JOHN CLAYTON

Clayton: Why Russell Wilson could be poised for a huge 2017 season

Jun 1, 2017, 11:56 AM | Updated: 12:16 pm
John Clayton expects Russell Wilson to benefit from an improved running game and a more experienced...
John Clayton expects Russell Wilson to benefit from an improved running game and a more experienced offensive line than what Seattle had in 2016. (AP)
(AP)

It’s funny how what some consider an off year changes the perceptions of a quarterback.

When Andrew Luck was winning 11 games a season for the Colts, he was considered one of the five best quarterbacks in the NFL. Because of problems with Indianapolis’ offensive line and defense in 2016, Luck – who has fought through injuries and hits – has dropped a little in the eyes of national observers.

In my view, little has changed for Russell Wilson. I still rate him as the fifth- or sixth-best quarterback in football. Pro Football Focus agrees, ranking Wilson at that level for the past two years.

Naturally, Wilson’s numbers were down in 2016 because of his early-season injuries. The Seahawks’ offensive line was too young. The running game wasn’t there. Wilson was pressured too much, and for half the season he couldn’t run. To think he still threw for a career-high 4,219 yards is amazing.

I wouldn’t call 2017 a potential bounce-back year for Wilson, but here is how I see some of his numbers playing out. He’s posted back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons and I think he’ll maintain that.

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If Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise can get the Seahawks’ running game back on track, Wilson’s numbers will soar. They were already better than people think. In the second half of the 2015 season, Wilson was one of the best pocket passers in football. He got rid of the ball quickly and he made big plays. As a result, he finished with a 68.1 completion percentage and threw for 34 touchdowns, both career-highs.

Sheil Kapadia of ESPN.com had an interesting story the other day about his projections for the Seahawks’ running game. He wrote that Seattle’s running backs averaged 25.1 attempts a game from 2012 to 2015. Last year, that average was down to 19.3. If the Seahawks get back to 25 rushing attempts per game, Kapadia predicts that Lacy would get around 15 of them, with Prosise and Rawls sharing the other 10.

This is where Wilson’s numbers will spike. I project his completion rate to be between 65 and 68 percent. He’s always been good at getting the ball down field. For his career, his yard-per-attempt average has been just below 8. Adding close to 100 running plays by tailbacks would open up more play-action possibilities so that he can get the ball down field more.

One of the problems Wilson had last year was too many difficult third-down situations. Third-and-8s are tough convert. A good running game would lead to more manageable third-and-3s and third-and-4s. Wilson completed 56.1 percent of his passes on third down and only had six touchdowns last season.

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Wilson has a lot going for him with the talent on Seattle’s offense. Doug Baldwin has evolved into a Pro Bowl receiver. Jimmy Graham has been a Pro Bowl tight end. Tyler Lockett and Paul Richardson came on strong toward the end of the season. Jermaine Kearse has been a dependable target for Wilson.

But the key for the Seahawks is getting more out of Wilson by having him do a little less. Wilson averaged just over 34 passes a game last year. Bringing that number down to around 31 would take some of the pressure off him. So would improved pass blocking.

Plus, Wilson can still be a running threat as long as he avoids the ankle and knee injuries that limited his mobility last season. He’s normally good for 489 to 839 yards rushing. Last year, because of the injuries, he had only 259 yards and a 3.6-yard average. His career average is 5.6.

If things work out, I can see Wilson throwing for more than 4,000 yards and about 25 touchdowns while scoring 25 or 26 points a game this season. Not bad.

Want more John Clayton? Listen on-demand to his weekday and Saturday shows as well as his “Cold Hard Facts” and “Clayton’s Morning Drive” segments on 710 ESPN Seattle. Also, check out his all-new “Schooled” podcast and look for his columns twice a week on 710Sports.com.

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