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Player Spotlight: Russell Wilson

A detailed look at Russell Wilson's fantasy prospects for 2016

Every league has owners who eschew using an early or mid-round pick on a quarterback. Perhaps you're that owner. If so, then this article likely won't be for you. Obviously there is a ton of value to be had in waiting on quarterbacks in most seasons, and this season it seems to be the case more than ever. But we aren't just looking to find out whether it's a sound strategy to wait on a quarterback. We seek to find value whenever possible. The purpose of this isn't to determine whether Russell Wilson is a good fantasy player; anybody with a TV set and working eyeballs can tell you that. What we look to uncover here is whether it's worthwhile to spend that early pick on Wilson, and whether last year was the peak of his productivity or if there's still more room for growth

Wilson's pass attempts, completions, and passing yardage has increased every year since his rookie season. The player who was once thought of as a game manager for an incredible defense, has now graduated to full-fledged superstar. He set new career highs in nearly every passing category last season, and finished the season on an absolute tear with 25 touchdowns over his final eight games. Not surprisingly, his breakneck pace over the season's second half coincided with the loss of Marshawn Lynch to injury. In other words, the Seahawks no longer had their bellcow running back to wear down defenses, and Wilson showed he was up to the challenge of putting the offense on his back.

The big question we need to ask ourselves, is whether Wilson's ascension over the second half of last season is sustainable. Let's examine the facts:

Some will want to point to the fact that with Marshawn Lynch out of the lineup, the Seahawks trusted Wilson to lead the offense more. But the reality is, Wilson attempted only 15 more passes over the second half of the season than he did over the first half. The major difference is that those 15 extra passes accounted for 268 more yards, 16 more touchdowns, and 2 fewer interceptions. So it isn't that Wilson was trusted to do more; he was just far more efficient with the opportunities he got.

Another theory is that the Seahawks required Wilson to throw the ball more, as they played catch-up a bit more than usual. But that isn't backed up either, since Seattle started off 2-4 last year while Wilson was putting up pedestrian numbers. And in fact, for the season he had a 27-4 TD-Int ratio in the team's eleven wins, and just a 11- 7 ratio in the team's seven losses. Those stats aren't indicative of a player who is performing to the scoreboard; they suggest a player whose impact is so great that as he goes, so goes the team. Breaking down those numbers further, our own stat splits show that Wilson's stats while leading big (8.2 YPA, 9-2 TD-Int ratio on 117 pass attempts) are eerily similar to his stats while trailing big (8.2 YPA, 9-3 TD-Int ratio on 119 pass attempts). All of this is to say, the game situations don't appear to be the reason for the spike. And this isn't simply a matter of him throwing more passes than before. He was far more efficient with those passes than he's ever been in his career. And considering the players he was throwing to, it's not like it can be attributed to a better supporting cast.

The simple fact is, Russell Wilson played the best football of his career in 2015, particularly over the season's final eight games. Is that eight game sample size enough to suggest he has turned the corner from very good player to superstar? Or are 3.5 previous season's worth of data enough to suggest that his reality may be closer to what he did up until last year's midseason explosion?

POSITIVES

  • Wilson has an extremely high floor, as his stats don't appear to be beholden to the cast around him. Some quarterbacks are dependent upon having talent to throw to. In Wilson's case, despite losing his main offensive addition from the prior offseason (tight end Jimmy Graham), and superstar running back Marshawn Lynch, Wilson didn't miss a beat and actually improved upon his stat line when those players got hurt. Wide receiver Doug Baldwin, of all people, became a fantasy superstar.
  • Just as he has a very high floor, Wilson has got an incredibly high ceiling. We can't simply extrapolate what he did in the second half and assume that this is what we should expect going forward. But there aren't many quarterbacks who can boast a 24-1 TD-Int ratio over a 7-game period while averaging nearly nine yards per pass attempt and over five yards per rush attempt. This is a player one season removed from an 849 yard, six touchdown rushing season. If those passing numbers can be sustained over a full season while being coupled with the running prowess, Wilson would easily be worth a first round pick. Perhaps even THE first pick.
  • Nothing much has changed in Seattle. The offense remains the same, the supporting talent remains the same (if anything it would be improved by the healthy returns of Thomas Rawls and the aforementioned Graham), and there have been no reports this offseason that suggest anything less than status quo. Continuity is a good thing for a successful quarterback.

NEGATIVES

  • Wilson can no longer be procured for a mid-round pick. His average draft position is 43, and he's going off the board as a top-4 quarterback. This may price him out from those owners who see all the value there is to be had in the later rounds this year.
  • Whenever a player performs above and beyond his typical career norms, there's a certain assumption that the trend is going to continue. Prior to that midseason outburst a year ago, Wilson was on his way to a solid albeit unspectacular season. It was a whirlwind seven games, but does that outweigh what we saw from Wilson in his previous 57 career games?
  • The Seattle offensive line is one of the shakier units in the league. It's astounding Wilson put up the numbers he did last year, considering how much he was on the run.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Russell Wilson is just entering the prime of his career. Perhaps it won't get any better than it did during the second half of the 2015 season. But it also stands to reason that he is a better player now than what he showed his first 3.5 seasons in the league. Wilson's stat line grew exponentially without Marshawn Lynch or Jimmy Graham in the lineup. Think about that again. With less of a threat from the backfield and down a Pro Bowl tight end, Wilson was not just better. He was much better. It's mind-blowing stuff really. The beauty of drafting Wilson this season, though, is that an expected regression has already been built into his cost. You aren't drafting him as if he'll keep up last year's frenetic pace. If you were, you'd have to spend a first round pick on him, since that's how well he performed down the stretch.

No, Wilson's price tag is a bit undervalued if anything. We have a quarterback who most observers feel will be at worst a top-3 performer at the position. And he actually had a sustained run just last year as the top guy for a long stretch. Yet he's going off the board as the fourth guy, at some point late in the fourth round. Like we touched on earlier, if you're dead-set against drafting a quarterback with an early pick, then you weren't taking Wilson anyway. But if you're looking for value from each and every single pick, it's all but a given that Wilson provides just that. In a year without a dominant running back, it's not hyperbole to suggest that you're landing a guy with the upside of being the number one overall player and the downside to be at worst a top-10 quarterback. While others may chase the sleepers in rounds ten and eleven or go with the quarterback committee approach, you can take comfort in knowing that you've set yourself up about as well as any owner in the league at the highest-scoring position in the game.

Let's also realize one last aspect of Wilson's game. He won't even turn 28 until late November. We've spent the majority of this article discussing whether he can repeat his 2015 season, or repeat the final 7-8 games of the 2015 season. We haven't even touched on the possibility that Wilson could improve upon any of those numbers. While it may not be likely for him to do so, Wilson has largely built his career off of doing things that most observers felt he wouldn't or couldn't do. For those willing to pull the trigger in the early rounds on a quarterback, make sure Wilson is the guy you're pulling the trigger on. Massive upside with very little downside is how fantasy championships are won.

PROJECTIONS

  •  500 pass attempts
  •  333 pass completions
  •  4,000 pass yards
  •  30 pass TD
  •  10 Int
  •  100 rush attempts
  •  540 rushing yards
  •  4 rushing TD

Other viewpoints

CBS Sports feels Wilson is worth the price tag:

"We don't expect a significant drop-off for Wilson this year, and he should be considered a top five Fantasy quarterback on Draft Day. We recommend drafting Wilson no later than Round 4 in the majority of leagues."

Sports Illustrated suggests Wilson hasn't even peaked yet:

"If his rapport with Doug Baldwin was a portent of things to come, he’ll remain efficient and explosive through the air. It’s possible we have yet to see his fantasy best"