The NFL Draft is an inexact science.
This often-repeated statement has never been more true than in the case of Russell Wilson, the player who has changed the game in terms of how undersized quarterbacks are evaluated.
Wilson was the sixth QB taken in the 2012 draft when he lasted until Seahawks general manager John Schneider tapped him at pick No. 75. As had been the case in the past for some NFL superstars-to-be who fell out of the first round, such as Fran Tarkenton (third-rounder) and Drew Brees (second round), the knock on Wilson was his lack of height. At 5-11, Wilson was downgraded because he didn’t fit the prototype of the 6-4, 240-pound Andrew Luck, who was picked first in that 2012 draft.
Yet it’s Wilson who has never missed a start in eight seasons while Luck’s many injuries forced him to retire this year.
Today Wilson is a two-time Super Bowl QB and six-time Pro Bowler who is having his best season in leading Seattle to a 5-1 start. He tops the league’s QBs with a phenomenal 124.7 passer rating that if sustained through the season would break Aaron Rodgers’ NFL record 122.5 in 2011. Wilson’s high rating is on the strength of a 72.5 percent completion rate, 14 touchdown passes and no interceptions. All of those numbers are on pace for career bests along with his 1,704 passing yards stretched out over the season.
He is the current favorite to win his first NFL MVP award if he continues to play at this outstanding level and leads the Seahawks back to the playoffs for the seventh time in his eight seasons.
With all this success, Wilson has paved the way for smaller QBs such as Baker Mayfield (6-1) and Kyler Murray (5-10) to be drafted first overall the past two years.
I believe Wilson has been more influential than players such as Tarkenton and Brees in changing the thinking of GMs, coaches and scouts. This is because he has been able to stay healthy, and the game has become more pass-oriented in recent years with offenses more readily tailored to shorter, mobile QBs. Rule changes such as no contact by defenders on receivers after five yards have helped open things up for the passing game, along with a greater emphasis on play action and QB rollouts to buy time for receivers to get open.
Wilson is such a gifted athlete, and he is one of the most dangerous running QBs in NFL history (more than 4,000 career rushing yards including playoffs with 21 rushing TDs). He has terrific instincts to know when to run for key first downs and touchdowns, and the Seahawks call zone read plays to take advantage of his smarts and running ability. But he also knows how to protect himself and slide when necessary so he rarely takes a big hit.
Even at age 30, Wilson is still an effective runner with 151 rushing yards and three TDs on the ground this season.
One of the things that impresses me about Wilson is how consistently great he has been despite not often playing behind a top pass-protecting offensive line. He also has never worked with a receiver generally considered among the league’s top 10. Doug Baldwin was a two-time Pro Bowler but not a superstar, and Tyler Lockett’s lone Pro Bowl nod came as a returner.
Schneider and coach Pete Carroll have helped Wilson over his career by supporting him with a strong running game and a solid defense, which was the league’s best over the two-year Super Bowl run of 2013-14. And Wilson’s inexpensive rookie contract enabled the Seahawks to pay their dominant defenders and a top running back in Marshawn Lynch.
The days of Wilson as a bargain QB were gone when he signed his 2015 extension, and in April, he became the league’s highest-paid player under his latest extension — at least until Patrick Mahomes breaks the bank in Kansas City. Wilson’s $140 million deal over four years ($35 million per year with $107 million guaranteed) kicks in next season, which again bodes well for Mayfield and Murray to hit the salary upper stratosphere when it’s time for their second contracts if they become premier players.
Along with overcoming the size bias, Wilson also is a role model for younger QBs as a hard worker and respected team leader who plays through injuries and always carries himself in a professional and classy manner on and off the field. Mayfield in particular should watch and learn from Wilson’s confident-but-not-arrogant persona; he never says or does anything to irritate opponents or his fan base.
There were questions last offseason about whether Wilson would re-sign with the Seahawks or try to leave for a larger market in New York or Los Angeles in part to help his wife Ciara’s singing career. But the player who ends every interview with “Go Hawks” stayed positive throughout the negotiating process and is now set through 2023 with his team.
It’s fascinating to consider the seven QBs selected with the top overall pick as the current decade winds down. Sam Bradford, Cam Newton and Luck, the first players off the board from 2010-12, all have had their careers derailed by injury. The top pick in 2015, Jameis Winston, has been a disappointment. The jury is still out on Jared Goff, Mayfield and Murray, who were drafted No. 1 in three of the past four years.
At this juncture, the only sure-fire Hall of Famer QB drafted in this decade is Wilson, a third-rounder who has taught talent evaluators a lesson.
Jeff Diamond is a former president of the Titans and former vice president/general manager of the Vikings. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. Diamond is currently a business and sports consultant who also does broadcast and online media work. He makes speaking appearances to corporate/civic groups and college classes on negotiation and sports business/sports management. He is the former chairman and CEO of The Ingram Group. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffdiamondNFL.
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