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Tom Oates column: UW's Wilson comes up short in NFL's eyes

Mar. 1, 2012
 

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By all accounts, Russell Wilson had a strong showing at the NFL draft combine.

The former University of Wisconsin quarterback impressed scouts on the field and off. He ran fast, threw accurately and showed NFL-caliber arm strength. He put his personality, dedication and football intelligence on display.

When it was over, though, Wilson hadnít really changed his NFL profile. Scouts see him today much the same way they did after his one spectacular season at UW.

Their widely held view? He has everything you want in a starting NFL quarterback except height.

UW listed Wilson at 6-foot, but when he was measured at the combine, the truth came out. Wilson was 5-10 5⁄8 without shoes.

The NFL is a cruel world and the cold, hard facts for Wilson are that many teams will dismiss him based on that number alone and many others will consider him a career backup. Iím not saying thatís right or that Wilson wonít someday prove everyone wrong, but I am saying thatís the way the NFL scouts and coaches think.

Wilson has pointed out ó correctly ó that he is an extraordinary playmaker. Due to his stature, however, NFL types will doubt whether he can consistently make plays from the pocket.

Even in an era where a quarterbackís mobility is growing in importance, no team is willing to use a high draft pick on or entrust their future to a quarterback if they donít think he can operate successfully in the pocket. Instead, they wonder whether he can see over a wall of linemen enough to read defenses.

Of course, no one has to sell Wilsonís virtues to anyone around here. He was a great player and leader at UW even though he didnít see the playbook until July. But just as Wilson canít change his stature, he is unlikely to change the minds of NFL scouts and coaches between now and the draft.

Donít misunderstand that, thereís room for Wilson in the league. Seneca Wallace, who stands 5-11, has been a quality NFL backup for seven seasons and Wilson has better skills than he does. Some think Wilson could be an ideal backup for a long time. His quick release and over-the-top motion should help to overcome his height deficiencies and his athleticism would be a change of pace for defenses.

Unfortunately for Wilson, finding a team that considers him a potential starter wonít be easy. Most scouts and coaches believe 6-2 is the minimum magic number for a quarterback in the modern NFL offense.

Of course, there are exceptions ó think Drew Brees ó but for the most part the NFL wants tall quarterbacks who can stand in the pocket, survey defenses and fire rockets all over the field. A running component is preferred, but itís not necessary. That makes it hard for shorter quarterbacks to succeed.

Doug Flutie, who was 5-9, played for a long time but completed less than 55 percent of his passes and bounced around to four teams. To find regular playing time, he had to go to the Canadian Football League in mid-career.

Wilsonís idol is Brees, which makes sense. Brees was one of four NFL quarterback starters under 6-2 last season and was the only one who played on a winning team.

When Brees was at the combine in 2001, he measured 5-11 7⁄8. He asked for a repeat measurement and it was a shade over 6-0. However, Brees is a rarity in the NFL, a quarterback with charisma, intelligence, instincts, nimble feet, arm strength and a lightning-quick release.

Wilson has many of the same traits, but even Brees was heavily doubted coming out of Purdue. Concerns over his height and arm strength caused him to drop to the second round in the draft. Even though he had played well in San Diego, the Chargers allowed him to leave in free agency. He didnít become elite until he got to New Orleans and found an offense that fit his abilities.

Finding a good fit is everything for a shorter quarterback. NFL types believe such quarterbacks need special systems and the right kind of players around them whereas taller quarterbacks can make up for personnel deficiencies.

If a team does tailor its offense to a shorter, more mobile quarterback, what happens if he is injured and the backup is a stay-at-home pocket passer? Does the team have to change the offense in mid-stream?

Because most NFL coaches are neither risk-takers nor out-of-the-box thinkers, they are reluctant to commit to a quarterback who doesnít fit their system. So even if Wilson has the talent to play at a winning NFL level, he still must convince someone he can thrive in their system.

Wilson will get his chance to start in the NFL, it just wonít come right away. He will probably be a mid- to late-round draft pick and settle into a backup role. At some point, the starter will falter or get hurt and Wilson will be thrown into the mix. Only then will we know whether his height is worthy of all the discussion it is generating now.

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