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Good luck drafting the next Russell Wilson, you’ll need it

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Many have tried. All have failed. So far. Except, maybe...

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Seattle Seahawks
the guy on the right is the next RW
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick Mahomes won a Super Bowl. Lamar Jackson won an MVP. Resurrected Ryan Tannehill won a new lease on his NFL career. Will one of them win the award of being the next Russell Wilson?

Ever since Wilson began to capture NFL imaginations in 2012 (October if we begin with the Umadbro game, August if we latch onto his revelatory preseason explosion against the Chiefs), the hunt has been on for the next one of him. A general manager drafts a quarterback with some of the same promise as Wilson, and immediately fans, coaches and pundits jockey to compare the rookie with the Seahawk who, along with the first two men listed above, is the face of the league.

We, and by we I mean the football we, are going on eight years in the quest to find him a peer, a successor, a clone, a contemporary companion and a suitable rival. The gridiron universe longs for a Manning to his Brady, a Bowser to his Mario, a Clyde to his Bonnie. A Bad Janet to his Good Janet? Yes. The last one.

Regardless of our efforts, it turns out there is exactly and precisely one of him so far, one and not more, because every contender propped up since 2012 has instead pumpkinned into a pretender when the clock struck midnight. And it has struck midnight for all of them, so far, which is equal parts weird, gratifying, and sad.

Unlike Angelica Schuyler, the sport seems satisfied, satisfied for now with one single Russell Wilson.

Mahomes’ super start to his career, both statistically and championshipically, may well change the calculus. He and Jackson are the leaders in the clubhouse, the best bets to truly seize the mantle from Wilson as The Next Real Big Thing That Lasts. And we’ll get to them. But before Mahomes and Jackson, there were many Anointed Ones, seemingly destined to co-rule the NFL alongside Wilson. All have faltered. Not a single one measures up, at least not yet, not for more than a season or two, not in the medium term, let alone the long term. Some of his peers never will, because the sport swallowed them up and spat them out before they ever had a chance.

Let’s take them one by one, year by year.

The 2012 Class

Andrew Luck

Nobody ever mentions this, but Luck was the first pick of the 2012 draft. A can’t-miss prospect, he had everything. Now he has an 89.5 career passer rating that will never move again, since he is done throwing touchdowns, finished wowing commentators with his precision arm-punts.

It’s a shame Luck had to retire. He seemed like a genuinely good guy; he got unlucky with his shoulder; he was legitimately great at times. Plus, he was destined to be compared to Wilson forever, and they only met once on the field — back in 2013, when the Colts won a Week 4 skirmish, four months before Seattle won the war in February.

Even if Luck returns to football one of these years, he’ll have lost so much ground to Wilson that he won’t compare favorably. Never quite has anyway.

Defining moment: The Chiefs led this 2014 wild-card playoff game 38-10. The Colts came out on top. Luck scored twice during the comeback, including a right-place-at-the-right-time dive.

Robert Griffin III

This past decade’s cautionary tale for mobile quarterbacks, RGIII was the rookie of the year for 2012, and deservedly so. But any NFL QB needs a minimum amount of self-preservation. Without it, his career’s expiration date comes due sooner.

Griffin, after a debut season in which he led the league in yards/attempt and electrifying runs, proceeded to win exactly five more games for the Skins, accumulate exactly 23 TD and exactly 23 interceptions, and become exactly a non-factor with the Browns and Ravens. He never learned the art of protecting himself.

Defining moment: Griffin’s knee gave out for the first time in a game everyone reading will remember — Wilson’s first playoff win. Non-contact injury, even. It was never meant to be for Griffin, and that is a damn shame.

Nick Foles

Foles’ career arc looks like the win probability chart of a typical Seahawks game, interbred with a seismograph from the CLink’s basement, laid over an electrocardiogram from a fan watching the actual game.

Foles, 2013: 27/2 TD/INT, with a 9.18 ANY/A. For reference, Aaron Rodgers’ career ANY/A is 7.29. Foles wasn’t gonna be better than Wilson, he was gonna be better than one of the co-GOATs.

Foles, since: 38/28 TD/INT, with a Super Bowl victory and FIVE team changes in six years.

The good(?) news for the Bears and their new(?) quarterback(?) is Foles only threw two picks in 2019. The bad news is he lost all four of his starts, and has been sentenced to fight Mitch Trubisky in a battle royale, if the season ever begins. All of which means — another logic-defying Super Bowl run can’t be far off.

Nick Foles will never be the next Russell Wilson, but on the plus side, nobody will ever be the next Nick Foles, either.

Defining moment: It’s fourth down and goal right before halftime of Super Bowl 52, and Doug Pederson will not be kicking the field goal. Instead, how about a pass to his quarterback. Sure! Why the hell not?

Also from 2012: Kirk Cousins and Ryan Tannehill

Nobody worth listening to believes Cousins and Tannehill are in Wilson’s company, not once the totality of their careers is considered. Both men put up monster years in 2019. Show me something in 2020 again, guys, and you’ll get your own paragraph.

(I do think Tannehill has a real chance to put up an impressive second act in his uneven career. It used to be that quarterbacks were given multiple seasons to “get it,” and why wouldn’t Tannehill be in that class of athlete? But half a season of greatness does not get you into the conversation. Yet.)

The Second Wave: 2013-2017 Drafts

Derek Carr

Got reams of attention with four fourth quarter comebacks in 2015 then a breakout 2016. But David’s younger brother has posted a winning record just once in six years. Doesn’t throw a lot of touchdowns (30+ only once), doesn’t throw the ball downfield (10.8 Y/C career), doesn’t have a playoff win. There are a lot of good things he doesn’t do.

By now, the Carrtionary tale should be evident: one really good stretch of play is within reach for every decent pro quarterback. But it’s just as likely to be followed by one really bad stench of play.

Defining moment: Finished 3rd in MVP voting after the 2016 season.

Marcus Mariota

The Oregon Duck was praised for his smarts, mobility, winning, and poise upon entering the league. Those traits haven’t materialized.

What he has turned into is the most medium quarterback in the NFL. His career W-L record has never been more than six games above or below .500. In the advanced adjusted stats found at pro-football-reference, where a score of 100 means league average, his ANY/A+ is 99, his TD%+ is 99, his INT% is 100, and his passer rating is 101. His only elite skill is getting sacked a lot. NO, THAT DOES NOT MAKE HIM WILSON.

Defining moment: Not getting a fifth-year extension from the Titans. Now with the Raiders.

Jameis Winston

More interceptions in one single year than Wilson posted in his first four combined. No playoffs. No mobility to speak of, no Liberace-like improvisational genius. Nice arm, though. Anyone still waiting for him to become the next Wilson needs a new hobby, which, we all do right now, but you know what I mean.

Defining moment: Do you guys know one?

Before the serious contenders show their faces again, we should race through a few names that looked promising for a week, a month, or a season. Some of the men were even short of stature, and the commentariat drew on Wilson’s Hobbitian success to project greatness onto the would-be successors. Jacoby Brissett. Johnny Manziel. Tyrod Taylor. Mitch Trubisky. All had feet of gold; some had an arm too; some even bothered to have a head on their shoulders. Not one had or has all three at once like Wilson. Nor have they won like our Wilson.

The next quartet houses intriguing, impressive, but ultimately incomplete imitations.

Carson Wentz

Wentz is a franchise quarterback. He’s good, he’s poised, he’s productive. You don’t accidentally lead the NFL in QBR, as Wentz did in his second season.

What he isn’t is durable, or essential. His last three seasons have ended in injury. Somewhere in this post, the reminder that Wilson has never missed a start must be wedged in. Now’s good.

Most damning, the Eagles also tend to win the big games in which Wentz doesn’t play. All of the 2017 postseason, and three out of four in December 2018 to reach the playoffs again. Imagine Seattle prevailing in even a single January contest, led by Wilson’s backup du jour.

And how can Wentz be a legitimate rival when the Eagles have lost three straight to the Seahawks?

Defining moment: Watching Nick Foles’ defining moment from earlier.

Jared Goff

No reason to avoid the truth: Goff led a fearsome offense for two years, won a ton of games, and got his team to a Super Bowl. But there are three very different Jared Goffs in the Jared Goff career.

He was atrocious as a rookie, nigh unstoppable in 2017-18 after Rams coach Sean McVay arrived, and presently, after predictable adjustments by the rest of the league, he’s getting paid to be the league’s best quarterback, while actually performing like he belongs in the third tier. All of this in the space of four seasons.

Defining moment: A simple image will do. No need to make more than three points explaining why.

Deshaun Watson

If anyone was ever well suited to reign over the NFL alongside the Seahawk, it was (is?) Watson. He came out of the gate strong, very strong.

He didn’t slow down much in his second year. He’s claimed the AFC South both years he started. His main career stats compare favorably to Wilson: same TD percentage, same yards/attempt, same passer rating, separated by .2 points. They both hold the ball too long, they both endure pass protection troubles, they both move with explosiveness, they both win.

Watson is basically Wilson, without the Super Bowl appearances. Those are a big deal. Fortunately for the Texan, his coach is committed to acquiring and keeping top-line talent like Jadeveon Clowney and DeAndre Hopkins, who will surely — oh.

Defining moment: The escape in last year’s wild-card victory over Buffalo. But that’s like the only one. It’s third down and Houston needs a conversion to stymie the visitors. The Texans get it, and they roll to victory thereafter. But if you’re going to be Wilson II, wouldn’t it behoove you to have won another playoff game by now besides this one? It would.

The bulk of Watson’s career is unwritten. Maybe the 49ers could get him after the draft for a second-rounder and bring him to the NFC West. Then we’re really talking.

Dak Prescott

His low draft position (fourth round!) is fun to point out, because guess who else wasn’t taken in the first two rounds. You get one guess. The accuracy, ball protection and mobility Prescott has displayed have made him a darling of the analytics crowd, exactly as they have with Wilson, even as the Cowboys struggle to make consistent noise in the playoffs.

Almost everything Wilson does, Prescott does well, but slightly less well. You might call Dak a poor man’s Wilson, which is especially fitting since Jerry Jones’ so-called fortune was a pittance next to Paul Allen’s.

Jokes aside, Prescott and Watson are in Wilson’s league. They just need to advance in the playoffs and keep up their career trajectories. Which are harder tasks than they sound.

Defining moment: A dramatic play in a dramatic playoff win — hey! Over Seattle? Bad form, Prescott. The following scramble, up the middle, essentially clinched victory in the 2018 wild-card game. It’s 3rd and 14 and the Seahawks need a stop to get the ball back with 2:30 left. Spoiler: huh-uh.

The Third Wave: Everyone since 2018

Baker Mayfield

Praised for his leadership, his arm, his overcoming of height challenges, Mayfield got himself drafted 1.1 in 2018. He never would have been, not clocking in at six feet even, if it were not for Wilson. His sophomore slump (78.8 passer rating) and his inability to win more than six games in either season mean he’s on the outside looking in.

Defining moment: It’s still his draft card.

Kyler Murray

Wilson has never had a year as unsuccessful as Murray’s rookie season, statistically and win-column-wise. How’s that for starters?

And yet... Murray’s got the arm, the ability to make pass rushers look silly, the smarts, and now his very own souped-up Sidney Rice, in the person of DeAndre Hopkins. If Murray can keep putting these flicks of the wrist right on the money, then he can be special.

But as this very post outlines, one promising year does not another Wilson make.

Defining moment: The current offseason, where the kid gets more elite receiver help and more of a chance to fully learn coach Kliff Kingsbury’s system. If he’s gonna burst onto the national scene, it’ll be because he figured some stuff out this summer.

Jimmy Garoppolo

Was set up to pull off exactly what jump-started Wilson — a championship in his second season of starting, fueled as much by his ferocious defense as his timely big throws. Instead he got served the 49ers’ version of Super Bowl XLIX. Let’s see if he and his teammates make the playoffs five of the next six years to keep their good thing rolling.

Defining moment: For now —

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You can cut out everything above that dotted line. Before that line lie the buried, the hopeless, the question marks, the pretenders, and no real Next Russells.

Where does that trail of wreckage leave us, the hungry fan, the observer keen on a true rival/successor/heir for Wilson? With two actual candidates for the job. It is finally time to commence about them both — the reigning league MVP and the reigning Super Bowl champion.

Jackson moves like he was born to make grown men tackle air and run to the locker room as if he’d just pantsed them in front of millions of viewers.

Nobody (else) does Bobby Wagner wrong like this.

If you compare sophomore season stat sheets, Jackson threw the ball 401 times, eerily identical to Wilson’s 407. But he ran it 176 times, far more than Wilson’s 96. Jackson ended up producing 43 total touchdowns, Wilson 27. Put a different way, Jackson could regress in year three and still be Wilson’s equal.

Mahomes, for his part, is smashing records for young quarterbacks and is undeniably ahead of Wilson. If you’ll allow a little table to interrupt —

Pat vs. Russ

QB TD% INT% Y/A ANY/A Rating Lombardis
QB TD% INT% Y/A ANY/A Rating Lombardis
Mahomes 6.9 1.6 8.6 8.57 108.9 1
Wilson 6 1.8 7.9 7.02 101.2 1

— then you’ll see that if Wilson is sliced bread, and he is, then Mahomes has a clear chance to be the next best thing since. Do we really need another Mahomes sidearm .gif? Yes, but no. How about 63 yards in the air in stride, then? No, but yes.

If it can be done by a quarterback, Mahomes has done it already. Throw for 50 TDs? Check. Come back from two scores down in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl? Check. Everything in between? Check, check, infinity check.

However, two hurdles remain for Jackson and Mahomes to clear. The biggest hurdles.

A) They need to dodge the land mines that have blown up every other Wilson wannabe for the past eight years. Yes, I mean injury, prolonged losing — all the setbacks that have obliterated careers and turned rising stars into forgettable clones of Sam Bradford or Mark Sanchez instead.

B) They need to put up more than two years’ worth of success. Part of what makes Wilson Wilson is his longevity and indestructibility. Through 790 hits and counting since 2012 (the second-most in the league, behind only Cam Newton!), he keeps producing, at the same level, year in and year out, never missing a game, never sucking for more than a few quarters, never faltering on or off the field for more than a few moments.

What happens to Jackson once he starts getting popped on a regular basis and facing actual pressure? He was sacked a total of 39 times in his first two seasons combined. Wilson averages 44 sacks a year. Baltimore ranked second in Pass Block Win Rate last year; Seattle was 28th. Can Jackson maintain anything like his current statistical line when his protection vanishes, as it will someday?

What happens to Mahomes when his bad knee, the one that kept him out for a month in 2019, is hit again? It’s only a matter of when, not if. Or when his coach retires, and a new offensive mind, one dimmer than Andy Reid — because they’re all dimmer than Reid — takes over?

What happens if NFL defensive coordinators put the up-and-comers back in the pocket and force them to win games without improvisation? Without the misdirection that supercharges their offenses? Wilson has shown he can win from the pocket, without gimmicks. Jackson and Mahomes no doubt can, but will they?

Mahomes’ two deep playoff runs and one title already give him a leg up on Jackson in a competition where people rarely out-leg the MVP. It’s sustained excellence the Chief is up against now. Of course, lot easier typed than done — continued consistency is a foe against whom Luck, Griffin, Foles, and others since 2012 have come up short.

If Mahomes and Jackson in turn tumble too, like pretty much all their predecessors have, Russell Wilson will remain the next big thing since himself, as he has been for eight years and counting.