The Warts of Carson Wentz
What should we value in an NFL quarterback prospect? Every year quarterbacks cause the greatest rifts at draft time because of that question. Not only does everyone see different things when they watch players, but they also value different things, so it’s extremely difficult to find two people who fully agree on anything. Quarterback is obviously a more complex position than any other so there are more ways to divide opinion.
If you look at the skill sets of the quarterbacks who have sustained success in the NFL over the past decade, there are a few key traits that stand out.
Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger don’t share similar athletic profiles. Drew Brees is barely tall enough to see over his offensive line, whereas Ben Roethlisberger has regularly cast a shadow over the defensive ends trying to tackle him in the pocket throughout his career. Tom Brady’s most athletic act is thrusting the football forward for one-yard touchdowns while Peyton Manning’s movement was mostly confined to the pocket. Rodgers is the best athlete of the five listed players, but he wasn’t celebrated for his arm strength when he entered the NFL.
When you talk about the greatness of these quarterbacks, you don’t lose yourself in mellifluous sonnets about arm strength and physical measurements, you’re more likely to be discussing their efficiency, accuracy and intelligence. That doesn’t mean that physical talent can’t help you be a great quarterback, that’s definitely not the case. Physical talent is important but only if it’s accompanied by consistency, precision and intelligence.
Cam Newton isn’t a great quarterback because he can run people over. It helps but he wouldn’t have been the MVP last year if he wasn’t so impressive manipulating the pocket and finding his receivers at every level of the field.
Even though frame measurements and arm strength are threshold traits, traits where you need to hit a certain point or you need to have a skill set that can work around the limitations that come when you don’t hit that point, they are often amongst the most common terms mentioned during draft time. This year’s salesman for frame measurement and arm strength is North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz.
Wentz is going to go in the top 10 of the draft. Every credible media member is talking about him as a top 10 pick, and while there can be a lot of misinformation at draft time this kind of widespread surge is rarely unveiled like a Scooby Doo villain at the last moment. Mr. Anonymous Source is a big fan of Wentz, he has pontificated about Wentz possibly being the answer to the Cleveland Browns’ permanent question at the quarterback position, but he has also suggested that a team could trade up with the Tennessee Titans to take him first overall.
If you have any familiarity with the draft process, it only takes a few plays to see why Wentz is a popular prospect.
Wentz can make the spectacular throw. Against FCS defenses last year, he had enough throws to fill a pre-draft youtube highlight reel from the most fanatical of Bison alumni. At that level, his arm strength was reminiscent of what Matthew Stafford’s looks like against NFL defenders. If you are the type of draft analyst who likes to use the ‘He can make every throw’ cliche, Wentz will fill up your quota quickly.
At draft time, deep accuracy isn’t something anyone cares too much about. Arm strength takes precedence because accuracy can be worked on. Players typically don’t change all that much in terms of how accurate they are once they get to the NFL. You can tweak their mechanics or emphasize different elements of the offense to get good results from an average passer, but you’re not going to turn an inaccurate quarterback into a precision passer.
That is because physically throwing the ball is only part of the equation.
You can help a quarterback get better at putting the ball in a specific spot, but throwing the ball with precision is still more of a natural than taught trait. That is because the quarterback has to break down coverages at speed and understand how to lead his receivers to space. It’s more of a mental task than a physical one. Despite his ability to make spectacular throws, Wentz doesn’t show off an understanding of how to be a precise passer to any level of the field.
On this play, Wentz does a good job to evade the immediate pressure in his face. He resets and makes a decisive movement to arrive in space in the pocket. Once there, he can cleanly deliver the ball downfield.
This is the type of throw where Wentz has to understand the coverage to complete the pass because his receiver isn’t wide open. He is open if Wentz leads him correctly. Leading him correctly requires pushing the ball over the safety playing the middle of the field so the ball arrives between the goalposts. Instead, Wentz is too focused on where the receiver is at the time he releases the ball and shows off his arm strength by flinging the ball too far outside.
The receiver has no chance of making a play on this ball and the defensive back is an inch away from coming up with an interception. Although that’s not an easy throw to make, it’s reflective of how wild a passer Wentz can be. He didn’t just miss, he missed wildly.
On this play, Wentz is able to step up away from pressure in the pocket. He never settles again to establish his feet and throw from a comfortable base. This hurts his accuracy and causes the ball to arrive outside of the defensive back as his receiver runs inside of him down the seam. It’s unlikely that this was just a mechanical miss because of how badly Wentz missed. The overall lack of control was reflected by his inability to place the ball in a spot that led his receiver to space, away from the defensive back.
Missing slightly on this throw would give the receiver a chance to adjust. Missing badly would have given the defensive back a chance to catch the ball. Wentz missed so badly that the ball was even out of reach from the defensive back, only just though. This was when his receivers were left alone in vast amounts of space. Wentz didn’t need to thread the ball through the eye of a needle.
Despite having time and space in the pocket on this play, Wentz forces the ball down the right sideline. His pass is uncatchable no matter where the receiver positioned himself because it arrived too high before crossing the sideline. It looked like his receiver would have had a chance to play the ball in the air if Wentz had led him down the sideline rather than attempted to rocket it into his backshoulder, that is a tougher judgment to make without a second angle though.
Throwing receivers open isn’t something Wentz does. He didn’t need to do it against the defenses he faced in college. Wentz would try to fit the ball over defenders, but was still rifling the ball rather than throwing with controlled elevation.
Against FCS opponents and in the structure of the the North Dakota State offense, Wentz didn’t have to anticipate tight windows regularly or try to hit them with precision passes to run the offense. NFL defensive backs are some of the best athletes in the whole world. They close space extremely quickly so quarterbacks at the highest level can’t afford to be sloppy with their accuracy. A throw such as the one above would be easy for a defender to deflect or even give himself a chance for an interception.
Watching Wentz was often like watching A.J. McCarron at Alabama. Wentz was regularly throwing to receivers in space from completely clean pockets. He didn’t need to be precise or function against pressure to be effective. On this play, Wentz has loads of time and space to deliver the ball but throws the ball to the receiver instead of leading him downfield. His pass is underthrown as he failed to put controlled elevation on it to get it over the defensive back.
Being a better deep passer will be important for Wentz in the NFL because he’s likely going to be reliant on big plays. He has been compared to Blake Bortles, which makes sense, because like Bortles he lacks the precision to run an efficient offense. Bortles is able to rely on his big-play receivers, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, to create big plays but also makes too many mistakes and lacks accuracy to every level of the field.
Wentz doesn’t wildly overthrow his receivers, instead he struggles to place the ball inside or outside for specific routes. He repeatedly throws the ball to where he sees the receiver rather than where the receiver is going. This can be seen on out-breaking and in-breaking routes such as slants, out routes or comebacks. Both of the above throws could very easily have been intercepted because of where the quarterback put the ball.
Teaching a quarterback to make those throws is very difficult. If Wentz is struggling to do it against FCS opponents throwing from clean pockets, it’s unrealistic to think he can improve against NFL-caliber defenses.
Expecting Wentz to consistently complete short and intermediate throws that require timing and precision would be expecting too much. Unless he is throwing screens or clearly defined route concepts that scheme receivers open, he will struggle.
On this play, Wentz rolls out of the pocket by design. His underneath option is covered so he is immediately zoning in on his outside receiver. As was often the case, Wentz had plenty of time and space in the pocket to function. He had the time to stop his feet and establish a foundation to throw from, but instead rushed his throw and threw the ball with one foot in the air. As his intended target outside turned around to find the football, he could only watch on as it flew out over the sideline, wide of its intended target.
This is the type of play where coaching could have a big impact. If the team that drafts Wentz is able to train him to set his feet then he could be make this throw routinely. However, for him to take that coaching he would need to show off more poise and awareness than he did in college.
Wentz has heavy feet. He can’t make subtle movements in the pocket so when he does try to adjust to pressure he makes decisive, wider movements that limit his comfort and ability to see the field.
Mistakes at the quarterback position are often measured solely by interceptions. A quarterback can make a lot of costly mistakes that don’t result in interceptions though. That’s not just throws where the defender drops a pass that should have been intercepted, though those are significant, it’s also plays that push the offense off track or leave big plays on the field. The yards you miss are just as important as the yards you make.
In the above gif, Wentz panics when his first read isn’t obvious in front of him. He only needs to anticipate the route combinations against the coverage to see his slot receiver come open. Had he held the ball for a split second longer, he could have had a simple throw for a first down. Instead, he drops his eyes to turn and run towards the opposite side of the field. Wentz is forced to throw the ball away, giving the defense a down they didn’t earn.
For a quarterback who lacks the precision and timing to consistently find short and intermediate routes, missing on the uncontested throws is a fatal flaw.
One of the things that stood out from Vernon Adams’ tape was his willingness to hold the ball in the pocket when given time. Adams rarely bailed from the pocket unnecessarily, instead understanding that he was a bigger threat to the defense if he stayed in the pocket. Staying in the pocket forces the defense to cover the whole field. Dropping your eyes and running into the flat turns the space in the defense’s favor, not to mention it prevents you from throwing the ball comfortably.
In the above play, the defense only rushes three players after the quarterback. Wentz waits at the top of his drop, but doesn’t recognize that he is facing a three-man rush when the first hint of pressure comes. He should step forward, through the pocket and re-establish his foundation to continue to survey the field. He doesn’t do that. He immediately bails, cutting down a field that is already squashed by eight defenders so that his receivers have even less space to work in.
Wentz is eventually forced to run out of bounds for a one-yard gain.
Running out of clean pockets isn’t something that will draw ire from fanbases because it’s not an eye-catching play but as offenses in the NFL become more and more efficient, giving away downs becomes a bigger problem. You can’t expect to keep pace with other offenses across the league if your quarterback is constantly spooked in the pocket. It’s not just that Wentz runs out of clean pockets either, he doesn’t feel pressure around him unless it arrives in his line of sight.
This is a shockingly bad play for any quarterback. It’s especially startling when you consider where Wentz is projected to go in this draft. It’s a simple concept for Wentz to read. His eyes stay on the left side of the field, never considering the crossing route who appears to be hitting a window behind the linebackers because of the play fake. The defense blitzed from Wentz’s blindside, so as he holds the ball he has to feel out the pressure behind him.
Fortunately for the quarterback, his pursuer slips after being redirected by the attempted block of the center.
A few things happen on this play that are majorly problematic. Firstly, Wentz’s eyes stay on the left side of the field and he drops to his checkdown after his first read even though there are two defenders waiting on him. Once he has turned his head and realized that his checkdown is covered, Wentz can’t simply turn his head again, he has to move his feet. With less space in front of him than usual, this means Wentz turns his feet backwards. He turns and runs into the defender who is lying on the ground.
It’s a panic-stricken play that reflects the complete absence of poise in Wentz’s play. It also highlights how limited he is in reading coverages.
Wentz primarily gets rid of the ball to his first read. He’s not exceptionally efficient doing this but he is better the quicker he gets rid of the ball. When he holds onto the ball and moves his eyes from one side of the field to the other, his play becomes looser. This is a prime example of him not seeing the field and throwing a reckless ball into double coverage. Wentz never sees the safety coming across the field and is fortunate to not be intercepted.
Because of the way he plays the game, you don’t see Wentz standing to deliver the ball against arriving pressure too often. This is typically one of the toughest parts of playing quarterback.
Having a big frame and a big arm doesn’t guarantee that you will react to pressure well. Wentz has the size to see over arriving defensive linemen, but only if he stands tall and doesn’t lose discipline. Otherwise his frame will be reduced to solely an aesthetic. Having the ability to see over the defensive line is one thing, having the poise to break down the coverage behind it and deliver the ball cleanly against contact is another.
Wentz doesn’t show off fear of delivering the ball against contact but expecting him to break down coverages properly when standing in a completely clean pocket is irrational, never mind when he is facing pressure.
You can point to the negative plays of Jameis Winston from last year’s draft to come to the defense of Wentz but the comparison isn’t valid. Winston had significant flaws and offered up plenty of examples of horrible plays, but his skill set was much more advanced in terms of managing the pocket, reading coverages and throwing receivers open. If Winston was 80 percent of where he needed to be to excel in the NFL, Wentz is closer to 30.
He’s more like the first stage of build-a-bear.