Playing quarterback at the NFL level means you will come under a tremendous amount of scrutiny. However, sometimes the scrutiny can go too far and become nitpicking. Mark Schofield prepares a Defendant’s Reply Brief for The Draft Evaluators v Carson Wentz.
I have been thinking about transitions a lot recently. Turning 39 will do that to a person. Changing careers will do that to a person. Watching the incredible edition of the Backyard Banter podcast with Matt Harmon and Matt Waldman, and listening to them discuss their career paths, will do that to a person. Working in an industry in which much of your focus is on how a college player will transition to the NFL, will do that to a person.
Leaving the practice of law to write about football was one of the wisest things I’ve ever done, for myself and for my family. Gone are the sleepless nights and the terrified mornings. But there are some parts of that life I cannot leave behind, and one of them takes place every time I sit down at the computer. Every article is an argument, that’s a part of my former life that I have yet to leave behind. Every piece is a chance for me to convince the reader of my position, and every reader is, in my mind, a judge.
While still in that former life, there were many times I was tasked with, or even crafted myself, a “kitchen sink brief.” Hated by judges, they’re examples of an attorney simply throwing everything he can on paper in hopes of one of the many arguments actually swaying the judge. Sometimes they work, but most of the time they fail. I know, I’ve written my share.
If you spend some time scrolling through Twitter, you can assemble the kitchen sink brief against Carson Wentz. Evaluators find examples of a number of flaws with the quarterback, and when assembled, you have a kitchen sink brief of sorts: A collection of arguments that make the case that Wentz is not the top-flight quarterback that he is made out to be.
Allow me to retort, with a Defendant’s Reply Brief.
One of the initial criticisms regarding Wentz relates to his footwork in the pocket. Peruse many of the criticisms about Wentz’ footwork and you will often come away thinking that his feet are stuck in cement or are weighted down with bricks. As with any examination of a player and his traits, context matters. Evaluators must ask: Why is the footwork in the pocket slow and deliberate? Is it constant or can he move when needed? Is it a problem with processing speed, or is it dependent upon route design, or is it an athletic / physical limitation?
We can start, oddly enough, with with an example from Jared Goff. The potential top QB in the draft is often praised for his footwork in the pocket. Here against USC, he flashes nice footwork in the pocket as he waits for a curl route to come open:
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Goff knows the backside curl route will break open, but he needs to wait for the underneath defender to clear the throwing lane before releasing the ball. He feels no immediate pressure, but slides in the pocket as a way of staying patient and being ready for the route to come clear.
Now, here’s an example from Wentz that illustrates the feet-in-cement notion. Facing North Dakota, the Bison face a 2nd and 10 on the Fighting Hawks’ 18-yard line. NDSU has 11 personnel in the game and Wentz in the shotgun, and they run four verticals against North Dakota’s base 3-4 defense, that shows Cover 6 before the snap but rotates to Cover 3 Buzz at the snap:
As Wentz takes his drop, the defense rolls their coverage, and the outside vertical route on the right is adjusted on the fly to a deep comeback route against the Cover 3 look. Once Wentz sees Cover 3 he knows his first read: That outside route getting adjusted to a comeback because of the coverage, will be open. The deep comeback is a great route against Cover 3 cornerbacks, because the defender needs to respect the vertical threat:
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Wentz sits on this, knowing full well it will come open. The ball placement – an issue we will get to – is off. But the footwork here is just a function of the route design and the decision-making process. As with Goff, Wentz knows he has the route he wants against the right coverage. It’s just a matter of how the two quarterbacks handle waiting in the pocket. Goff slides forward and it looks nice on tape, whereas Wentz looks like the Titan of Braavos in the pocket. I don’t walk away from this play concerned over the footwork from either quarterback – they just handle the same concept differently. I would be concerned if this was an ever-present issue with Wentz. But it is not. Any hesitation, or freezing, on this snap is likely a product of Wentz confirming that the receiver has read the coverage and is adjusting the route. Notice the timing of his release, which syncs right up with the receiver throttling down and starting his break.
From his first collegiate start against Iowa State, facing 3rd and 9:
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Notice how well Wentz slides in the pocket here. The Bison use a drive concept between the middle trips receiver and the tight end, and as the blitz comes the quarterback climbs the pocket perfectly and hits his tight end on the dig route for the first down. Not only is the footwork impressive here, with how the quarterback uses quick, short steps to slide forward, but the way Wentz adjusts his arm angle on the throw is another illustration of a QB creating space to deliver a throw – much like a boxer does when throwing a punch. Wentz feels the defensive lineman coming free at the last moment, so he drops his arm angle ever-so-slightly, creating more space between the defender and the football. A very impressive display of footwork and instincts.
Here is another example of his footwork, from NDSU’s come-from-behind victory over the Northern Iowa Panthers. Facing a 2nd and 10, the Bison empty the backfield with 11 offensive personnel, putting two receivers on the left with a trips formation to the right. The Panthers set up with their base 4-3 personnel in the game, showing Cover 2 in the secondary. The Bison use a smash concept on the right, with slot receiver R.J. Urzendowski (#16) on a corner route while running back Chase Morlock (#25) lines up to the outside running a short curl:
Shortly after the snap, UNI defensive tackle Karter Schult (#93) executes a swim move and forces Wentz to climb the pocket. The quarterback uses his feet well to extend the play, even utilizing a pump fake along the way to buy some time before finding Urzendowski on the scramble drill right on the sideline with a perfectly delivered strike:
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The play comes back due to offensive holding, but the footwork here from Wentz is flawless.
One final example, this time from NDSU’s 2014 quarterfinal game against Coastal Carolina. Wentz is under center, and he executes a near-perfect five-step drop before delivering this out route:
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The QB makes his drop, staring down the safeties in the process. Wentz knows he is throwing the out route to the left, based on his read of the coverage. Once he hits the final step in his drop, he immediately resets his feet to deliver this throw. Very quick and precise footwork is on display, as he makes his depth on the drop, he quickly hitches to reset and time-up the drop and the route, and delivers a flawless throw along the sideline for a first down.
One-Read / Progressions
Another criticism levied at Wentz, and other quarterbacks in this class, is that he is a one-read quarterback who cannot work through a progression system. I’m reminded of Rules 4 and 5 from the Matt Miller / Dan Hatman scouting rules series: Scout the traits not the scheme, and don’t rely only on what the player was asked to do in his college scheme. One needs to look past the offensive structure to see whether a quarterback – or any player – has the traits and / or ability to work through progressions, whether he is asked to do so on a consistent basis or not. Again, context matters. Specific to Wentz, there are many examples where he throws to his initial read on a play. The question should be: Is he still making the right decision with the football? If this were a case where he was throwing to his first read on most plays and that read was covered? Then yes, that is an issue. But if his first read is open and he’s delivering the football because of that? That’s his job. Returning to the first example above, with the cement feet in the pocket? His first read was going to be open, and he knew it. If the tape showed him continually forcing throws to covered receivers on his first read, then this article wouldn’t be written, and we’d be having a much different conversation regarding Wentz.
More to the point, going through his tape there are numerous examples of him working through progressions when necessary. One such example, from his first start against Iowa State, shows him coming off a quick hitch because he reads the backside DE dropping, so he works to the middle of the field rather than force a contested throw to his first read. Something Christian Hackenberg was burned on against Temple. Another shows him quickly working through three reads on the four verticals concept, making up his mind quickly and getting the ball out once he hits the final step in his drop. But since those examples have yet to take, here are some more.
Returning to the 2014 game against Iowa State, Wentz and his receiver adjust a vertical route to a deep comeback when running the four verticals concept:
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With trips formation to the left, and wide, side of the field, Wentz takes the snap and starts reading from left to right. He checks the outside vertical route first, then quickly moves through to the backside, where the single receiver adjusts his route from a go route to a deep comeback. Wentz displays great ball placement here, as he hits his fourth read along the sideline, leading him toward the boundary and away from the defender with velocity. A strong, accurate throw to his fourth option in the progression structure.
From the 2014 National Championship game, in the closing moments and needing a touchdown, watch Wentz work to his third read in the progression structure:
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The Bison have 11 personnel on the field for this 1st and 15 play, against the Illinois State 4-2-5 nickel. To the three-receiver side of the formation, the inside and outside receivers run deep out patterns while the middle receiver runs a post route. Wentz initially wants to throw to his TE on the out route, but this is covered. Seeing this, he comes to the second receiver in the progression, the outside receiver on that out route. With this covered as well, Wentz shifts to his third option, the deep post. Showing flawless footwork, he slides in the pocket with short, choppy steps before delivering a strike.
Here is another example of the QB getting to his third read, from the UNI contest. With the football at the UNI 33-yard line, and under a minute remaining, they set up with Wentz in the shotgun and an empty backfield. This forces the Panthers’ defense to widen their formation before the play:
Wentz takes the snap and looks first to the trips side of the formation, checking the route from his TE, the inside trips receiver. Seeing this covered, the QB works to the weakside, checking the slant routes from Frasier and Vraa. UNI linebacker Brett McMakin (#49) sinks under the RB, but Vraa is able to find a soft area between the LB and the CB. Wentz comes to his third read and finds the WR:
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Wentz is more than capable of working through progressions, as the tape illustrates. Because of the scheme and the talent at NDSU, there are times when his first read is open and he doesn’t need to go past step one. But when he needs to, Wentz can work through reads and deliver well-thrown passes.
Another issue that some have with Wentz is his accuracy and ball-placement. To begin with, this article already contains examples of some well-thrown passes. But in the interest of being thorough, here are some more examples of perfect ball-placement from the Bison QB, examining the short and intermediate routes first (as we will have an entire section dedicated to the deep ball). What we look for here is precision, as opposed to the deep ball where we look for general accuracy.
Watch the timing and placement on this stick route to his tight end on the right:
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Wentz initially checks the left side of the field while executing his drop, but seeing this covered well he comes back to the right and throws a perfectly-placed ball to his tight end. The timing is completely in sync, as the ball is coming out right at the time the receiver is making his break. This is exactly where the throw needs to be as well, to the outside number of the receiver, leading him away from the defender. This play is precise in each aspect of its execution.
Here against Coastal Carolina is another well-thrown pass on a deep post route, delivered with great timing and anticipation:
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The quarterback throws this well before the break, and at the time of the release the defender has great positioning to take away this route, with inside leverage. But Wentz trusts in his receiver to work inside on the post pattern, and showing tremendous anticipation he throws his WR open, leading him to the inside and placing this pass perfectly.
Two throws from his game-winning drive against UNI are also examples of his precision with placement on intermediate routes. First is this crucial fourth-down throw. NDSU needs to convert this to keep their hopes alive. They line up with 11 offensive personnel, with Urzendowski alone on the right and trips formation on the left. With the football on the right hashmark, Wentz again attacks the opposite sideline:
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The QB hits senior WR Vraa along the sideline with a rocket of a pass. Notice the torque that Wentz generates with his chest and left shoulder, ripping his upper body through this throw. For his part, Vraa does a great job of catching the ball with his hands and getting not just one, but both feet down before stepping out of bounds:
This route could not be thrown any better. Wentz puts the ball right where it needs to be, and keeps their drive alive.
Later in the drive, Wentz makes an aggressive decision and is almost rewarded with a huge play for the Bison. He made a number of impressive reads and throws on the drive, but his best might have been this play, which also illustrates his decision-making and timely aggression.
The Bison trail by four and face a 3rd and 3 at their own 44-yard line. They line up with 11 offensive personnel in the game in a 3X1 alignment, with hybrid FB / TE Andrew Bonnett (#46) lined up as a tight end on the right in the trips. The Panthers, as they had throughout the drive, stay with their base 4-3 defense and show Tampa 2 coverage before the snap, with the middle linebacker at an intermediate depth between the linebackers and the safety:
Bonnet runs a post route from his TE alignment, and Wentz looks to him first. There is a reason for this, as a post route from an inside receiver against Cover 2 or Tampa 2 is a quick, “alert” read in most systems. One of the ways to attack Cover 2 is to find that soft spot between the safeties and, if they widen at the snap in response to outside threats, an inside receiver can exploit that with a post route, like Bonnet does here.
The key for the quarterback is to identify quickly whether the route is open or not and, if the safeties stay to the inside, to come off the post before finishing your drop to allow sufficient time to get the ball to an outside receiver. I was taught that on a five-step drop, my mind needed to be made up by my third step, or second right foot.
Here, Wentz sees that playside safety widen just enough, so he takes his shot:
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The QB delivers a perfectly-placed throw and Bonnet looks to secure the reception. Only a great recovery by the playside safety, with a well-timed shot on the receiver, prevents the big completion.
From this angle, you can see how Wentz reads this route, looking at Bonnet, flashing one final quick look to the outside to check the weakside corner route and freeze the opposite safety, before taking his shot:
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The play goes as an incompletion in the box score, but on a drive filled with Sunday reads and throws, this might have been his best. It is a perfect example of a quarterback making an aggressive read and decision, even in a crucial moment. Plays like this inspire confidence in a coaching staff to keep the entire playbook open even in the biggest of spots.
On each of these examples, Wentz displays the precise accuracy that an offense needs in the short and intermediate passing game. Each throw is delivered with timing and anticipation, and placed exactly where it needs to be given the situation, the route structure and the coverage.
One of the question marks surrounding Wentz has been his accuracy on the deep ball. The quarterback missed some throws in the vertical passing game last season, and in the Bison’s season-opening loss against Montana, Wentz also failed to connect on a handful of deep passes. This is an aspect of his playing style that the quarterback worked on with his coaching staff until suffering a season-ending wrist injury. But in the games before his injury, Wentz showed improvement in this area, which has many evaluators even more hopeful about his transition to the professional game.
In the third quarter of their game against Montana, the Bison have the football and a commanding 27-3 lead. On this 1st and 10 play at the North Dakota 38-yard line, Wentz is under center with 22 offensive personnel on the field. Behind the QB stand running back King Frazier (#22) and tight end Connor Wentz (#87) ‒ Carson’s cousin ‒ in an i-formation. The offense has three receivers to the right of the formation, with sophomore wide receiver R.J. Urzendowski (#16) split wide to the right, fullback Andrew Bonnett (#46) in a wing alignment: and TE Luke Albers (#88) on the end of the line.
With Albers and Urzendowski on the line of scrimmage, the TE is “covered” in this formation and is not eligible for a pass route. The formation and personnel may indicate to the defense that a running play is coming. Given the 4-3 defense shown here from North Dakota, along with the stacking eight defenders in the box, with both an outside linebacker and the strong safety lining up on the line of scrimmage, show that they expected a running play. The defense shows Cover 1 in the secondary leaving sophomore Deion Harris (#19) isolated on Urzendowski on the right:
Instead of running, the Bison are taking to the sky on this play off of play action. After the snap Wentz fakes a halfback lead play to the right, while Urzendowski runs a straight go route:
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The defense blitzes all three linebackers and the strong safety, and the interior of the pocket breaks down. Wentz knows he’ll take a shot on this play ‒ and he does ‒ but he hangs in the pocket and delivers a perfectly placed pass to Urzendowski. What makes the throw impressive is the touch on display, with pressure at his feet. The sophomore WR runs under the football right at the goal-line for the score:
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This is exactly what is meant by general accuracy on the deep ball. Wentz puts it on the receiver and doesn’t force him to make a difficult adjustment. In addition, he displays the ability to respond in the face of fear that is crucial to playing quarterback. He knows the hit is coming, but stays tall in the pocket and delivers the pass for the score.
In NDSU’s comeback victory over Northern Iowa Panthers, Wentz put on a very impressive display in the game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. The QB made a number of NFL-level throws during that sequence of plays, including two that do not even show up on the stat sheet.
Earlier in the contest, however, Wentz delivered an impressive deep throw that shows the refinement in his downfield passing abilities. Midway through the fourth quarter, with the Bison trailing the Panthers 21-17, and facing 3rd and 13 at their own 33-yard line. Wentz lines up in the shotgun with the backfield empty, and NDSU lines up with a 3X2 alignment, with trips to the right and an inverted slot formation to the left. The Panthers line up with 3-4 personnel, and they put linebacker D’Shawn Dexter (#30) well to the outside over the trips formation, and put another linebacker, Ronelle McNeil (#47) in the slot to the right in press alignment. The secondary shows Cover 6:
The Bison have 11 personnel on the field. On the slot side of the field, Albers runs a short hitch while Vraa runs a corner route, giving Wentz a smash concept to that side of the field. To the right side, Darrius Shepard (#2) lines up in the inside, with Urzendowski and Bonnett to the outside of the freshman WR. Shepard releases up the seam, while the other two receiving options run in routes of different depths:
At the snap, the Panthers drop into a soft Cover 4 shell:
The linebackers all drop into intermediate underneath zones. This eliminates the smash route to the left side, which Wentz checks first in his progressions. He then pivots his head to the trips side of the field, and spots Shepard releasing up the seam. Wentz uses a very quick hitch step to gather himself, and then unleashes his deep throw:
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Shepard has managed to get a step on both the underneath linebacker as well as safety Makinton Dorleant (#2). Wentz’s throw still needs to carry over these two defenders, but drop into a small window before the WR goes out of bounds. The throw drops into the bucket perfectly, and from this angle you can see the rotation on the pass, as well as how the football turns over perfectly at the last moment, dropping down into the arms of the receiver:
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As the ball reaches its apex, it then turns over and drops downward to Shepard, who cradles the football to his chest a few feet before the end line. The safety tries to shove the receiver out of bounds, but Shepard gets not one, but both, of his feet down to secure the touchdown.
Also worth highlighting is Wentz’s field of vision on this play. NDSU likes to run the smash concept, giving the quarterback a two-receiver, high-low read on one side of the field. While this is not a full field read that he may be tasked with making as he transitions to the NFL, it requires the quarterback to read the coverage and work through a few progressions. On this play, Wentz opens to his left to read the smash route. As the Panthers drop into this soft Cover 4, with the linebacker rolling to the outside to take away the curl and the cornerback dropping to eliminate the corner route, Wentz needs to come off this quickly, as it is well defended by the Panthers.
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Wentz takes the snap, makes the turn of his head to the left, sees the coverage and immediately works to the other side of the field. Once he sees the smash concept taken away, he immediately works to the other side, picks up the vertical route, and uncorks a beautiful throw. This is a very impressive bit of processing information and execution from the Wentz.
Both the improved ability on the deep ball, as well as the decision-making ability on display here, speak to Wentz’s potential to have a successful transition to the NFL. With the senior heading to Mobile for the Senior Bowl, these traits will be on display for NFL coaches and scouts, and should enable him to impress his future employer.
Ultimately, however, the issue of whether Wentz’s traits will enable him to transition to the NFL are a matter to be decided by the player himself. External factors, such as his eventual landing spot, offensive scheme and how quickly he is pressed into action will go a long way toward determining the path of his professional career, but his ability and work ethic will be the deciding factors. The criticism will remain, but as illustrated here, there is ample evidence of a QB being able to address each of these perceived flaws to date. Whether he can – and will – continue this trend on Sundays remains to be seen.