Russell Wilson is the Next Tom Brady, or at Least the Next Ben Roethlisberger


You probably appreciate that Russell Wilson is under-appreciated by most. Frequently billed as a game manager, most assign little of the Seahawks’ success to Wilson. Even many of those who credit Wilson as the key to the team’s success are referring to his paycheck and not his play on the field.

So why am I comparing him to two “elite” NFL quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, both of whom will likely end up in the Hall of Fame? Admittedly, I’m not crazy about these kinds of comparisons. Trent Richardson was frequently cited as the best RB since Adrian Peterson, but that doesn’t tell you if scouts expected him to be fifty percent or ninety percent of Peterson. So I’m not really saying Wilson’s skill or production will necessarily be equal to these guys. I actually think he will be better.

First, I want to make it clear just how good Wilson has been in his short career. James Todd found that of the QBs drafted in 2011 and 2012 Wilson has been the most productive in terms of net yards per attempt. I decided to run three simple screeners using the Pro Football Reference Player Season Finder:

  1. Rookie QBs with an adjusted yards per attempt (A/YA) equal to or greater than 8.1, which was Wilson’s A/YA as a rookie. Must have attempted 150 or more passes.
  2. Sophomore QBs with an A/YA equal to or greater than 8.5, which was Wilson’s A/YA last season. Must have attempted 150 or more passes.
  3. QBs with an A/YA equal to or greater than 8.3 over their first two seasons, which was Wilson’s A/YA over his first two years. Must have attempted 300 or more passes.

Those three screeners, combined, only came up with 10 individual QBs since 1920. Here’s the list:

QB Status
Otto Graham Hall of Fame QB
Y.A. Tittle Hall of Fame QB
Dan Marino Hall of Fame QB
Kurt Warner Retired, not yet eligible for Hall of Fame.
Greg Cook Only played one season due to injury.
Marc Bulger Least impressive comparable player, never matched his rookie season.
Ben Roethlisberger Still playing, likely Hall of Fame QB.
Robert Griffin Still playing.
Nick Foles Still playing.
Colin Kaepernick Still playing.

That’s an incredibly impressive cohort. Even more impressive? Besides Wilson, only Roethlisberger and Graham appeared on all three lists. Wilson hasn’t just been good, he’s been historically great. Now, given the presence of three other young QBs on the list it’s possible the league climate is just that much more beneficial to young QBs now than it was in the past. But it’s worth pointing out that these four young QBs have been impressive compared to all the QBs in the league, so it’s not that simple. Also, Griffin, Foles, and Kaepernick all had the benefit of playing in an unorthodox offensive systems that the league was not used to. Griffin and Kaepernick’s efficiency both dropped after the performance that got them on this list. It’s almost a guarantee that Foles’ efficiency will do the same.

The comparison to Brady is simply based on situation. Prior to his ascension to elite fantasy QB, he was widely considered a game manager on a team with a strong defense and running game and mediocre receivers. That sounds a lot like Wilson’s situation in Seattle. So should we expect that to change? I recently made a case for why the 49ers project to go to more pass-heavy and become less reliant on their defense, and that applies as well to the Seahawks.

But what about those pesky WRs? After all, it’s common knowledge that the Seahawks prefer smaller WRs, which is not ideal for scoring touchdowns. Well, what if that’s simply not true? I recently made the case that Luke Willson could be a breakout TE for Seattle. A lot of that was based off of this article which explains what the Seahawks value in the receiving game. Their main focus is actually on creating big plays. Consider their “small” WRs over the last couple of seasons: Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, Percy Harvin, and Paul Richardson. Baldwin was the rare undrafted free agent to succeed in the NFL, so we really can’t knock the team for his success. Tate was a Biletnikoff Award winner. Harvin had an established reputation as a big-play threat. The team likely envisions Richardson in the DeSean Jackson/Mike Wallace role. There are two positive takeaways here: 1) The team has actually invested heavily, and relatively well in the WR position, which is promising; 2) If big plays are what they actually value, they likely wouldn’t turn up their nose at a player like Randy Moss or Julio Jones just because they happen to be bigger guys. It seems incredibly unlikely to me that one of the most well-managed teams in the NFL, who happen to use analytics well, would specifically value smaller WRs over bigger WRs.

Perhaps an even more critical point is that 6.5 percent of Wilson’s career attempts have resulted in TDs. For context, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers have only combined for 9 seasons in which they threw TDs at a higher rate. Obviously, efficiency might decrease some with increased volume, though admittedly I’m not sure given his historic efficiency. My point is just that Wilson has been great at scoring in spite of a less than ideal receiving group.

Wilson is viewed as a safe choice at QB with limited upside due to his situation, which will be true right until the year it isn’t. It’s possible he always has to deal with these constraints, but then he’s just a Ben Roethlisberger type, a consistently good fantasy QB instead of an elite fantasy QB like Brady. That’s not even considering his rushing ability, which neither Brady or Roethlisberger possess. According to recent dynasty start-up ADP, Wilson is being drafted as QB11. I don’t think that properly accounts for either scenario, leaving Wilson criminally undervalued. Dynasty drafters are essentially projecting his short-term situation to also be his long-term situation, which I believe to be a mistake.

This has redraft implications as well. Wilson will be the boring, safe QB option… right until the year he isn’t and becomes an elite fantasy QB. If his pricing stays consistent over the years, you can’t really go wrong with him, and if he breaks out he likely becomes a league winner. That could happen as soon as this year. If Seattle ends up behind in games1 more often, if Marshawn Lynch retires, if there’s a key defensive injury, if Richard Sherman has an off-year,2 etc., Wilson benefits. He’s a low-risk, high-reward draft selection. You really can’t go wrong.

  1. Typically not good for fantasy efficiency, but it would likely impact Wilson’s volume more significantly than the average QB  (back)
  2. Which has been known to happen with cornerbacks.  (back)