Justin Fields vs Zach Wilson Part 1: Career Overview
Who should be QB2? Lets see what the numbers say
The only real debate about Trevor Lawrence and the number one pick in the 2021 NFL draft was when you decided he was going first overall. Some had him pegged as the top pick as early as 2018, while others took a little bit more time to come to that conclusion. In any event the real draft begins with the 2nd overall pick, held by the New York Jets. The Jets may opt to stick with Sam Darnold and see what the new coaching staff can do with him, or they may roll the dice on one of the other QB’s in the draft. This is where things get interesting. Who is QB2? Which quarterback gets to follow Trevor Lawerence, who some say may be the greatest QB prospect ever? Two contenders have made their way to the front of that conversation. Ohio State QB Justin Fields and BYU QB Zach Wilson are the two QB’s most often placed in that daunting QB2 position. Occasionally you’ll see North Dakota State’s Trey Lance or even Alabama’s Mac Jones in that slot, but for the most part its Fields v Wilson. We have an entire offseason to dissect each and every move these prospects made, so for now we will start with a more broad look at each of their collegiate careers.
Justin Fields was the number 2 overall recruit in the 2018 recruiting class (247), and at times was actually ranked ahead of Trevor Lawrence. He signed with Georgia and…… yes they actually put him in on a fake punt play in the SEC Championship game. I have to keep telling myself that it actually happened. Anyway he transferred to Ohio State and proceeded to light up scoreboards for the next two years. He finished his career posting a highly efficient 0.32 Expected Points Added (EPA) per play and registered a successful play 54% of the time.
Zach Wilson wasn’t as highly rated, coming in as the 958th ranked prospect in the nation (247). Zach Wilson wasn’t a highly talked about prospect before 2020, but that quickly changed after consistently dominating opponents this year. His rise to the top of the draft board echoes Joe Burrows rise last year. He finished his career with a 0.2 EPA/Play, and was successful on half of his plays. His numbers fall of short of the numbers Justin Fields put up, but was still a highly efficient college QB. These numbers at face value should put Justin Fields ahead of Zach Wilson, so why is this even a debate? Well, breaking it down by year can give us our answer:
Breaking it down by year, you can see a pretty clear progression in Zach Wilsons game. For the first two years of his career Zach Wilson really didn’t have very many high ceiling games, and at times had some downright bad performances. Then the 2020 season came. With the exception of the Coastal Carolina game, Zach Wilson’s floor for the 2020 season was around the 70th percentile in terms of EPA/Play. He finished the 2020 season averaging over 0.4 EPA/Play, while completing 73.5% of passes. Also, incase you were curious if those passes were short completions, he finished far and away #1 in completed air yards over expectation (CAYOE).
In 2019 Justin Fields did not have a bad game, with his floor hovering just around the 50th percentile. 2020 we saw more dominant performances by Justin Fields, including the most efficient passing game in College Football Playoff history. At 0.888 EPA/Pass, Justin Fields knocked off Joe Burrow’s bludgeoning of Oklahoma (0.794 EPA/Pass), which honestly absurd considering Justin Fields threw an interception, something EPA heavily penalizes. Unfortunately for Fields, not only did he have a couple bad games, they just so happened to occur at the end of the season, leaving him prone to recency bias. His worst game coming in the Big Ten Championship against Northwestern, which yielded him a disgusting -0.550 EPA/Play.
Using a rolling EPA chart, which looks at the rolling average of the last 200 plays, you can easily see when the progressions of each of the QB’s careers. If you look at this like a stock chart you may be tempted to buy into Zach Wilson, who appears to be trending upward. Or, you may be tempted to #BuyTheDip and take on Justin Fields, who has shown he can produce high ceiling results.
Last thing I want to touch on briefly is the power of opportunities. BYU is considered a FBS Independent team, a typically plays a schedule that mirrors a group of 5 schedule. That can be quite different from a power 5 Big Ten schedule that Ohio State has to compete with each year. With 130 FBS teams, it can be hard to compare teams or players with no common opponents. Not to mention once you get into the game, situations can be completely different for players. To attempt to solve this issue I created a mixed effect model that controls for things that aren’t in the QB’s control. Things like down, distance, time on the clock, the strength of the defense they’re playing etc. The main goal of this model is to predict the EPA of a QB on any given play controlling for the variables mentioned. This is where Justin Fields and Zach Wilson stack up with QB’s from the class of 2016-2021:
Based on this model, its Justin Fields all the way. However, you can quickly scan over the names and where they are in this ranking and see just how much of a crapshoot the NFL Draft is. Just because you were successful in college, does not automatically mean you will be successful in the NFL. You do, on the other hand, need to show some level of success in the college ranks if you want to have a shot in the NFL. You can tell based on every predicted EPA/Play point estimate is positive.
Looking solely at a career overview, you could see why this will be a debate that spans over the entire offseason leading up to draft night in April. Justin Fields had the better efficiency numbers overall, but might be trending in the wrong direction and has shown cracks in his game that may be a long term issue. Zach Wilson started his collegiate career slow, but has exploded onto the scene as an elite QB prospect. Numbers alone won’t give us our answer to the QB2 debate, so in part 2 of this series, we will be combining numbers and film in order to get an even more in depth look.
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