The evolution of a franchise quarterback is a nonstop process.
The Philadelphia Eagles' Carson Wentz has faced plenty of doubters since being selected second overall during the 2016 NFL draft. However, the second-year signal-caller's improved play now places him among the NFL's best instead of the league's lower tier.
A year ago at this time, the Eagles started a two-game slide after winning their first three contests. As a rookie, Wentz was about to experience a roller coaster ride for the rest of the season with his play continually coming into question.
The remaking of a top talent from an FCS program has been nothing short of astounding. His play peaked the last two weeks with seven touchdowns passes—including a three-touchdown performance during Thursday's 28-23 victory over the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.
Many still saw Wentz's natural ability despite so few starts at the collegiate level.
The 6'5", 237-pound dual-threat quarterback with a rocket arm seemingly came out of nowhere simply because he played at a lesser-known school—even though North Dakota State is a powerhouse program—and had 612 career passing attempts. A wrist fracture, which forced Wentz to miss eight games in 2015 before he returned for the FCS Championship Game, compounded the concerns. He then attended the Senior Bowl and fared well.
His physical tools and ability to absorb information propelled him up draft boards. Even so, some organizations remained wary.
The Cleveland Browns traded the No. 2 overall pick to the Eagles. Even a quarterback-starved franchise like the Browns struggled to see that Wentz's skill would translate to the professional ranks. Chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta explained the franchise's decision-making process to ESPN 850 WKNR's Tony Grossi:
We have to make judgments on the individual players and we're not always going to be right. But in this particular case, we just didn't feel it was necessarily the right bet to make for us at this time. Again, it comes down to individual evaluation of a player. We will not always be right on those type of things.
I think the hardest part, and where we have to stay the most disciplined, as much as you want a player, you can't invent him if he doesn't exist. In a given year, there may be two or three NFL-ready quarterbacks at the college level. In another year, there literally may be zero. There just may be not be anybody in that year who's good enough to be a top 20 quarterback in the NFL.
The Browns decision-makers should be kicking themselves because Wentz is already a top-20 quarterback and even better than that meager designation.
A year ago, the rookie didn't meet the low standard. He finished the 2016 campaign ranked 29th overall in yards per attempt (6.23) and 25th in quarterback rating (79.3).
Wentz's mechanics came under fire. The quarterback needed to improve his footwork and, especially, his elongated release.
"[The] ball is dropped down, turned out, then looped back around," an anonymous NFL evaluator told Yahoo Sports' Charles Robinson. "With his long arms and that motion, [it's] very hard to be accurate. Especially on the move. … [The] inability to get the ball out quick and on time is key."
The four-time collegiate national champion still finished his first professional season with a 62.4 completion percentage and 3,782 passing yards.
Any player who wants to be great knows success during the season starts with offseason preparation. Wentz went above and beyond to improve upon his first campaign.
According to ESPN.com's Tim McManus, the 24-year-old quarterback:
- Received corrective eye surgery. "I knew I wanted to get this surgery when I could," Wentz said. "It's been pretty life-changing, honestly."
- Traveled to California and spent time with quarterback guru Adam Dedeaux, who specializes in a quarterback's individual body mechanics.
- Added new stretching techniques. "Just some different things to get the shoulder going, get the arm going," he said.
- Changed his eating habits and training regimen.
Carson Wentz 2.0 took the field in 2017, and the difference quickly became evident.
"Without a doubt, you can see what he's been working on," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said, per the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeff McLane. "It was always there. He was always doing the right things. It's just getting to do them at a higher percentage and more consistent."
The Eagles' second touchdown against the Panthers, seen below courtesy of the NFL, encapsulates all the hard work Wentz put into this season:
Wentz to Ertz for the second time! Beautiful throw and catch for the @Eagles TD. #PHIvsCAR #FlyEaglesFly https://t.co/cgfLmGp0Si2017-10-13 02:14:18
First, the quarterback's footwork is quiet and calm in the pocket. He hits the final step in his drop, has one hitch and fires the football on target to tight end Zach Ertz for the 17-yard score.
Also, notice the angle of his arm. His elbow is parallel with his shoulder, and the ball never drops below that point. Obviously, this used to be a major issue, as Robinson once illustrated:
Charles Robinson @CharlesRobinson
#Eagles Wentz doesn't see his mechanics as a problem. #NFL personnel evaluators disagree. Here's 1-yr progression, including 2 INTs Sunday. https://t.co/Ptwg5yKOTn2016-12-5 00:15:47
Of course, a quarterback is only as good as his surrounding cast. Wentz has received plenty of help so far, too. He didn't last year, though.
The Eagles receivers continually dropped passes and stymied the offense. Jordan Matthews and Dorial Green-Beckham are no longer with the team. Veterans Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith came in via free agency. Former first-round disappointment Nelson Agholor found a home as the team's slot receiver.
When everything else breaks down, Wentz will always look toward Ertz as his security blanket.
Plus, the franchise added a legitimate backfield threat with LeGarrette Blount. The 30-year-old running back averages 5.6 yards per carry. His physical presence prevents the offense from becoming one-dimensional, and thus opens up more space for Wentz and the passing game.
With that, Wentz developed into the NFL's best third-down quarterback. A week ago, he completed 11 of 12 passes against the Arizona Cardinals on third down. He wasn't quite as effective against the Panthers by completing five of 11 passes on the down, but his performance included another third-down touchdown toss.
"In the development of becoming an elite franchise quarterback, that's something we've talked to him about from the start," Reich told reporters Tuesday. "Really, what sets you apart as a quarterback is how you perform in situational football. That's third down and the red zone. That's really what separates those elite players."
Going into the weekend, Wentz is tied for the league lead with 13 touchdown passes. Apparently, he is a top-20 quarterback.
Not only has Wentz gained that distinction, but he's also played himself into the MVP conversation after the Eagles' 5-1 start.
But he would have never been in this position if he didn't continue to better himself and benefit from the improved play of those around him.
"You saw glimpses of it when he was in college obviously with the championships and the success he had," head coach Doug Pederson said, per NBC Philly's John Clark. "... You just never know though until you get him in your building and start coaching him to see exactly what you got."
Wentz is everything a team wants in a young quarterback, even if it took some time to reach his franchise potential.