When the Philadelphia Eagles selected North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz with the second overall pick in the 2016 draft, it was no sure thing that he'd start right away. The difference in complexity in defenses Wentz saw in college and what he would have to deal with in the NFL was a concern, as were various mechanical fixes that would have to happen before Wentz could reach his athletic potential.
But when the Eagles traded Sam Bradford to the Vikings, and Wentz outperformed Chase Daniel in the preseason despite a rib injury, the die was cast. Wentz became the first Eagles quarterback to start all 16 games of a season since Donovan McNabb did it in 2008. He had moments where he looked every bit the leader, but as the season wore on, defenses caught up to him as they tend to do with most rookie quarterbacks who get off to hot starts.
Wentz finished his rookie season with 379 completions in 607 attempts for 3,782 yards, 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Not bad numbers, especially considering Philly's receiver corps wasn't among the league's best last year. But when looking forward to Wentz's second season and what to expect, the Eagles will want better results than they saw in the second half of the season.
In September and October, Wentz completed 150 passes in 228 attempts (a 65.8 percent completion rate) for 1,526 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions. In November and December, everything went south. Wentz completed just 202 of 336 passes (a 60.1 percent completion rate) for 2,011 yards, five touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Now, Wentz is the sure starter, and it's on him and his coaches to iron out all the problems. Last December, I did an NFL1000 tape piece about the mechanical issues Wentz needed to deal with—footwork that affected his accuracy and velocity, shoulder and body alignment to the target, and an elongated delivery that makes it difficult for him to be consistently efficient.
That was consistent with what I analyzed in Wentz's college tape, and though I saw (and still see) great potential in his overall game, he won't hit the proverbial next level until he gets them under control.
I asked Mike Tanier, my B/R NFL colleague, for an assessment of Wentz's improvements, if any, through the Eagles' 2017 OTAs and minicamp. Mike has seen Wentz develop since his first minicamp.
"Everything about his quarterbacking is much better now than it was this time last year, when he was still officially a third-stringer," Mike told me. "His release is more compact, and he holds the ball higher. He has had some drills under duress, so this isn't just a 'throwing in shorts against air' observation.
"In terms of calling plays, audibles, cadence and the like, it's night and day. He now handles himself like an established starting QB up until the moment he cocks to throw. As to footwork, it's hard to see that in live drills from field level. We still see some off-target stuff when he resets. I doubt he is ever going to be super-smooth when it comes to sliding around the pocket.
"Overall, Wentz looks much more solid on a variety of levels now than he looked in OTAs or training camp last year, when he appeared to be simultaneously mastering a rebuilt throwing style and figuring out an NFL playbook. He also looked better in minicamp than in Stage 3 OTAs, which should be expected.
"A few passes from this week really struck me: Wentz switching to a three-quarter arm delivery to deliver a pass into a tight window, and Wentz throwing low on a sideline route intentionally so only his receiver had an opportunity to catch it. There are still some clunkers, but these are the kinds of high-difficulty throws Wentz has to make to take a significant leap forward."
Head coach Doug Pederson, a former NFL quarterback, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, is in charge of Wentz's overhaul along with offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo. Wentz also worked with noted performance coach Adam DeDeaux at 3DQB in Los Angeles, so he has enough in his head to deal with after more than a calendar year as an NFL quarterback. He also had laser eye surgery in the offseason.
"Way more comfortable," Wentz told The MMQB's Peter King in mid-June about how the changes have manifested on the field. "It's OTAs, I know. But things have slowed down. I'm not thinking about everything anymore—last year I was.
"Now I can feel the important things early in the play—where's my answer, what are my options, what will work? It's a different game when you can dial it down and feel you know what's important to look for, and you're not looking at every little thing out there. I mean, Cover 2 is Cover 2."
And that's another issue Wentz and the Eagles will have to improve this season. Wentz talked with King about his awareness of the tighter coverage windows in the NFL over college, but beyond the mechanical issues, Wentz came to the NFL without a consistent ability to read coverages, and it showed in his rookie season.
To the Eagles' credit, Wentz was given a palette of easy reads as much as possible. Beyond that, there were problems, and as his first season progressed, defenses started to jump his throws and present him with more disguised coverages to confuse him. More and more, it worked.
When he could read one side of the field and keep a focus on his primary target to the first-read side, Wentz had few problems. He has all the raw physical tools to succeed, so plays like his first regular-season touchdown pass—this 19-yarder to Jordan Matthews (No. 81)—were not a problem.
Wentz never turns his head to the right; he's going left all the way, and Matthews helps his young quarterback's case by getting excellent outside leverage to the boundary to beat the coverage from cornerback Tramon Williams.
Other scores came from Wentz's mobility and his ability to play outside of structure. Such plays require no more field reading than finding the open man in what the quarterback hopes will be blown coverage outside the original design, but it's still impressive how Wentz broke out of the pocket to throw downfield to halfback Darren Sproles (No. 43) after seeing pressure up the middle in this 73-yard touchdown against the Steelers in Week 3.
First, Wentz side-stepped defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt (No. 91), then he moved up and through the pocket and hit Sproles in the open field. Note how the threat of the run held linebacker Ryan Shazier (No. 50) between going after Wentz and covering Sproles. Sproles took advantage of Shazier's hesitation and juked a few more Steelers on his way to the end zone.
Philadelphia's coaches have to be excited at the potential of Wentz's mobility and his ability to throw on the run.
Where the scramble drill goes wrong for Wentz, or for any other quarterback, is when it's more about moving out of the pocket and less about having a plan once he gets there. There were times that, as impressive as Wentz's flailings away from pressure were, they put him in problematic positions.
This Week 16 interception against the Giants is a great example.
There are six men at the line for the Giants pre-snap, so Wentz may be expecting a blitz here. He does get one as five defenders rush through, but he also gets linebacker Keenan Robinson (No. 57) dropping into coverage. When Wentz looks to his left, he sees his targets covered in the Giants' man defense with Robinson as the underneath defender, and that combined with the pressure forces him to bail.
With both ends of the pocket collapsing, Wentz moves to his right as receiver Bryce Treggs (No. 16) runs a deep over route from the left side of the formation to the right sideline. He's followed by Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (No. 41), who makes an incredible last-second route jump.
Full marks to Rodgers-Cromartie for that, but Wentz also did himself no favors by boxing himself in to the right sideline and limiting his reads as defensive end Romeo Okwara (No. 78) chased him to the edge of the field. He had no option but Treggs, which made Rodgers-Cromartie's play easier.
Few plays better illustrated Wentz's tunnel vision, and struggles anticipating coverage changes, than this Kam Chancellor interception when the Eagles played the Seahawks in Week 11.
At the start of the play, Chancellor (No. 31) was aligned just behind linebacker depth on the left seam, and Wentz's read was to receiver Dorial Green-Beckham (No. 18), who ran an intermediate in-cut from the offensive left side.
Wentz looked to Chancellor's spot at the start of the play, and then he focused on Green-Beckham while ignoring that Chancellor was converging on the ball. He had an easy pick, and it's doubtful Wentz ever saw him coming.
None of this is to say Wentz is a disaster—he's just a young quarterback on his way, and when comparing him to Jared Goff of the Rams, selected with the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, it's clear Wentz is a lot farther along. He looks far more comfortable in his offense, as limited as it had to be at times.
In addition, the Eagles have made Wentz's job ostensibly easier by bringing receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to the team via free agency, giving him a true No. 1 receiver when healthy in Jeffery and a capable speed/possession target in Smith.
"I would say that obviously he's been working extremely hard at everything we've done," Pederson recently said of his quarterback. "He's really understanding our offense and our scheme, and that's part of it too—making good choices and decisions with the ball. He's been sharp. It's exciting to watch him and just excited now headed into camp."
When training camp hits in August, the pressure will begin anew for Wentz. He will have fewer excuses. No longer is he a rookie who wasn't expected to start. No longer does he have an undermanned receiver group. No longer will he be able to get away with those early easy reads. It became clear in the second half of the season the league caught up with him, as the league tends to do.
Wentz's growth must be twofold—both mental and mechanical. A second-year "breakout season" is a lot to ask of any player with those demands. It's more likely Wentz will continue to take steps forward without the proverbial light going on. In my predraft scouting report detailing Wentz's NFL viability, I compared him to Ben Roethlisberger for several reasons, including stature, arm strength, mobility and upside.
With that comparison, it's important to remember that Roethlisberger didn't find his groove until his fourth season in 2007. That was the first season in which he threw for more than 18 touchdowns (he threw 32), and he had led the league in interceptions the year before with 23.
This is the more likely near future for Carson Wentz: Continued development at an unforgiving position.