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Wentz Will I See You Again?

As part of my run-through of something interesting in each NFC division before the season starts, in the East I wanted to take a step away from just previewing a random team and actually look at one specific issue. Carson Wentz has come quite a different route to most #2 overall picks, which is all well and good, but what will that mean for him now and in the future? I take a look.

So, Philadelphia have themselves a high quarterback pick from a second-tier college, who they’re planning not to play for at least the first handful of weeks but possibly all season. This is news to those of us who forget that not all quarterbacks come with Heisman-winning, all-over-CFB-coverage pedigrees and so we expect them to play early. Of course, it’s not remotely unprecedented that Carson Wentz finds himself in this position, and before we get onto the pluses and minuses, some context.

A Recent History Of Second-Tier-College Quarterbacks in the NFL

Were Wentz to start in Week 1, he wouldn’t have been the only ex-FCS quarterback to start. Super Bowl winner Joe Flacco? He was a 2008 pick out of Delaware, a former (and I love this nickname) Fightin’ Blue Hen. And then there’s Ryan Fitzpatrick, who went to Harvard if you didn’t know. Were it not for another injury, we’d have Tony Romo, who was undrafted out of Eastern Illinois way back in 2003. There are a few other FCS quarterbacks buried at various levels on depth charts (high: Josh McCown, Sam Houston State; Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois; low: McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Sacramento State; Josh Johnson, San Diego) and even a D-III-er in Alex Tanney, who appeared for Tennessee late last season and connected one of his 14 passes for a touchdown. Tarvaris Jackson is without a team this year but spent 10 years in the NFL out of Alabama State.

None of these were drafted as high as Wentz, with Flacco the only other first round pick, coming in at the #18 overall pick. Jackson was a second-rounder, as was Garoppolo. Josh McCown went in the third round, Josh Johnson in the fifth, and Fitzpatrick in the seventh. Most have roughly performed equivalent to their draft value, with Jackson maybe underperforming slightly, and Fitzpatrick comfortably over-performing. We’re waiting to see with Garoppolo, and the early signs still leave us with no real clue.

That said, North Dakota State are not your average FCS programme. They’ve been the national champions at the FCS tier for the past five years. They’re 8-3 against mostly mid-tier FBS programmes since 2006. Wentz has been playing with good players, and he’s been playing – and beating – some pretty decent teams. It’s not as if he spent the last few years at Gardner-Webb University playing with people who will be going and getting real jobs.

Flacco Delaware
Joe Flacco did okay coming out of FCS Delaware (via UD website)

A Recent History Of Sitting Your First Round Pick QB

No, Carson Wentz won’t be the first top-rated quarterback not to start his season. Though it’s tempting to read things into that, incredibly famously Aaron Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre for his first three seasons, and it hasn’t done his career trajectory much harm. Since then though, no first-round quarterback has sat the entire season. The following have sat for at least 8 weeks: Jason Campbell, Jay Cutler, JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Jake Locker, Johnny Manziel, which is a pretty poor selection. When Smokin’ Jay Cutler’s the poster child for success in a group of players, well…

There are a number of directions you can go in this: the first, and most tempting, is to applaud Green Bay for having the cojones to all but not play their prized possession for a whole year. It’s pretty rare that any first round pick has a complete redshirt season unless they land on injured reserve, and Rodgers came about as close to that as you can get. That said, it’s easier to not play a backup when you have Brett Favre. But in terms of patterns, which quarterback saw the next-least playing time in year one? Er, Johnny Manziel.

Let’s go back to that list of sitters-through-week-8. It’s a pretty abysmal list, sure, but given that the list of 1st round quarterbacks since 2005 also includes the likes of Matt Leinart, Christian Ponder, Brandon Weeden, Josh Freeman and Tim Tebow, it’s not as if there’s any clear line between those who sit and those who play sooner. It’s probably just a sign that a) it’s really hard to scout college quarterbacks; b) NFL teams are just bad at it; or c) both.

What Are Philly’s Motives For Sitting Wentz?

To be honest, Philadelphia’s quarterback situation is one of the weirdest I’ve ever seen in the NFL. You have the fairly highly-paid starter Sam Bradford, and you have the rookie Carson Wentz. So far, so normal. It’s the addition of Chase Daniel that makes the whole thing confusing. Daniel has a 3-year contract for $7m a year (roughly). Which pretty much makes him lower-paid than every quarterback who got ‘starter money’, but higher-paid than everyone who got ‘back-up money’. You were sort of imagining one of Bradford or Daniel was going to be gone soon, but it never happened.

Another dose of strange about this, is just how much Philadelphia gave up to get Carson Wentz. They shipped out Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso to Miami, which might have actually improved their team, but then gave up a 2017 first-round pick, a 2018 second-round pick, and 2016 third- and fourth-round picks. Bearing in mind Philadelphia had already given up its 2016 first-round pick to acquire Sam Bradford last year, and this year’s draft looked like Carson Wentz and a bunch of players you never read about in pre-draft articles. One suspects that if Philly did a feasibility study on whether to trade up for Wentz, the words “eggs” and “basket” appeared prominently.

So, we’ve got this situation where Philadelphia have a huge sunk cost (the draft picks given up for Wentz), that they want to see the best return on. They have an impatient fanbase (all fanbases are impatient) who want to see their prized new quarterback in action. Thus is why quarterbacks picked in the top few picks tend to start early and often.

Now, although NDSU isn’t your average FCS programme, there will still be a bit jump in quality for Wentz to adjust to, moreso than with some previous high picks. Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston were both former-Heisman winners who may not have played in the most pro-style systems, but had played against the very best talent in college football regularly – less of a step up. They would have been reading a wider variety of defensive alignments, going up against better pass rushers and defensive backs than Wentz was. Wentz has a lot to learn, and Philadelphia have the luxury of Bradford and Daniel for Wentz to sit behind and learn from. Granted, they’re not Brett Favre, but what can you do.

Favre Rodgers
Sitting behind Brett Favre did Aaron Rodgers no harm (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Interestingly, the sunk cost and hype behind quarterbacks is also a reason for not playing Wentz too early. Quarterback, along with left tackle and kicker, are the positions that are most reliant on your state of mind. A disquieted kicker may get the yips and shank left, right and centre. An unsettled left tackle might not set himself confidently, or have faith in his strength and technique for blocking edge rushers, and as he gets blown past for sacks, this’ll only increase. Quarterback though. That’s the biggie. A quarterback needs faith in his arm, in his eyes, in his internal clock that tells him when to expect onrushing defenders, in his accurate recall of the playbook and how his receivers run routes. He can’t be skittish. You put a quarterback who isn’t quite ready in early, and you can destroy his confidence forever, make him doubt his eyes, resort to dump-off passes and just not play to his ability. Given the huge sunk cost, that’s almost a risk Philadelphia can’t take.

If they think Wentz needs to sit for half (or all) a season, it’s not as if they’re going to lose anything in the short term either. Oh sure, they’ll lose a bunch of games, but take a look at this roster in general: it’s not going to the playoffs with Wentz, Bradford, or Daniel? So if you think throwing Wentz straight into the team will be best for his development – do it! If you think he could use a little caution – don’t! Philadelphia’s season will turn out broadly similarly either way.

(This actually raises the most interesting philosophical conundrum about salary-caps-and-drafts sports like the NFL: if a team essentially knows, as some should, they aren’t going to the playoffs, how much should they try, and how much should they tank, giving up present success to acquire future resources that may lead to greater overall success.)

Will It Work?

Hell, who knows if it’ll work. Quarterback isn’t quite a crapshoot (everyone knew Andrew Luck would be good in the NFL), but it can often feel that way when you don’t have nailed-on prospects. That’s why Russell Wilson went two rounds after Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden – teams took their chance, and it didn’t pay off. It’s not impossible, but I suspect most teams didn’t have Wilson ahead of both those two on their draft boards.

And looking at players who’ve sat for most of the year, that was a pretty terrible list! But the fact quarterback is such a crapshoot, the fact it gives off the impression (possibly through confirmation bias) that you get fewer quality players per pick than other positions, so was the list I didn’t write of quarterbacks who didn’t sit. Once you remove the as-close-as-possible-to-known quantities (i.e. Luck), it’s still a throw-you-hands-up-in-the-air-and-decry-the-world moment.

We should probably admit – all of us – that we don’t really know whether sitting Wentz will make difference, and if it will, what difference that will be. We probably don’t know much about what Wentz looks like as a quarterback. I mean, you’re reading a British-based American football blog. While I’m not saying you definitely haven’t seen lots of NDSU’s 2014 season, plenty of Philly’s training camp and what little of Wentz we saw in preseason, I doubt you have. And if you have, like the Eagles coaching staff, you’re still not going to be sure of how Wentz develops.

wentz ndsu
Wentz at NDSU (via NDSU website)

Okay, Smartarse, So Why Have You Written This Blogpost Then

Well, because it’s an interesting situation. But let’s finish by looking at some of the potential reasons for sitting Wentz, and see whether they make sense to us laymen.

Wentz Will Be Able To Learn Behind Solid Pros. I know we all make fun of Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel, but they’ve got NFL experience, and have what it takes to be NFL starters, irrespective of your opinion of the quality. Wentz will learn not just what they do in game, but how they prepare, how they work with the locker room, and he’ll be able to see mistakes they make and why they make them. He’s also got a former QB in Doug Pederson as a head coach, which should help.

Wentz Doesn’t Have Playing Experience Against Pros. Or, the “why I am not giving you, 22 year-old just out of university, a job”. I’m a bit older now but lack of experience as a reason made me want to punch walls with irritating regularity. Wentz is only going to get experience by playing, of course he is. And his injury that’s caused him to miss the preseason, that makes it harder to get experience. So how is he going to get experience? Not by waiting for next year’s preseason, that’s a terrible idea. If Philly are worried about his experience, then from say, Week 6 or 7 onwards, they need to start giving him action in games, either where it’s already won or already lost, but just to start getting him acclimatised. From there, you gradually increase his playing time.

You Should Always Sit Your Rookie Quarterback. Er, no. Remember when Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson got their teams to the playoffs? Remember when Ben Roethlisberger won all 13 games he started in 2004? It depends on the player.

Philadelphia Should Play The QB That Gives Them The Best Chance Of The Playoffs. If their alternatives weren’t Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel, I’d say: sure! But didn’t you read earlier? Neither Bradford nor Daniel are taking a starting lineup with such talents as Leodis McKelvin, Josh Huff and Allen Barbre to the playoffs.

Don’t Inflict A Bad Offensive Line On A Rookie. I should’ve mentioned this earlier, actually. Lane Johnson has now got himself a ten-game PED ban, putting aforementioned turnstile Barbre at right tackle. 2002 first overall pick David Carr was famously made skittish by an All-World awful offensive line. Maybe get Wentz back into the lineup when Johnson’s back? Ehh, to be honest Philadelphia’s line isn’t that bad. It’s not as great as it once was, but it’s still okay.

Wentz Will Develop Out Of The Spotlight, At The Coaching Staff’s Pace. This is for me, the best reason. Philadelphia has a famously…ehh…passionate fanbase, and while we’re not at New York levels of exposure for the playoffs, it’s still an intimidating place, and not one you’d want to get off to a slow start in. Wentz is a competitor (insufferably so, perhaps), but by helping him learn without public criticism of his every mistake, he should by the time he’s given chance to compete, be able to do so more effectively. Pederson’s a new head coach, he should have an idea of how he wants Wentz to develop, of what he needs to pick up first, and what the essentials he needs to improve to give himself a chance to compete are. Give him those, and if he’s a competitor, he’ll be ready when the time comes.

You can follow Nick on Twitter, and check out his own personal NFL blog, if you like.

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