NFL News & Analysis

NFL Buy or Sell: Zach Wilson's improvement, Geno Smith's hot start, Rams' struggles

East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) throws a pass during warmups before the game against the Miami Dolphins at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

• Zach Wilson's improvement: Wilson is PFF’s highest-graded quarterback from the 2021 NFL Draft class this season.

• Geno Smith's hot start: Smith has “always had the tools ” and has “put it all together,” one source said.

• The Los Angeles Rams' struggles: The offensive line ranks 24th in overall PFF grade, 12th in run-blocking grade and dead last in pass-blocking grade through Week 5.

Estimated Reading Time: 9 mins


ZACH WILSON’S IMPROVEMENT

AFC analytics exec: Buy

New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson is PFF’s highest-graded quarterback from the 2021 NFL Draft class this season, and it’s a testament to both continuity and building around a young signal-caller (and potentially a small sample size).

Among quarterbacks taken in the first round of last year’s draft — Wilson, Trevor Lawrence, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones — the Jets quarterback earned the lowest grade as a rookie.

2021 NFL Draft QB grades as rookies
QB Grade Snaps
Mac Jones 80.0 1,124
Justin Fields 64.2 634
Trey Lance 59.9 179
Trevor Lawrence 59.6 1,076
Zach Wilson 59.3 741
Davis Mills 58.5 743

Wilson then missed a large chunk of training camp, two preseason games and the Jets’ first three regular season games with a knee injury. It hasn’t affected his performance in his return to the field.

He’s earned a 77.4 PFF grade and won both of his starts this season.

2021 NFL Draft QB grades in 2022
QB Grade Snaps
Zach Wilson 77.4 129
Davis Mills 70.0 301
Trevor Lawrence 61.7 337
Mac Jones 58.4 190
Justin Fields 57.2 274
Trey Lance 53.1 84

Wilson’s wins came against the now 1-4 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 3-2 Miami Dolphins, who were down to third-string rookie quarterback Skylar Thompson for most of the game.

The Steelers’ defense currently ranks 21st in expected points added (EPA) per play against, and Wilson earned a 69.1 PFF grade against them. The Dolphins’ defense ranks just 27th in EPA per play against, and Wilson earned an 81.9 PFF grade in Week 5.

So, is Wilson’s improvement an aberration, or should we be buying into his recent performances?

One AFC analytics executive sees definite improvement from Wilson but notes that offensive additions this offseason have aided his development.

“For all but a few QBs, surrounding them with as many weapons as possible is all that matters,” he said.

The Jets’ offensive line has been in flux all season and has ranked 17th in pressure percentage in Wilson’s two starts. 

    • Left tackle Duane Brown missed the first four weeks of the season but was back in Week 5. 
    • Mekhi Becton, who was expected to start at right tackle heading into the season, is out for the year. 
    • George Fant, who was expected to start at left tackle before the Jets acquired Brown following Becton’s injury, will miss at least two more games on injured reserve.
    • Rookie Max Mitchell, who filled in at right tackle because of all of the above, was placed on injured reserve prior to Week 5 and will miss at least three more games.

Meanwhile, 2021 first-round pick Alijah Vera-Tucker has played every snap moving around from right guard to left tackle and right tackle, and he's earned a 74.5 PFF grade this season. Left guard Laken Tomlinson (44.7 PFF grade) and center Connor McGovern (63.3 PFF grade) have also played every snap.

But the real offensive improvements have come at skill positions. Wide receiver Garrett Wilson is one of PFF’s highest-graded rookies, having earned a 76.0 mark. Wide receivers Corey Davis and Elijah Moore, both 2021 investments, each have over 200 receiving yards. Running backs Michael Carter and Breece Hall, drafted in 2021 and 2022, respectively, have been multi-faceted playmakers in New York’s offense. The Jets also signed tight ends Tyler Conklin and C.J. Uzomah this offseason.

And while Mills, Fields and Lawrence all have new head coaches this season and Jones and Lance experienced changes at offensive coordinator, Wilson has kept the same head coach in Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator in Mike LaFleur.

Wilson’s performance will be worth revisiting in the upcoming weeks to see if he can maintain his high level of play relative to the rest of his quarterback class. He currently ranks eighth among all NFL signal-callers in PFF grade while completing 32-of-57 passes for 462 yards with one passing touchdown and two interceptions. He has also added six carries for 17 yards with a rushing touchdown and one two-yard receiving touchdown. He has two big-time throws and four turnover-worthy plays on the season, and his average depth of target (ADOT) of 9.6 yards ranks seventh.

Lawrence recorded a 79.8 grade during the two-game sample size of Weeks 2 and 3 against the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers, and then he followed up those performances with a 27.6 grade against the Philadelphia Eagles and a 65.0 mark against the Houston Texans. So, the wheels could still fall off for Wilson, but he’s on the right path after a shaky rookie season, and the offense as a whole should stabilize when Fant and Mitchell return and as the young offensive skill position players gain more experience.


GENO SMITH’S HOT START

NFC personnel executive: Buy

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith is currently PFF’s highest-graded quarterback. Read that again. Soak it in.

He leads the position with a 75.2% completion percentage, 80.7% adjusted completion rate, 6.4% big-time throw rate and 113.1 passer rating after going 118-of-157 for 1,304 yards with nine touchdowns and just two interceptions. His 3.8% turnover-worthy play rate is a middle-of-the-road 19th out of 35 qualified quarterbacks.

This won't necessarily remain the case, and chances are it won’t, but through the first five weeks of the 2022 NFL season, the Seahawks traded Russell Wilson for two first-round picks, two second-round picks and three veteran players and somehow upgraded at quarterback by turning to Wilson’s backup, Smith. Wilson currently ranks 29th among quarterbacks with a 59.7 PFF grade.

Smith’s ascension didn’t necessarily come out of nowhere. He earned a 73.9 PFF grade in three starts filling in for Wilson last season. Seattle is 2-3 this season through no fault of Smith’s. When the opposing offense has taken the field, they’ve gone up against the Seahawks’ 32nd-ranked defense in EPA per play against. Seattle’s offense, meanwhile, ranks fourth in EPA per play.

An NFC personnel executive is buying Smith’s hot start.

“He’s always had the tools,” he said. “He’s just put it all together. He looks comfortable in the system and is able to see things and spread the ball around.”

Smith is PFF’s second-highest-graded quarterback on 20-plus yard passes. He’s PFF’s highest-graded clean-pocket passer and the third-highest-graded passer both using and not using play action. He’s been pressured on 32.7% of dropbacks, which ranks as the 13th-most in the NFL.

There’s reason to believe Smith could keep this up as the season goes along too, as long as Seattle, which just lost starting running back Rashaad Penny for the season to a broken leg, stays relatively healthy on offense. Among their next 12 opponents, only the San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers have an EPA per play against that ranks above average, though the New York Jets, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams and Las Vegas Raiders all are teetering on the scale.

The biggest question now is when or if the Seahawks will sign Smith to a contract extension since he’ll be a free agent after the season. Applying a franchise or transition tag to Smith would be costly in the range of $29 million-to-$45 million.


LOS ANGELES RAMS’ STRUGGLES

AFC pro scout: Sell

The reigning Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams are in a bad way right now after starting the season 2-3. Despite having Sean McVay as their head coach, Matthew Stafford at quarterback and Cooper Kupp at wide receiver, the Rams currently rank just 30th in EPA per play.

So, what’s wrong with them? An AFC pro scout points to issues on their offensive line, which collectively ranks 24th in overall PFF grade, 12th in run-blocking grade and dead last in pass-blocking grade through Week 5 while giving up the second-highest pressure rate on the season.

“The O-line is a huge issue, the AFC pro scout said. “They've had really good injury luck the past couple years, and that hasn't been the case this year, with a lot of those injuries coming up front. 

“Like Baltimore's secondary last year, successive injuries to one position group can really damage the offensive/defensive performance as a whole.” 

The Rams lost last year’s starting left tackle, Andrew Whitworth, to retirement and replaced him with Joseph Noteboom, who has a 65.8 PFF grade while playing every offensive snap this season. Right tackle Rob Havenstein is the only other offensive lineman on the roster who has played more than 80% of offensive snaps.

Starting center Brian Allen suffered a knee injury in Week 1 and has yet to return. Left guard David Edwards missed Week 4 while in concussion protocol and was evaluated for another concussion in Week 5. Right guard Coleman Shelton filled in at center until suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 4. He remains out. Guard Tremayne Anchrum Jr. is out for the season with a fractured fibula. Rookie guard Logan Bruss is out for the season with a torn ACL and MCL.

And the Rams’ roster construction methodology can lead to a lack of depth at key positions.

“It definitely worked for them, but it may be tough to sustain long term,” the AFC pro scout said. “We'll see. I don't want to write them off after five weeks, but the OL is a real issue.”

He isn’t buying a total collapse from the Super Bowl champs, but they might need to become proactive and acquire more help on their offensive line or even at wide receiver. Convincing Whitworth to come out of retirement would be a coup.

With Van Jefferson injured and Allen Robinson II struggling out of the gate after signing a three-year, $46.5 million contract this offseason, Ben Skowronek has been Stafford’s second-most-targeted wide receiver behind Kupp. He’s third on the team with 181 receiving yards behind Kupp and tight end Tyler Higbee. Odell Beckham Jr. remains a free agent and could add a spark to Los Angeles' offense. The Carolina Panthers could be in sell mode after firing head coach Matt Rhule on Monday.

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