Carson Wentz's Rookie Season Was a Success Given the Circumstances
Three games into the 2016 NFL season, the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles looked like they had found their long-term franchise quarterback in Carson Wentz. At surface level, the season’s remaining 13 games – in which Wentz won just four more times – told a different tale, one of dropped passes, interceptions and a porous offensive line.
Wentz continued to hold his own despite his diminished stats, though.
When comparing his first three games to his final 13, it's fair to say the signal-caller experienced two different seasons combined into one.
What else went into Wentz's first year in the NFL?
Aside from the Eagles having found their man, the story of Wentz’s rookie season is undoubtedly the historic workload placed upon him by first-year head coach Doug Pederson. And before they traded Sam Bradford to the Minnesota Vikings on the eve of Week 1, this was supposed to be a redshirt season for the North Dakota State product.
Andrew Luck is the only rookie quarterback to throw more passes (627) than Wentz (607), but he did set an NFL rookie record by completing 379 of his attempts. His 62.44% completion percentage is the highest ever for a first-year signal-caller with at least 460 attempts and is eight percentage points higher than Luck.
Placing such a burden on a rookie and giving him full access to the playbook in Week 1 is one thing. It's quite another to place it on a 23-year-old who started just 34 football games between high school and college before getting drafted second overall. Of those, his 23 starts in college came at the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level.
With such an unprecedented workload and his general inexperience against high-caliber defenses, it's important to remember that this year was a learning experience for Wentz.
He still hit the ground running and led the Eagles to wins in their first three games, including a 34-3 drubbing of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Only once before had a rookie quarterback won each of his first three contests.
He also became the first rookie quarterback to throw 30 or more passes in each of those first three games without an interception, while briefly holding the rookie record for the longest interception-less streak to begin a career before Dak Prescott took it over.
Pederson’s usage of his shiny new toy didn’t reflect his comments to the media at times throughout the season. Despite maintaining the need to take pressure off Wentz and minimize his 30-plus attempt games, he continued relying on his quarterback to move the ball through the air.
Furthermore, surrounding Wentz was an incompetent cast of characters that could only loosely be described as “skill” position players.
A key for any passing game, especially one navigated by a rookie quarterback, is the ability to stretch the field and open up easier throws in the middle. When a defense doesn’t need to worry about deep threats, safeties play shallower and corners press and bump receivers off their routes early. Medium-length throws become clogged up by a pinching secondary and with no viable deep threats, all shorter throws – a staple of Pederson’s “West Coast-ish” style offense – are made more difficult.
Even so, Wentz posted respectable numbers and guided a flawed offense to a near-.500 record.
His two outside threats in Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham (Jordan Matthews plays the slot) combined for 757 yards and 36 catches. Across the NFL, 52 players registered more yards than this duo, with 34 hauling in more passes. For a team with the NFL's sixth-most drops (24), the pair combined for eight.
Only four other quarterbacks besides Wentz threw over 550 passes in their rookie season, the others being Peyton Manning in 1998, Sam Bradford in 2010, Luck in 2012 and Derek Carr in 2014. Wentz finished with the second-most yards (3,782), the highest completion percentage and second-fewest interceptions (14).
The glaring weakness in his game was his response to pressure. According to Pro Football Focus, Wentz had a 32.8 passer rating when under pressure, third-lowest in the league. Had each throw under pressure simply resulted in an incompletion, his passer rating would have been just shy of 40.
Much shuffling had to be done when right tackle Lane Johnson was suspended for 10 games for performance-enhancing drugs, while the remainder of the line struggled to stay healthy.
Johnson’s presence was sorely missed. With him in the lineup, the Eagles went 5-1 and Wentz posted four of his five two-touchdown games while throwing one fewer interception per game.
Without Johnson, the rookie was sacked 2.33 times per game, compared to 1.5 sacks per game with him on the field. Wentz’s passer rating without the protection of the fourth-year tackle was 70.17, compared to 97.46, and his overall efficiency suffered.
A mix of the adverse circumstances detailed above could have derailed Wentz’s season and turned a mostly positive rookie campaign into an offseason of grumbling about the high price the Eagles paid to draft Wentz. While those complaints may still arise, the bottom line is he showed enormous promise.
Despite the talent deficiency surrounding him and his inexperience, Wentz proved the Eagles likely nabbed their franchise quarterback.