Carson Wentz is the embodiment of question that football needs to ask itself: At what point do we, as analysts, observers and decision makers, stop excusing consistent flaws from a rookie quarterback as “rookie mistakes?” Rookie quarterbacks are often looked at through a warped lens that highlights a player’s peaks and fades a player’s blemishes. Every miscue that a rookie quarterback makes gets excused because of their lack of NFL experience, but that mindset assumes that all mistakes are alike and that all mistakes root from the same place.
There are mistakes that quarterbacks make and flaws that they have that are integral to who the quarterback is. Mechanics, play style and processing speed are the cogs to any quarterback’s overall function. Those three things will produce the rest of what is seen when watching a quarterback, such as decision making and accuracy.
Wentz’s cogs aren’t as impressive as they were said to be throughout his draft process and rookie season. He was sold to be a “pro ready” prospect whose peaks would be accompanied by dependable snap-to-snap play, but Wentz’s peaks came too few and far between, while his snap-to-snap play was nowhere near as consistent as it needed to be. Even now, though, Wentz’s peaks continue to be sold as a reason to brush off all of his blemishes. While that is fair to some degree, it would be foolish to block out all of Wentz’s issues as “rookie mistakes.”
Most mechanical functions are not fixable. The speed and efficiency at which a quarterback gets through his drop and executes one-read footwork can be worked on in the NFL, but by the time a player gets to the NFL, most of what he does is apart of him. Drops are something that are drilled/taught from the jump and they are a fairly negotiable movement, so it’s plausible that a young quarterback never received proper/strict drop technique until he entered the league. Most other movements that a quarterback makes are natural. They are a combination of innate awareness, comfort, agility and coordination.
The way that a quarterback establishes his base when throwing the football is not going to change. As quarterbacks grow older, they tend to become more and more comfortable throwing without traditionally establishing their base, but that is only true of quarterbacks who already set themselves up well in the first place. Coordinating a plant (front) leg and establishing a base to throw from is such a repetitive movement that a quarterback eventually develops habits he can not break. There are plenty of aesthetic variations to setting up a proper base and they can all work just the same, but there is a wrong way to set up a base and that is a tough brick to build upon when a team bets on a young quarterback.
Wentz has some of the most cumbersome feet in the NFL. His front leg is out of place on almost every drop back and is rarely established correctly when he goes to throw. This is one of the more egregious examples of Wentz’s lazy front leg, though plays to this effect happen throughout Wentz’s film catalog.
Wentz’s footwork at the end of his drop is critical. Once he gets to the top of his drop and takes his hop-step to establish himself in the pocket, Wentz needs to get his front leg out front under him and keep it in a position that allows him to move it freely (ideally, just outside his hips–about shoulder width–and parallel with his back foot). Instead, Wentz keeps his front foot tucked in too tight too his midline and pressed forward just enough to be offset from his back leg. Wentz’s plant step ends up being too tight to his midline and he can’t move his front leg wide enough to fully bring his hips around because of where his front foot was initially. The throw ends up sailing wide of an open receiver.
Wentz completes this throw, but his heavy front leg halted any chance of yards after the catch by forcing the receiver to make a leaping catch behind his body. Again, Wentz’s front leg was posted too tight to his midline and too far forward. Wentz’s entire alignment is off in this example, though. His back foot needed to be placed directly behind him so as to not open his hips to the throw before needing to make the throw. If Wentz’s back foot was placed directly behind him, his hips would be pointing straight down the field, which would have put Wentz in a better position to bring his hips around to his target. With both feet being placed poorly and Wentz not being able to bring his hips around all the way, Wentz is forced to use little more than his arm to complete the throw. The ball gets there, but Wentz costed his offense an opportunity for yards after the catch and a bigger play than the one they got.
Inopportune ball placement is more of a problem than is often lead on. So long as the ball is caught, the play is normally deemed a success. That is not necessarily the case. Maybe it’s me being a perfectionist, but plays that leave room for yards after the catch need to be capitalized upon almost every time. Of course, there are going to be plays where the pocket is collapsing and the quarterback can have a successful play by simply completing the pass. Conversely, in plays like the one above, the quarterback needs to put the throw in a good spot for the wide receiver. There is no excuse not to. The quarterback has time in the pocket and space around the wide receiver. That play has to be more than a completion at the spot the receiver catches it at.
Play style tends to get misinterpreted when a quarterback has a certain skill set. Mobile quarterbacks with impressive arm strength often get pinned as being aggressive passers. Often times they are, so the stereotype is not completely unwarranted, but it does not always fit. Derek Carr, for example, is perceived to be a highly aggressive quarterback. In reality, Carr is a somewhat aggressive quarterback who trusts certain players rather than himself and is closer to the middle of the spectrum. That is not at all to say Carr is not a good quarterback because of that, but he isn’t quite the gunslinger that he’s perceived to be.
Wentz, to a lesser degree, has fallen victim to the same trap. Wentz is talked about as if he is an aggressive deep passer who is willing to take shots and make tough throws. He’s shown that he can and on occasion will make those throws, but Wentz is quite conservative and it is not just a nature of Doug Pederson’s offense. Wentz has plenty of moments where he gets gun shy and misses out on an opportunity to make a play or a better one than the one he made.
This is an incriminating still shot. To the top of the photo, an Eagles receiver is breaking toward the right sideline without any defenders being in a position to defend a possible throw. That throw is open as could be. Unfortunately, instead of noticing the wide open receiver and committing to him, Wentz froze in the pocket and took a sack. In fairness to Wentz, the blitzer did have somewhat of an easy path to Wentz, but there was ample time and space for Wentz to get this throw to the open receiver. This would have been a scenario–with the blitzer crashing on him–where mediocre placement on the throw would have been acceptable, but Wentz never let go of the ball to begin with.
This play highlights more than one of Wentz’s flaws, some of which will be covered later, but the most painful error is that Wentz did not pull the trigger on the deep-in route when he had the chance. T the deep-in route ran over the middle of the field was Wentz’s second read on this play. Wentz initially looked for the vertical route down the numbers to his right, but when he came off that read, he peeked over to the middle of the field. For whatever reason, Wentz quickly shied away from throwing over the middle of the field, frantically jumped out of the pocket and threw a poor ball to a running back who was not in a good position to make a play.
The risk/reward for any given throw is dramatized more and more the further the ball is thrown. Naturally, shorter passes are more likely to be completed, but not offer as much of a pay off; intermediate and deep passes are less likely to be completed, but the reward for completing them can be devastating to the defense. Quarterbacks who tend to be risk-averse are able to maintain credible stat lines because they are completing a high volume of easier throws and generating some sort of positive yardage on those plays. Quarterbacks who tend to be more aggressive will end up with lower completion rates and less impressive efficiency stats, but the value that they have in generating demoralizing plays matters and is tougher to quantify than efficiency. Beating a defense over and over on a 15 yard throw that they are supposed to be able to defend will wear on most defenses.
To be more concise, explosive plays matter. Football is the peak of human emotion and explosive plays are the peak of the peak. The offense will feed off of explosive plays and defenses will deteriorate when constantly barraged by plays they could not prevent because the offensive players were simply better than them. Cam Newton is the epitome of explosive plays being able to outweigh efficiency. Newton does not complete passes at a high rate, but he constantly makes throws 20, 30, 40 or 50 yards down the field, not to mention he is a weapon as a runner. Newton makes plays that can not be defend–sometimes he’s just better than the defense is.
Every quarterback has that ability in them; not necessarily to the level that Newton does, but every quarterback who can maintain comfort, mechanics and aggression, is capable of consistently making plays that are indefensible. Wentz has not shown that he is willing to maintain aggression over the course of a game, nor has he shown quality mechanics or comfort in his movements. More often than not, Wentz’s aggression only begins to show when it is too late and he is playing from behind. By then, defenses are more prepared to defend passes further down the field, which gives Wentz little room for accuracy errors.
Pre-snap reads and post-snap adjustments are not one in the same. Both are often lumped into the same category of “mental ability,” but they require different traits and skills in order to be good at them. Pre-snap reading requires film study, an understanding of leverage between a given receiver and a defender, and the ability to consistently count off numbers to each side of the field. Pre-snap ability is something that quarterbacks can improve on year-to-year because it is not necessarily a talent, it is the ability to check off what options are/are not open before the play begins.
Wentz has proven himself to be a proficient pre-snap quarterback. His understanding of leverage and where quick routes will open up is superb. On route combinations such as double-outs, slant-flat, slant-curl, etc., Wentz consistently identifies who should be open before he snaps the ball. Wentz then has to execute a quick one-read throw, which he is perfectly functional at. However, Wentz freezes in the pocket if his initial read is not there, leaving him to be a sitting duck for opposing pass rushers and an easy read for opposing defensive backs.
Justis Mosqueda, who writes for Bleacher Report and makes up half of the Setting The Edge podcast, has always said that “you can see Wentz thinking.” What he means by that is that there are moments where you can see Wentz pause to try to process what is going on. Wentz can’t keep his feet busy and process the coverage at the same time, and that leads to a number of problems.
The root of this issue is that Wentz doesn’t know how to keep his feet active in a way that sets him up for each read in his progression. When Wentz comes off of his first read, his feet get stuck in mud and do not move until he goes to make a throw. Wentz seldom sets himself up for the next read in his progression, nor does he manage pass rushers effectively in the pocket.
The way a quarterback navigates the pocket is only partially coachable. Navigation can only be coached in rigid ways that prepare a quarterback for specific situations. For example, a quarterback can be taught to slide up immediately if the pocket opens up in front of him–Wentz can do that. Most pressure is random and unpredictable, though, and it can come from multiple directions at once. In the NFL, it often does. A quarterback can not be taught how to navigate a pocket that is collapsing all around him. Quarterbacks either have that ability or they don’t.
Likewise, a quarterback’s sense of rhythm is less coachable than it may appear. Quarterbacks who have an adequate sense of rhythm can improve upon that, but quarterbacks who lack rhythm altogether will not suddenly be able to learn it. Wentz lacks rhythm. He comes off of his first read and stalls. Wentz’s feet tell the whole story.
After making a quick shoulder fake to his initial read, Wentz looks to his left to get to his post-snap reads. Wentz then locks his feet into place and stares at his second read. You can see Wentz halting all of his other processes to think about whether or not the throw is open. In doing so, Wentz did not prepare himself to comfortably move onto his next read or make room for himself in the pocket. After an abnormally delayed decision to not throw the ball to his second read, Wentz bailed a pocket that was still manageable and clean, and ran himself directly into a sack.
It’s tough to envision Wentz getting considerably better at operating past his initial read. More often than not, quarterbacks are comfortable with adjusting after their initial read or they are not. In some cases, a quarterback is comfortable with it, but can be a little too aggressive when doing so, like a Jameis Winston. Quarterbacks like Winston can be molded, though, because they have the base trait of being comfortable with moving onto secondary and tertiary reads and setting themselves up in the pocket to make those throws. Those types of quarterbacks do not need to learn how to play beyond their initial read, they just need to be reigned in and be taught to make more conscious decisions. While that sort of development is not a sure thing, it is plausible and practical, whereas teaching a quarterback to be comfortable is not likely.
Where Wentz Fares Well
Wentz has a couple of traits that create a somewhat functional baseline for his level of plays. First, Wentz is proficient in reading the field prior to the snap and correctly identifying easy throws. Wentz is often able to get easy yards that the defense grants him by alignment and he will force defenses to pay for giving leeway underneath. These short throws are when Wentz is at his best mechanically, so he completes them at a fairly high rate and does a fine job of keeping the offense on schedule with short passes.
In addition to his pre-snap ability, Wentz has also proven that he is a gutsy player who is willing to fight through pass rushers to make a play. That is not to say he always sets himself up well to do so or that he always completes those passes, but he remains fairly calm and confident when evading free pass rushers. That has value because it allows Wentz an opportunity or two per game that other, less calm quarterbacks would not have a chance at.
Wentz’s athleticism gives him a high floor in terms of keeping himself clean in a panic and being able to bail the pocket to make plays. Some quarterbacks would crumble in these two situations, but Wentz has enough poise and athleticism to give these types of plays a fighting chance. It’s not a special trait, seeing as most good quarterbacks can do this consistently, but it does lend to Wentz having a high floor as a functional quarterback.
Wentz’s best throws are pretty, too. They do not show up often enough (for the myriad of reasons discussed earlier), but when they happen, they are undeniably impressive. Wentz’s arm strength allows him to make throws down the field that threaten defenses and force them to respect the deep ball, giving Wentz easier throws underneath.
These are deadly throws. Deep corner (first play) is one of the toughest routes to throw. It requires timing, arm strength and touch. Wentz has the ability to make that throw. Go routes (second play) are not quite the same degree of difficulty because the angle is easier, but any throw down the field is a tough one purely because of the distance. Wentz’s arm strength gives him the ability to be able to stick this route consistently, even if he does not actually do so.
Carson Wentz is one of the more troubling quarterback evaluations in recent memory. He has a couple of quality baseline traits that should prevent him from completely busting, but he is lacking in other critical areas in a way that should prevent him from blossoming into a star. To be fully transparent, that makes Wentz better than I thought him to be as a prospect. My final verdict on Wentz was that he was going to be a high risk pick whose faults (mechanics, processing speed, etc.) would almost surely do him in, at least as a starting quarterback.
Now, it’s tough to say that Wentz can not be one of the top 32 quarterbacks in the NFL. His pre-snap proficiency, adequate poise and flashes of play making ability should be enough to keep him among the NFL’s top 32. At the same time, that does not mean Wentz is a good quarterback relative to other top quarterbacks, nor does it mean Wentz is going to be a quarterback that a team can bet on to keep their team in games.
To an extent, I was wrong about Carson Wentz. He’s better than I had given him credit for and he has proven me wrong in that he can be a semi-functional quarterback. The question now is whether or not Wentz can be a good quarterback who elevates his team. That is left to be seen, and maybe a better supporting cast, particularly pass catchers, will aid Wentz moving forward. Regardless, betting on Wentz is something I won’t be doing.