No. 5: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Why he's here
Wilson's enjoyed one of the greatest rookie seasons by a quarterback in NFL history, yet he only came in third in last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year voting because of Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck. (ATL also had Wilson third.) The Seattle Seahawks practically hid Wilson in the offense early in the season. By the end of the year, playoff defenses like the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons had no answer for him.
Wilson combines an incredible mix of smart decision-making and daring, improvisational play. He is not afraid to throw the ball away and rarely forces a pass into coverage. But he also is willing to pull the trigger on downfield throws when he sees one-on-one coverage. (And he's very accurate deep.) No rookie quarterback improved more last year at going through his progressions and throwing from the pocket.
He showed a knack for making his best plays late in games against the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, Chicago Bears and Falcons. Yet despite all the mature attributes Wilson shows, it's his Fran Tarkenton-like ability to improvise when the play breaks down that sets Wilson apart. The perfectly called defense often failed to bring down Wilson behind the line of scrimmage. You can't coach this type of scrambling ability, and it's frustrating to coach against it.
Why he's not higher
There's not a lot to pick on with Wilson. He's only not higher because of the ridiculous amount of quality young quarterbacks in the league at the moment. (More on that later.)
Wilson mostly gets into trouble when his decision-making slows down. He has a tendency to hold the ball too long, sometimes waiting for a play to emerge that isn't there. Only three starting quarterbacks took more sacks-per-play than Wilson despite good protection overall. It will be a balance for him throughout his career to use his athleticism and creativity without relying too much on them. Four of Wilson's five biggest rushing games came in Seattle's final five weeks.
A rookie season that started off well turned spectacular during Wilson's stretch run. His challenge, like the rest of the 2012 rookie class, will be to back it up after defenses throw new wrinkles at him. Wilson is helped by a strong power running attack and a willingness to test opponents deep. If Wilson sees a player in single coverage, he takes a shot. He reminds us a little another quarterback of relatively short stature: Drew Brees. Wilson isn't necessarily known for having a cannon, but it's plenty big enough. He's one of the most effective vertical throwers in the league.
Wilson's work ethic, leadership and overall intangibles are off the charts. That's why it's hard to imagine Wilson taking a big step back in his career. His height -- which deeply hurt his draft stock -- doesn't look like a problem. With a strong organization around him, Wilson should be a franchise quarterback that hangs around the top 10 at his position for most of his career. And that feels like a worst-case scenario.
Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism involves Wilson's rapid rate of improvement. Early last year, the Seahawks had no intermediate passing game. It was all bombs and dump offs. Wilson was only completing a handful of passes at most per week from the pocket. By the end of the year, Wilson was making a living on plays from the pocket. The plays below show Wilson's development and ability to make every throw.
Wilson is better, faster than any quarterback to enter the league since Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. (Omitting the other class members of 2012.) That's how rare it is to see a rookie quarterback excel like Wilson did. That's also why I feel so guilty about placing Wilson fifth in our series.
That placement speaks to the insane influx of talent at quarterback the last few years, and the reality that someone had to get knocked down a few spots. (As a pure thrower, Wilson ranked just below the guys in front of him.) There is very little gap between the top player on the list and Wilson at No. 5. That's why this series felt like a fun idea in the first place.
Everything feels possible when it comes to Wilson's career, with virtually no ceiling to what he can accomplish. Seahawks fans believe they have the quarterback that will take them to the promised land. They should. The Seahawks organization, only a year removed from giving good money to Matt Flynn, has a quarterback that can be in the mix for league MVPs.
As Roethlisberger noted last week, it's risky to put too much faith in young quarterbacks before they back up early success. Wilson, however, has a way of turning any skeptics into Russellmaniacs.