Fantasy football: Why Russell Wilson could finish as QB1
In one of the largest trades in NFL history, the Denver Broncos acquired Russell Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks for a package of players and draft picks. He will become the first quarterback to start for a team he defeated in the Super Bowl. Denver now has the quarterback it has sought ever since Peyton Manning retired in 2015. In the following years, the Broncos have used 11 different starting quarterbacks, tied for the most in the NFL over that span.
In Denver, the sky is the limit for Wilson. This could well be the best statistical season of his career thanks to Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and a plethora of other offensive playmakers. However, before I sketch a picture of what the upcoming season might look like for Wilson and the Broncos, it’s important to review his career so far.
What exactly can Wilson accomplish beyond what he already has achieved in his historic first 10 seasons? Wilson has been selected to nine Pro Bowls through 10 seasons, more than either Peyton Manning (eight) and Johnny Unitas (eight). After 10 seasons, he has thrown 292 career TD passes, second most all time behind Peyton Manning (306) and one more than the third-place Dan Marino. Wilson has averaged 19.9 fantasy points per game during his career.
That said, Wilson is still a bit of a diamond in the rough who has prospered in an environment that is not conducive to success. Here’s why. Pete Carroll and the Seahawks have always been enamored with a run-first offense. Despite having an average-to-below-average passing rate for most of his career, Wilson thrived. During six of his 10 seasons with the Seahawks, the team ranked in the top six of run percentage in the league. During Wilson’s tenure, the Seahawks ran on 46.4% of their snaps. Only the Baltimore Ravens ran more often.
Since 2016, the Broncos have struggled at quarterback while Wilson ranked eighth in completions (1,956), sixth in passing yards (23,085) and third in touchdowns (186) for a Seattle offense that was 31st in total passing attempts (3,124) over that time frame. That said, we need to discuss the elephant in the room that was Wilson’s 2021 season.
The Seahawks brought in a new offensive coordinator, Shane Waldron, and for the first time since his rookie season, Wilson finished outside of the top 12 in fantasy points per game. Now, in fairness, Wilson missed three starts with a finger injury, which certainly didn’t help matters as the quarterback posted a career-low in passing yards (3,113). So, beyond any coaching issues, health was clearly a huge factor in Wilson’s subpar season, based on his numbers both before and after the injury.
From Weeks 1-5, Wilson averaged 9.6 yards per attempt with a 72% completion percentage. After his return from injury in Week 9 through the end of the season, Wilson’s numbers dropped significantly to 6.97 yards per attempt and a 61% completion rate. For the entire campaign, he averaged only 28.5 passing attempts, 222.4 passing yards and 17.7 fantasy points per game. This was a sizable drop from his 2016-20 average of 32.5 passing attempts, 249.7 passing yards and 20.6 fantasy points.
Surprisingly, the Seahawks did show us a brief glimpse of what we could see with Wilson on the Broncos. During the 2020 season, Wilson threw 26 touchdowns and just six interceptions in the first eight weeks. Wilson had accumulated 206.0 fantasy points. Only Patrick Mahomes accumulated more (207.1). Wilson was an early MVP candidate, but the Seattle offense struggled in the second half of the campaign. As a result, Wilson threw seven interceptions and only 14 TD passes in Weeks 9-17.
In Denver, Wilson has the offensive players to succeed. Sutton and Jeudy will both benefit under him, and he will have adequate secondary receiving support from Tim Patrick and KJ Hamler to push him beyond 4,100 passing yards and 30 touchdowns. Patrick and Sutton are particularly intriguing because they are huge receivers with large catch radiuses who will complement Wilson’s career completion rate of 65%. The Broncos are loaded with young playmakers who have all shown flashes in the league, but were held back by subpar quarterback play and conservative playcalling. Denver won’t face this issue in 2022 with Wilson at quarterback.
The Broncos’ offensive line might not include any superstars, but as a whole, it might be the best group Wilson has played behind in his career. In Seattle, Wilson’s protection was almost always subpar (361 sacks from 2013-2020, with 41 sacks in 2016). Despite the protection issues, Wilson was very good at escaping pressure and making plays. Even just a slight improvement in protection and preventing pressure behind the Broncos offensive line should bode well for Wilson.
There are a lot of high-scoring offenses in the AFC West, so Wilson should have ample opportunity to pass. Last season, both the Kansas City Chiefs (407.6) and Los Angeles Chargers (390.2) ranked in the top five in the division for total yards per game. Due to the addition of Davante Adams in the offseason, however, the Las Vegas Raiders are expected to improve offensively. The Broncos and Wilson should be involved in many high-scoring games.
Additionally, Wilson finally has a coaching staff that believes in him. New Denver coach Nathaniel Hackett and offensive coordinator Justin Outten are building their offense around Wilson’s strengths, which include his athleticism and ability to threaten defenses vertically. Since 2016, Wilson ranks first in passing attempts, completions, passing yards and touchdowns on passes over 20 air yards, according to Next Gen Stats.
Wilson is still only 33 years old and is capable of creating fantasy points not only as a passer, but also as a runner. He has finished as a top-five fantasy quarterback multiple times, including a QB1-overall finish in 2017. Wilson could do that again in 2022. Rather than drafting Mahomes, Josh Allen or Justin Herbert early in fantasy football drafts, consider waiting and selecting Wilson. That should be a selection that will well surpass expectations at his current average draft position.