Eagles All-22: Evaluating Carson Wentz’s Development
Between Nelson Agholor’s crisis of confidence, Lane Johnson suing the NFL and NFLPA and an unclear playoff picture that lay ahead, it can be easy to forget the most important storyline this season in Philadelphia: How’s Carson Wentz coming along?
It’s a tricky question to answer because Wentz’s last six games haven’t been as clear-cut as his first four. To start the season, the 23-year-old was impressive, and evaluations of his performance only ranged from positive to very positive. But since then, Wentz has cooled down, been inconsistent and made a few head-scratching mistakes to go along with impressive displays of his talent.
In other words: He’s been exactly what you’d expect from a rookie quarterback.
But to make the evaluation even tougher, Wentz doesn’t have much talent around him. Rookie fifth-round pick Halapoulivaati Vaitai seemed to settle in at right tackle before his Grade 2 MCL sprain sidelined him in Seattle, but he’s had plenty of moments where he didn’t give Wentz much time in the pocket. At receiver, all three Eagles wideouts who have been active on game day for more than a few weeks (Agholor, Dorial Green-Beckham and Jordan Matthews) rank in the top-20 in the NFL in drop rate, per Pro Football Focus.
“Carson has been what we thought he would be on and off the field,” said Howie Roseman, who pulled the trigger to trade up to the second overall pick in the draft for Wentz. “All the stuff we saw when we evaluated him — tremendous work ethic, leadership, the physical skills — and the ceiling just keeps getting bigger for him.
“It’s about the team and making sure that the team around him is taken care of as well. That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s such a team sport. You’ve got so many guys on this team; it’s different than basketball. That’s our job is to make sure that we’re getting a team built around him so that we’ve got a chance to compete here.”
The most important element of Wentz’s recent regression isn’t so much his completion percenage as the Eagles’ receivers rank near the top of the league in drops, and it’s not so much yards per attempt as rookie undrafted free agent Bryce Treggs is the only real deep threat on the team.
It’s the interceptions Wentz has thrown, as he’s given away two each in three of his last five games, with just four touchdown passes to match. Wentz ranks second in NFL history in passes thrown in his rookie year before his first career interception after not throwing a pick until late in his fourth game, but his decision-making and timing haven’t been as good lately.
One common thread between Wentz’s pair of picks in Seattle is extra hitch steps, according to former NFL quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan, who played almost a decade in the NFL, including several years in the West Coast Offense and one in Green Bay with Pederson. (Quarterbacks will typically hitch, or bounce forward some, after completing five- or seven-step drops.)
On Wentz’s first interception against the Seahawks, the Eagles faced first-and-10 at midfield with 24 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Pederson dialed up the dagger concept, one of the most commonly used schemes in football. It’s a high-low concept that involves a vertical route to stretch the field, a deep dig route and a shallow drag route.
In this iteration, the Eagles went with 11 personnel out of shotgun as Green-Beckham was the left outside receiver, Matthews was the left slot receiver, Zach Ertz was the right slot receiver, Treggs was the right outside receiver and Darren Sproles was in the backfield to Wentz’s right. Matthews ran a seam route, which is simply designed to get safety Earl Thomas out of the play. (“You don’t even have to look at (Matthews), because you know it’s not going to be there,” O’Sullivan notes.)
Then, Wentz decided who to throw the ball to by reading how deep linebacker Bobby Wagner (highlighted below) drops into coverage. If Wagner gets too deep, Wentz should hit Ertz underneath, but if Wagner is too shallow, Wentz should hit Green-Beckham behind Wagner.
While Wentz makes the right read to hit Green-Beckham, he decides to do so too late and holds onto the ball too long as he takes extra hitch steps and allows Kam Chancellor to grab his first interception of the season.
“(Chancellor) is just reading his eyes. He should never be able to make that play. Ever. You drop back, keep your eyes down the middle of the field, take one hitch and throw it. Not only is he kind of staring him down, but he’s also late. The late part is worse,” O’Sullivan said. “Any time you start taking extra hitches in the pocket, you’re going to be in trouble.”
On Wentz’s second interception, the Eagles were in a very different situation, but the end result was similar. Facing second-and-6 from his own 6-yard-line, Wentz threw a ball deep down the field to Treggs, who was covered both by Richard Sherman and Thomas. While Wentz was both late on the throw and trying to force a big play that just wasn’t there, O’Sullivan noted how the turnover essentially acted as a 53-yard punt with no return as Philadelphia was operating in the shadow of their own goal line.
Still, Sherman hauled in the pass for an easy pick.
“I just forced it,” Wentz said. “We called the shot, it wasn’t there and I should have just checked it down.”
SET TARGET LINE
Pederson agrees with the critique that Wentz was too late on some of his throws against the Seahawks, while also noting the impact playing in Seattle has on a quarterback and the process Wentz is going through in terms of processing information.
“It’s fair. There were some times where he was a little bit late or kept his eyes in a spot too long and could have gone other places with the ball,” Pederson said. “I think, too, it’s just the speed of the defense that he was facing, on turf and with the crowd noise — all that is huge. It does affect you. And then just knowing game situations — understanding down and distance, play calls, designs and everything — and what you’re seeing on defense and things that he continues to process through.”
Wentz was also late on a deep ball to Treggs in the first quarter, which led to an incompletion instead of a long touchdown pass. On first-and-10 at Seattle’s 46-yard-line with 9:54 remaining in the first quarter, Pederson decided to take a shot down the field. He gave his quarterback another high-low read off of play-action with seven guys in to block as he paired Treggs’ deep post route with Agholor’s deep over route.
“I think he has the post if he lets it go on time, but he’s a hitch late and then he just throws a poor ball — it’s too far inside. (Treggs) runs right by the guy. If (Wentz) throw it on the line (Treggs) is running on, it’s a touchdown,” O’Sullivan said. “They got him. Shoot, the safety spins.”
Wentz’s footwork on the play was also off. Pederson has talked a few times this season about how the Eagles are trying to improve the quarterback’s set target line, which is when you get your lower body and your feet on a direct line to the receiver.
“If you look at his feet, it’s almost like his feet are lined up to throw the over, and then he’s like, ‘Oh no, I got the post!’ That was weird,” O’Sullivan said. “This is a perfect example of not doing that. To throw the over, you want your feet lined up to throw the over; just like to throw the post, you want your feet lined up to throw the post.
“Here, his feet are lined up to throw the over, but he throws the post. Your feet should be in a straight line to give yourself a chance to throw the most accurate ball, but then he decides at the last second to throw the post. You’re not as accurate and you can’t make as strong of a throw.”
However, one good thing to come out of the incompletion was it may have helped set up the Eagles’ longest play of the game.
“I think the thing that’s going to be frustrating to the quarterback is he probably has the post if he comes up and rips it, but the over is open,” O’Sullivan said. “I’d be shocked if they didn’t say, ‘You had the over the first time, let’s come back to this and throw the over.’ Those are the types of things that happen on the sidelines or in halftime. That’s just me speculating, but if I looked at this [on the sideline] and saw both the safety and the corner running with the post, I’d say, ‘We got the over. Let’s come back to this later.’”
While the Eagles didn’t run the same exact play, they ran a similar concept in the fourth quarter on their second touchdown drive of the game. O’Sullivan says some teams call the concept “NCAA” because everyone in college has plays where they pair an over route with some type of post route. O’Sullivan also noted it’s a good concept to use against cover-3, which the Seahawks primarily use, because of the area of the field the Eagles are attacking.
On this play, the Birds faced first-and-10 on their own 34-yard-line with 7:15 remaining in the fourth quarter. They used 11 personnel as Green-Beckham lined up to the left and ran a skinny post, Matthews was in the slot to the right and ran the deep over and Agholor was the right outside receiver on a dig route. Ertz stayed in to block, while Wendell Smallwood was the checkdown option after the play-action.
This time, Wentz threw a beautiful ball to Matthews on the over route, which gave the Eagles a 26-yard gain — their biggest play of the day.
“That’s just a straight-up strike. This is an absolute great throw,” O’Sullivan said. “One thing I love about this is when you get any type of underneath coverage when they’re running with their back to you, everybody loves to throw that because all they’re covering in essence is the width of their shoulders. They have no chance to make a play on the ball, which is great.”
‘HE’S GONNA BE A GREAT PLAYER’
Pete Carroll wasn’t specifically asked to break down Wentz’s performance in Seattle, but when the Seahawks head coach jumped on a 710 ESPN Seattle radio show, he couldn’t help but offer his take when one of the hosts mentioned the rookie quarterback.
“He’s gonna be really good,” Carroll said. “Did you see the number of times he looked us off? He looked us off really well. He was looking off on the curl routes [and] he was moving linebackers; that’s fantastic stuff for a guy to do. He did it on the touchdown play; he did it on two or three other plays. He was really good. That’s really advanced stuff. This is a guy who hasn’t played very much.
“He’s gonna be a great player. There’s no question. He’s got everything you need. He’s got great poise, he’s tough, he’s fast, he’s strong and he’s got some sense already — and he was changing plays and he handled the noise. He did a great job. He really did.”
Although Carroll didn’t specify what other plays he was referring to when praising Wentz for looking off defenders, he probably had Agholor’s drop in mind. Agholor ran a terrific route against Sherman and Wentz’s ball placement was superb, but what stood out the most was how Wentz moved the safety with his eyes.
By appearing ready to target Matthews along the left sideline, Thomas sprinted away from where Agholor was running, opening up a huge window for Wentz to throw into.
O’Sullivan also noted how Jason Kelce and the offensive line helped out Wentz on this play.
“What I absolutely love here — besides the quarterback play — is how the center comes off and ejects the dude out of the throwing lane,” O’Sullivan said. “When you’re a quarterback and you get that type of hole to throw the ball through — that’s pretty sweet. That’s cool to see. If you’re a quarterback watching this film, you’re like, ‘Yes, please.’”
‘WELL ON HIS WAY’
All in all, Wentz didn’t play well in Seattle. He finished the game by completing 23 of his 45 pass attempts for 218 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He averaged just 4.8 yards per attempt and recorded a 61.2 passer rating, his second-lowest mark of the season.
But, similar to previous games when he wasn’t at his best, he flashed some impressive potential. NFL Network Analyst Daniel Jeremiah, who worked as a scout for a few NFL teams, including the Eagles, was very praiseworthy of Wentz after watching the All-22 coaches film from the Seahawks game.
He makes some rookie mistakes but Wentz is going to be REALLY good. Makes some wow throws & has + poise. Needs some playmakers around him.
— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) November 22, 2016
And if you look at Wentz’s season as a whole, his overall numbers are still pretty good for a first-year player. He’s on pace to have the third-best interception ratio, fifth-most passing yards and sixth-highest completion percentage among all rookies in NFL history (h/t CSN’s Reuben Frank). So it’s no surprise the game’s best quarterbacks heap praise onto the young gun on a regular basis.
“I’ve seen a decent amount [of Wentz’s film] with some of our common opponents and I’m very impressed,” Aaron Rodgers said. “He’s been playing really well. He’s taking care of the football and making good decisions. Watching some of the throws he had late against Washington was really impressive. He can throw from numerous platforms with his feet in different spots — obviously, he’s got a big-time arm. But you see the anticipation on film, even in the Chicago game. He stood in there a couple of times, took some big hits and delivered the ball accurately. He’s well on his way.”