In Support of Carson Wentz

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

Through the first three games of his career, Carson Wentz has been nothing short of sensational. He has completed 64.7% of his passes for 769 yards, 5 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, on 7.5 ypa and with a 103.8 quarterback rating. Wentz holds the record for most pass attempts to start a career without an interception (102 attempts), received the highest grade ever awarded by Pro Football Focus to a rookie quarterback through three games, and led the Eagles to a 3-0 mark and the second most points scored in the NFL.

Not bad for a rookie.

Despite the impressive performances, some pundits are telling everyone to tap the brakes on the Wentz-hype. They rely on three principle arguments: (1) Wentz has only played three games; (2) Wentz cannot throw deep, but has instead padded his stats by checking down to open receivers; and (3) Wentz cannot work through his progressions, but instead locks onto his primary target. Cian Fahey even went so far as to compare Wentz’s rookie season to RGIII’s, suggesting it is the byproduct of a system and not quarterback skill.

The first point is completely legitimate. While three games is a good enough sample size to evaluate a draft prospect, you need considerably more evidence to judge a player’s long term potential. So we should hold off on booking tickets to Wentz’s Hall of Fame induction speech, at least for a few more years.

But the last two points are not supported by the tape or the numbers.

Working Through Progressions

Let’s start with the claim that Wentz cannot work through his progressions, but instead locks onto his primary target.

While I concede that Wentz often throws to his first read, I disagree that this is actually an issue. That’s because this criticism ignores why Wentz is throwing to his first read so often: because the receiver is open. If Wentz was constantly throwing to his first read and that receiver was covered? Then we’d have a problem. But he isn’t. Wentz is simply making the right decision within the confines of the play he was running and the defense he was facing. He shouldn’t be penalized for that.

Here’s an example. There’s 12:10 left in the 3rd quarter against the Browns. The Browns are showing press man coverage with a single high safety, a coverage they had been playing all game. Wentz brings Jordan Matthews in motion; this forces Matthews’ defender to follow and confirms what Wentz already suspected: the Browns are man coverage. The Eagles are running crossing routes over the middle, which are designed to beat man coverage. So Wentz locks onto Zach Ertz from the moment he snaps the ball because he knows that Ertz should be open. He doesn’t have to look anywhere else.

Watch this play without understanding why Wentz locked onto Ertz, and you will likely (wrongfully) assume that Wentz cannot work through his progressions.

But there are enough examples of Wentz working through his progressions in the tape to prove that theory wrong. Against the Browns, the Eagles were running a slightly modified version of the “sail concept” with Jordan Matthews running a go route, Zach Ertz starting inside but then breaking outside with a corner route, and Darren Sproles running a flat route off the play action pass.

Wentz was required to perform a deep-to-short read, starting with Matthews’s deep vertical route and working back towards the line of scrimmage. As you can see from the clip below, Wentz recognizes that Matthews doesn’t have a step on his man to the outside, so he goes to his next read — Zach Ertz on the corner route — and connects for a 15 yard gain:

Look closely enough in the second highlight contained within that clip, and you will see Wentz’s head, shoulders and body pivot away from the deep route to Ertz on the corner route. It’s all done in one, smooth transition, a sign that Wentz is comfortable moving off his first read and onto his second and third.

This is atypical for rookie quarterbacks, who usually struggle to work through their progressions with fluidity and confidence: “The ability to read defenses is not something that players have learned to a high degree coming out of college,” Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh once said. “You can see if he locates that secondary receiver — or maybe even an emergency outlet receiver — with ease or with a sense of urgency. This should work like a natural progression, not a situation where it’s — “Oh, my gosh, now I must look over here … no, over there.” You can see which quarterbacks handle these situations with grace. These are the types who have a chance to perform with consistency in the NFL.” 

It’s why we saw quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Big Ben and Sam Bradford take years of seasoning in the NFL before they were able to consistently work through their progressions. While Wentz isn’t on the level of Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, he is well ahead of the curve set by most rookie quarterbacks.

All of this ties into one of Wentz’s greatest strengths: the ability to make good decisions on a consistent basis. As the venerable Chris Brown once said,  good decision making requires a quarterback to know “where to go with the ball,” how to “avoid the killer mistake” and to have the “knowledge and the ability to quickly process information while under fire.” It’s “not enough to make the right decision some of the time: If the passer does the right thing four out of five times but throws a brutal pick-six on the fifth attempt, the mistake will mask the successes.”

So far, Wentz has made great decisions way more often than not. Out of the 102 passes he’s thrown, I counted one pass that was interceptable: this pass to Dorial Green-Beckham against the Pittsburg Steelers, where Wentz threw to DGB’s inside shoulder when he had outside leverage.

But, that is one interceptable pass out of 102 total, an absurd (and likely unsustainable) rate of good decision making that aligns with research from Jeff Dooley of PFF.com, who stated that Wentz “has the lowest percentage of negative-graded plays among quarterbacks this year, hardly ever putting the ball in harm’s way.”

Simply put, the tape doesn’t support claims that Wentz is a one-read quarterback that cannot work through his progressions. I’ll leave you to guess why these so-called draft “experts” are suggesting otherwise.

Throwing Deep

So what about the claim that Wentz is a check-down artist that never throws deep? For starters, the numbers don’t back this up. Wentz’s 7.54 yards per attempt ranks 14th in the NFL, ahead of Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, Andrew Luck and Big Ben, to name a few.

But even if Wentz’s ypa are somewhat skewed by his receivers gaining significant yards after the catch (especially on screens), we’ve seen enough evidence in the tape to know that Wentz is not only capable of throwing the ball deep, he excels at it. Wentz’s first touchdown pass of his career was a perfectly placed 20-yard pass to Jordan Matthews in the corner of the end zone:

Here is a closeup of where the ball is placed relative to Matthews’ defender. By putting the ball on Matthews’ outside shoulder, the Browns cornerback has no chance to make the play. The only way this doesn’t go for a touchdown is if Matthews drops it (fair possibility all things considered).

Matthews TD.jpg

Later in the game, Wentz delivered another perfect strike, this time on a 40 yard bomb to Nelson Agholor, who was in single coverage against All Pro cornerback Joe Haden:

Again, look at the ball placement relative to where Agholor’s defender is. The ball is placed on Agholor’s outside shoulder, leading Agholor to the pylon, but away from Joe Haden. You could not ask for a better ball placement on this throw.

One of Wentz’s most impressive throws came against the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. The Bears got pressure up the middle and from the right side of the line, forcing Wentz to flush out of the pocket to his left. Wentz had a running lane, but stopped just short of taking off to hit Nelson Agholor between three defenders.

This would have been an impressive throw if Wentz was standing tall in the pocket with his feet set. Wentz instead made it while moving to his left and throwing across his body, which magnifies the degree of difficulty by a considerable margin. Look again at where that ball is placed; the only player able to make a play on the ball is Agholor. That’s simply an incredible throw for any quarterback to make, let alone a rookie quarterback making his second start.

One last example. Watch this pass to Jordan Matthews against the Cleveland Browns. Wentz delivers this 20 yard pass on a rope and in a spot where only Matthews can catch it:

Bill Walsh once stated that “Some players can throw 80 yards, but they aren’t good passers. Good passing has to do with accuracy, timing, and throwing a ball with touch so it is catchable. It is a plus to be able to throw a ball on a line for 35 yards, but not if it is off target or arrives in such a way that it is difficult to catch.”

Indeed, if you cannot deliver a catchable pass on a consistent basis, it doesn’t matter how hard you throw or how fast you run. Just ask Michael Vick.

Wentz no doubt has impressive arm strength, but his precise ball placement is even more encouraging. Here is a screen shot of the moment right before Matthews caught the pass. If Wentz throws this 6 inches in the other direction, the defender likely knocks this pass incomplete:

Matthews low and away.jpg

Those are just four examples of Wentz attacking the defense with deep and intermediate throws with good arm strength and precise accuracy. There are many others, so you cannot say that Wentz only attacks defenses with short passes.

Throwing Under Pressure

Since I have your attention, I wanted to touch on two other areas that make Wentz such a tantalizing prospect moving forward: his ability to throw accurately under pressure and how Wentz uses his legs to extend plays instead of shorten them.

Ron Jaworski once told a great story about the difference between a quarterback that understands passing concepts versus a quarterback that can apply that understanding in live game situations: “I’m doing a “Monday Night Football” broadcast years ago, and during the production meeting…Joey Harrington was talking about the system, and says “I love this system, I have total control at the line of scrimmage, if I see something I can audible to it. ‘Two strong,’ I audible to this route adjustment. ‘Two weak’ I can adjust to this.” He’s standing up in front of us and showing us. It was beautiful. Joey knew the offense in and out….Then first play of the game, there’s two defenders to his right, they came with a blitz, he dropped back, held the ball and got smashed. You sit in a film room and put your feet up and say “When this guy comes here, I’ll hit that guy there.” But Harrington couldn’t apply it. There are a lot of guys who are great at the chalkboard, can tell you where to go, but they need to execute it.

Wentz has played only three games in his career but has already shown that he can retain his accuracy, arm strength, and mechanics when under pressure. Consider this throw against the Bears with 4:24 left in the second quarter. Wentz hits Trey Burton in stride despite having pressure bearing down on him almost immediately:

Or consider this throw against the Bears. Wentz was hit as he released the ball, but had the wherewithal to throw Celek open and hit him in stride:

As you can see, Wentz is halfway through his release before Celek has yet to break into the post route. Wentz knows he’s about to get crushed, yet he stands tall in the pocket and delivers the ball into an open space, throwing Celek open and away from the two Bears defenders guarding him:

Throwing Open.jpg

Those are advanced level throws that we have not seen in Philadelphia in a long, long time. So while I agree we shouldn’t get too carried away with the Wentz hype, we also cannot ignore that this kid has been playing at an extremely high level.

The final thing I wanted to touch on was Wentz’s functional athleticism. One of the biggest reasons the comparison to RGIII is so off-base is because Wentz uses his legs to extend plays, while RGIII consistently used his legs to run after the first sign of trouble.

The perfect illustration of this was Wentz’s touchdown pass to Darren Sproles. Wentz used his athleticism to avoid the pressure from Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, kept his eyes downfield, and stopped short of the line of scrimmage so that he could deliver a perfectly placed touch pass to Darren Sproles:

Compare that to this article from the Washington Post, where Chris Cooley explains in painstaking detail how Robert Griffin, III was unable to process information quickly and make the right reads. You simply cannot compare Wentz’s play with RGIII’s with a straight face.

Conclusion

I agree that we need to see more from Carson Wentz before we crown him the next great young quarterback in the league. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore how impressive he has played. Wentz has been fantastic, and the main criticisms aimed at him are wholly off-base. So the next time someone tells you Wentz can’t throw deep or work through his progressions, show them this article. Because those claims are not supported by the numbers or the tape.

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6 thoughts on “In Support of Carson Wentz

  1. Great analysis as always.
    One comment about RGIII: Because his post-rookie career has been a disaster, I think people forget just how good he was as a rookie. He had probably the best rookie QB season of all time. Not just that–he was a legitimate MVP candidate. Comparing Wentz’s rookie season to RGIII’s isn’t an insult.
    Of course the comparison is intended as a troll-y warning, and is essentially banal (ok, sure–no matter how good someone is, there’s always a chance that it doesn’t). But I think your analysis of why Wentz is unlikely to flame out like RGIII is on point.

    • I agree that RGIII was good during his rookie year. He played well and made the right decisions within the confines of the offense that he was running. The difference, at least as I see it, between what RGIII did, and what Wentz is doing now, is that Wentz is showing that he is capable of performing the advanced aspects of quarterbacking (going through progressions, changing plays/protection schemes at the LOS), while I did not see that from RGIII. Put another way, RGIII’s play was not sustainable long term because it was much more the product of a system, and he never showed that he had the potential to beat defenses when his first read was taken away. Wentz, on the other hand, has shown that ability, so I think his ceiling is much higher.

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