Carson Wentz’s Preseason Debut

With Kelly out and Pederson in, the Philadelphia Eagles continued looking to the future by moving up to draft Carson Wentz. While NFL Draft evaluators disagree with one another, profiles of whether or not Wentz has what it takes continue to abound. Sean Cottrell chimes in with a look at Carson Wentz’s preseason debut.

Many football fans will complain about the preseason and say it is not real football or it is just a tease as they itch for the return of real thing. These fans may be partially correct: It can be a tease. But make no mistake, the preseason is real football. As the starters leave the field, much to the chagrin of many fans, the backups and younger players begin to realize their lifelong dream.

Only, in this dream, they must fight for their lives – their football lives. The schemes may not be complex, coaches may not put together elaborate game plans, but the young players and roster bubble veterans on the field are giving it their all. That is what makes preseason fun and that is what coaches, scouts, and other evaluators use to see who can really play in this league.

This past Thursday night, at Lincoln Financial Field, the Philadelphia Eagles pulled up the curtains and revealed their brand new toy – and wager on the future – rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. After a debate-filled spring about Wentz and his ability to translate to the NFL from FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, Thursday night finally delivered some concrete information to sort through.

When evaluating a player in preseason, especially a rookie QB, it is vital both to understand the lens through which you are evaluating him and to keep that lens in perspective during your evaluation. And obviously it would be foolish to look too deeply into the box score or to assign too much weight to a good or bad play, as this is only one game.

Heading into Thursday night, I was only looking for Wentz to display some key traits that are crucial for QB performance. More importantly, however, I wanted him to show us whether or not he belonged on the field with the other prospective NFL players.

Wentz did just that. Let’s explore how.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Working within Structure

One of the most important traits for a QB is his ability to work within the structure of a play. Great athleticism, improvisation, and the ability to break the pocket and throw on the run are all very important traits. Without the ability to operate and win within the play design, though, the chances of any consistent success are slim.

In the play below from Thursday, the Eagles have a 1st and 10 at their own 34-yard line. Wentz is under center with 11 personnel on the field in a 3X1 alignment and slot formation to the wide side of the field. The Buccaneers are in a 4-2-5 nickel personnel with two deep safeties and six men in the box. The boundary and slot cornerbacks are in press alignment, while the corner to the wide side of the field is playing off coverage and Wentz takes note of this.

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At the snap, the Eagles receivers to the wide side of the field run a double hitch concept. Wentz gets the ball from under center and takes a quick five-step drop before delivering a bullet out of his plant step to WR T.J. Graham (#16) along the sideline.

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Unfortunately, Graham drops a very catchable ball (one of several on the night) and the Eagles cannot take advantage of a smart play by their QB. Not only did Wentz do a great job reading the coverage pre-snap, but he gets the ball out very quickly off of his plant step and makes a big-time NFL throw to the sideline from the far hash. On top of that, the placement of the ball – to the outside of the WR – was excellent and where only Graham could make the catch.

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If he gets the ball out any slower, puts any less spin on the ball, or throws it slightly to the inside of Graham, it could very well have resulted in a pick six.

On the next play, Wentz again shows the ability and desire to work within the structure of the play. It is late in the third quarter and the Eagles are facing a 3rd and 2 on Tampa Bay’s 22-yard line. The Eagles are again in an 11 personnel, 3X1 alignment with trips to the top of the screen. The Buccaneers give the Eagles a Cover 1 look with one high safety and what appears to be man coverage underneath.

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Not knowing the actual coverage that Tampa Bay will be in when the ball is snapped, the Eagles run a zone-beating concept with a man beater tagged on the backside.

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On the trips side, all three receivers run quick in routes at various levels to create conflict for zone coverage. On the other side of the formation, WR Cayleb Jones (#88) and RB Cedric O’Neal (#35) run a quick slant-flat combination which puts stress on man coverage by forcing the CB to carry the slant route inside while a LB is forced to match up with a RB out to the flat.

When the ball is snapped, Tampa Bay stays in Cover 1 with man coverage underneath. Wentz sees this and goes immediately to the slant-flat combination on the backside. Just as he plants off of his three-step drop from shotgun, Wentz fires the ball to Jones who has gotten inside leverage on the CB and just come open as the LB flowed outside to cover the RB.

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Again, all within the structure of the play, Wentz showed his ability to quickly process the defense and get the ball out with perfect placement for the WR and pick up the 1st down. Only needing 2 yards to move the chains, many rookie QBs with his athleticism would’ve just tucked it and ran. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but seeing Wentz do it with his brain and with his arm is certainly more encouraging for the future.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Poise

Another important trait for successful QBs is poise. When watching Wentz on Thursday night, I wanted to see how he handled pressure or situations that did not go according to plan. Fortunately, due to the generally poor play of the offensive line, there were plenty of opportunities to assess this.

The first play below came on Wentz’s second snap of the game in a two-minute drill just before halftime. The Eagles had the ball at their own 32-yard line aligned in a 2X2 double slot formation with 11 personnel and Wentz in the shotgun with a RB to his right. Tampa Bay has its 4-2-5 nickel personnel in the game showing a Cover 4 shell over the top and outside corners playing off with outside leverage looking to keep everything inside of them.

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Wentz calls for the snap and goes into a three-step drop while scanning the field as TE Zach Ertz (#86) and WR Rueben Randle (#82) each run 15-yard hitch routes on the right side of the formation. As Wentz drops back, the Tampa Bay four-man front is able to get pressure pushing RG Stefen Wisniewski (#61) into the backfield.

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Wentz then alertly steps up in the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield, and delivers a dart to Ertz who did a great job finding a void in the Tampa Bay zone coverage just underneath the Cover 4 shell.

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This was probably my favorite play of the night from Wentz. Many rookie QBs would pull the ball down and run in that scenario, but Wentz didn’t panic under pressure. He kept his eyes downfield, looking for the bigger play, while also displaying his ability to throw on the run.

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On the next play, a 2nd and 10 in the mid-third quarter, Wentz lines up in the shotgun at the Eagles 34-yard line. The Eagles have 11 personnel in the game and trips to the wide side of the field in a 3X1 alignment, while Tampa Bay is showing blitz off the left edge in nickel personnel.

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When Wentz receives the snap, he fakes to the RB crossing his face and rolls out to the short side of the field. As he rolls, right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai (#72) gets beaten outside by Tampa Bay defensive tackle Akeem Spence (#97), who gets right into the QB’s face. Wentz pulls the ball down and beats Spence around the edge, all while keeping his eyes downfield, again looking to make a play.

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When he cannot find an open WR, he finally tucks the ball away and finds a running lane. Then, to avoid taking a big hit, he slides down nicely just before the 1st down marker. To nitpick just a tad, it would’ve been nice to see him take the extra yard to pick up the 1st, but it’s preseason and that extra yard is definitely not worth risking an injury. Besides, Wentz’s toughness has never been in question, even for his detractors.

One of the most common situations where it’s necessary for a QB to show poise is when he is blitzed. While Tampa Bay did not bring any exotic pressure packages for this game, the Bucs did run some simpler blitzes at Wentz to test his mettle. In this next play, it is now late in the third quarter and the Eagles have a 1st and 10 from the Tampa Bay 30-yard line. Wentz is again lined up in the shotgun with 11 personnel in a 2X2 alignment with slot formation to the bottom of the screen.

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The Buccaneers show a Cover 4 look but, just before the snap, the slot CB inches toward the line of scrimmage to come on a blitz off the edge.

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Wentz identifies the blitz, receives the snap, takes one step back and gets the ball out immediately to the slot WR Paul Turner (#80) on a quick slant who was now being covered by the deep safety. With Tampa Bay actually in a Cover 0, where all of its defensive backs are in man coverage, Turner was one broken tackle away from racing to the end zone.

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Many QBs have entered the NFL over the years and had moderate success early only to falter when opposing defensive coordinators began to turn up the heat. Long-term success as a QB in the NFL cannot be attained without the ability to make defenses pay for being too aggressive. Wentz certainly has much more to prove, but the flashes he put on display Thursday night were certainly a positive sign.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Toughness

Not only is toughness an important trait for QBs, but in the cauldron that is Philadelphia fandom it is important for all players. On Thursday night, Wentz made sure his toughness wasn’t questioned

On the final play we will dissect, the Eagles have the ball late in the fourth quarter on Tampa Bay’s 42-yard line. Wentz is in the shotgun with RB Byron Marshall (#39) to his right and 11 personnel lined up in a 3X1 with bunch trips to the bottom and a single WR to the top of the screen. Tampa Bay is showing Cover 0 with a six-man blitz and five defenders in man coverage.

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Wentz knows pre-snap that he is potentially facing a six-man blitz and he only has a five-man protection, as Marshall releases into the flat as part of a slant-flat combination. Because of the number of potential Tampa Bay rushers to Wentz’s left, the offensive line slides its protection and each lineman is responsible for blocking anyone coming into the zone to his left. At the snap, the Buccaneers rush all six defenders against the Eagles’ five-man protection.This leaves Wentz responsible for the final unblocked defender, so he must get the ball out of his hands before the rusher gets to him.

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Wentz receives the snap and takes a three-step drop while eyeing the slant-flat combination to his right. Unlike the last time we saw the slant-flat combination, the outside CB does a good job getting inside leverage on the WR, which basically eliminates the slant option for Wentz. He then turns immediately to the flat and lets go of the ball as he gets absolutely destroyed by the rusher coming off the edge. The play was ruled a catch after an official’s review.

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Wentz stayed on the ground for a minute in pain before getting back up and running the next play. Two days later, the Eagles announced that Wentz suffered a hairline fracture in his ribs. Not only did Wentz again show very good mental processing and awareness against the blitz, but he stood in the pocket knowing he was going to take a big hit and delivered the ball to the RB. After getting back up and onto his feet, the crowd in Philadelphia gave him an ovation. That is exactly the kind of toughness the Philadelphia fans love to see in their players.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Areas of (Possible) Concern

Having discussed the positives in detail, it would be unfair not to mention some of the negatives Wentz displayed Thursday night.

One problem Wentz had in his first NFL game action was ball placement. He floated the ball above the intended receiver on several occasions, making for difficult catches and contributing to some of the drops. While certainly not something you want to see on a consistent basis, such difficulties can be excusable given the situation. Again, context is king and the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft was playing in his first game; it is possible that his nerves just got the better of him on those plays. One of the balls he floated turned into an interception in the red zone. On this play, however, Wentz had pressure right in his face and had to make a quick decision. When the ball came out of his hand, he had no space to follow through on his throw.

Also, as Wentz was under pressure quite often throughout the night, although he was able to maneuver the pocket quite well on some occasions, on others he seemed to stand still a little too long. Again though, when evaluating a rookie playing in his first preseason game, you can take the positive flashes that he displayed and have hope that he can become more consistent.

Overall, none of the negatives on the night were very concerning; they were all things that can very easily be improved upon. Conversely, a lack of ability to work within structure or a lack of poise and toughness are things that are much harder to correct in a player going up against the best competition he has encountered. Wentz still has a long way to go in his development and the examples above by no means automatically make him a Pro Bowl player, let alone justify his draft slot. But, on Thursday night, in his first NFL action, he definitely proved that this game is not above him.

Follow Sean on Twitter @PhllyDraft. Check out Sean’s work on what Justin Fuente brings to the Virginia Tech Hokies offense and on Mark Richt and the triangle offense in Miami.

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2 thoughts on “Carson Wentz’s Preseason Debut

  1. Why does the writer keep referencing “11 personnel”??? Yes, that’s how many players are on the field for each team. Not sure why it’s brought up so much, but makes one wonder if this writer knows what sport he’s covering.

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