Is Russell Wilson a no-doubt starting fantasy quarterback?
On March 11, it appeared Russell Wilson's NFL fortunes were on the uptick. That was the day the Seattle Seahawks traded a first-round pick in the '13 draft (along with a couple other picks) to the Minnesota Vikings for Percy Harvin. The team subsequently extended Harvin to a six-year, $67 million deal (albeit one with "only" $14.5 million guaranteed). Suddenly, Wilson would be paired with one of the NFL's most dynamic and versatile pass-catchers for the primes of their respective careers. On this news, I bumped Wilson up to No. 7 on my quarterback list for '13.
Of course, we all know now that Harvin has undergone hip surgery and will reportedly return Week 13, at the earliest. Where does that leave Wilson?
By all accounts, it leaves him stuck in 2012. The Seahawks' skill-position players this season will look the same as last season: Marshawn Lynch at RB, Sidney Rice and Golden Tate starting at WR and Zach Miller at TE (assuming the foot injury Miller suffered in last season's playoffs has healed). This was a group that finished ninth in overall points scored in '12 and third in points scored from Week 6 forward. It is not at all shabby.
But with this same group, Wilson finished "only" 11th in fantasy points among QBs last season. Among QBs who played 16 games, Wilson had the fewest pass attempts: 393, or 334 fewer than league leader Matthew Stafford. The Seahawks were the NFL's run-heaviest team, running on 57 percent of their snaps; Wilson had zero 300-yard passing days and nine games in which he threw for fewer than 200 yards. The average fantasy QB produced 14.7 points per game last season, and Wilson finished below that in seven contests. Without Harvin to shake up this particular apple cart in '13, it's fair to be concerned that hype about Wilson is beginning to exceed reason, thanks in part to the lofty expectations the Seahawks have as a team.
In fact, I lowered Wilson three spots to No. 10 on my QB list on news of Harvin's absence. That doesn't mean I'm completely pessimistic about Wilson's '13 prospects. I acknowledge that he was tremendous for a rookie whose lack of height was supposed to make him a career NFL backup. He got better as '12 went along, posting seven above-average fantasy days in his final eight starts. Also, I think it's fair to argue that Wilson can get better results as a rusher without stretching too far. He finished last season with the third-most rushing yards among QBs (489) but never really broke out in that regard until the season's final five games:
Russell Wilson, Final 5 Games Last Season
In particular, that Week 15 contest against the Buffalo Bills (in Toronto) illustrated how dangerous Wilson can be. He rushed for three TDs in the first half: The first and third came off read-option plays on which he kept the ball and scampered untouched into the end zone, and the second came off a traditional pocket scramble on which he displayed his open-field elusiveness. Seattle used read-option looks more as last season progressed, though not nearly as much as a team like the Washington Redskins. I'd bet Wilson won't have it quite so easy on keeper run-option plays this season as he did against the Bills, but I also think that, as a changeup, it can be effective and will still be part of the Seahawks' playbook. This helps explain why I project Wilson to produce 526 yards rushing and five rushing TDs this season. If I'm right, and Wilson nets 80-plus fantasy points with his legs alone, it's hard to envision him becoming a total fantasy bust as long as he's healthy.
But it's in the passing game where Wilson would need to jump ahead to become a true fantasy stud, and, without Harvin, I'm concerned that won't happen. I don't mean to imply Wilson isn't a pleasure to watch when he's throwing: He's got a big arm, he's dynamic in the pocket with a nice feel for the pass rush, and even when he's on the move he gets himself in a sound throwing position. But unless Seattle opens things up passing the ball, Wilson has precious little margin for error. It's flat-out rare for a QB who throws for just 3,118 yards to produce 26 passing TDs, as Wilson did in '12. Of the 91 seasons in which a QB has thrown for 25-plus TDs since 2001, in only one did a QB throw for fewer yards than Wilson: Matt Cassel racked up 3,116 passing yards while tallying 27 aerial TDs in '10:
Fewest Pass Yds, Single Season
Among QBs with at least 25 Pass TDs
As such, unless Wilson's passing yardage goes up, his passing TDs are likely to come down. With Rice perpetually a candidate for injury and Miller dealing with a prolonged foot injury, and with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and head coach Pete Carroll seeming to confirm that Seattle will remain run-oriented, unfortunately, I don't see Wilson's pass yardage skyrocketing (not through any fault of his own).
All this helps to explain why, despite the fact that I really like Wilson as a player, it was fairly easy to downgrade him for fantasy purposes once Harvin got hurt. Wilson's legs make him a guy who can win you a fantasy game, and if you decide to wait a long while before drafting a QB, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend him. But if the Seahawks' attack remains conservative in '13, there will also be weeks during which Wilson can lose you a game. If his passing yardage stays in the low 3,000s, guys like Matt Ryan, Stafford and even Robert Griffin III clearly offer a better combination of security and upside.