wilson takes the snap, turns his back to the line, and executes a play fake to the RB with good ball extension.

Wilson’s back to the defense with the ball extended toward the RB sells the play fake and buys time for Wilson and his receiver Abbrederis to take a vertical shot.

The rest of this play is predicated on Wilson’s skill as an athlete and a passer. The Wisconsin QB had to beat the defense outside so he can get his body turned down field to deliver an accurate pass – likely on the move.

With second level of the defense caught moving towards the RB on the play fake, Wilson earns a head start to the opposite flat.

Wilson exhibits good technique to get his shoulders square as he tracks Abbrederis on the go route.

Wilson’s roll out takes him 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Even if he cuts that distance to the line in half, this is going to be quite a throw.

One of the bigger mistakes quarterbacks make on designed rolls is waiting too long to deliver the ball and creating a jump ball situation with the receiver because of the lack of anticipation required to deliver a ball that leads the receiver. Wilson doesn’t run to the opposite hash, by the time he reaches the middle of the field he’s beginning his release.

Wilson’s shoulders remain squared to target and the beginnings of his release is compact with the ball only dipping slightly below his chest.

Wilson’s over the top motion and footwork help him get good power into the throw from the Oregon 49 that leads the receiver into the end zone.

Wilson might be short, but a 49-yard pass on the move that leads a receiver to pay dirt demonstrate some NFL-caliber skill sets worth acquiring.

The WR has the CB beat by three yards to the inside.

Abbrederis has three yards on the CB and now it is just a matter of tracking ball into his hands.

While the WR had to slow down just a touch and turn back to the ball, the throw is good enough that the adjustment is last-second as opposed to a full stop to wait on the ball and allow the coverage into the play.


It’s a simple, time-tested play that requires an athletic quarterback who can not only throw the ball over the head of the defense, but can get 10-12 yards (or more) if the route doesn’t come open. The 49ers, Seahawks, Texans, Dolphins, Buccaneers, Redskins, Titans, and Bengals could all use a reserve with this kind of athleticism to complement a power running game and grow into the position as a pro. Wilson fits the bill.

For more analysis like this at every skill position, purchase the Rookie Scouting Portfolio.  Pre-order the 2012 RSP and buy past RSPs (2006-2011) here.

8 responses to “QB Russell Wilson: Undersized-Underrated”

  1. Matt – another great eval! I love what u do, please keep them coming! One correction on this one, wilson didn’t start at maryland before transferring to wisconsin. He was at n.c. state.

  2. Curious how you think Wilson would do in the Eagles’ offense. Obviously, they have a design that Vick, who is only an inch taller, can see the field well enough in. But it is designed to be in the pocket, without convincing play action, and would be pass heavy. Do you think Wilson could thrive in that kind of system, or would his physical limitations make it difficult?

    • Sam, from what I’ve seen (and I have more to watch), I think Wilson has the arm to fair okay in any system. I think the way Philly runs the stretch and the screen play could be something that Wilson could do effectively and the stretch play complements the play action passing game well. Andy Reid was able to use guys like Jeff Garcia and Ty Detmer – who were both smaller players – effectively. I think it could be a good fit and Reid and Co. could tailor it to Wilson’s strengths without a drastic overhaul if need be.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: