Monson: Wentz needs work, but is 'jackpot' QB prospect
With the 2016 draft season underway, Sam Monson will open up his Analysis Notebook once again to share an in-depth evaluation of one top prospect each week. This week, we’ll explore the strengths, weaknesses and bottom-line scouting report for North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz.
North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz is one of the top two quarterback prospects in this draft, and may very well be the first one off the board. However, it’s clear that he faced lesser competition throughout his college career and his inexperience may be a factor. Collegeague Steve Palazzolo and I have previously gotten into a Wentz vs. Goff debate, but today I’m here to break down Wentz’s strengths and downfalls a bit further. While perhaps inexperienced, how does he stack up against the rest of his class?
Goff played in the Pac-12 and has the highest grade we have seen in two seasons of grading the entire FBS. Wentz plied his trade in the FCS, for North Dakota State, winning back-to-back FCS titles and title-game MVP awards. The Bison are no slouches, and likely better than plenty of FBS programs, but the level of competition Wentz was facing week in and week out was not the same as Goff or most of the other top QB prospects in this draft.
PFF graded all of Wentz’ games from his senior season to give a comparison in grading terms to the rest of the quarterbacks in this class, and he ended up with a mark of +29.2 compared with Goff’s +53.9 (Marcus Mariota a year ago finished with +49.9). Of course Wentz missed time injured before returning for the playoff run, so if you look instead at raw passing grade per snap, Wentz actually leaps ahead of Goff (.11 vs .09), and the pair are the best two in the nation.
Strictly from a grading standpoint, Wentz deserves to be ranked right along with Goff, but as pointed out, his numbers come against lesser competition. So let’s dive a little deeper:
What he does well
“Arm talent” is a term that gets thrown around a lot before the draft. It’s often pretty meaningless, as the guys with the strongest arm in the NFL are rarely among the best quarterbacks. Wentz is a good example of a player whose arm talent does jump off the tape. When you watch him play you can see the ball visibly leap out of his hand differently than it does with almost any other QB in this class.
Jared Goff’s arm is fine — it’s certainly not something I’m concerned with at the next level — but it’s not in the same league as Wentz. Arm is obviously only part of the puzzle, but being able to rifle the ball in does allow a player to make some throws that others can’t make. It can buy him a little more time and margin for error on his passes, which for Wentz, as we’ll get to later, can be very important.
On this play against San Diego State, Wentz comes to his receiver late because he is at least the third read on the play. Throwing down the seam this late is risky, but Wentz has the arm to fire it in there, beat coverage and make a big play. I’m not saying Goff or any of the other quarterbacks in the class can’t make this throw, but the arm strength Wentz has allows him a little more wiggle room, and he knows it.
That arm strength shows up in all areas. The wider hash marks in college turn deep out routes or comebacks into a real challenge from the far hash, but Wentz could make them look easy. Plenty of QBs in this class didn’t have the arm to complete them without letting the defensive back have a play on the receiver or the ball, but Wentz is different. In the NFL the hash marks are closer together, so the distance in these throws is less, but then the athletes he is throwing against are better, so it’s still a very real advantage on an important group of throws.
For a player with a cannon for an arm, strangely Wentz’s greatest strength might be the shorter stuff. He ranked second in the class in adjusted completion percentage at the intermediate (11-20 air yards) range with 70.7 percent, and he completed 80.1 percent of passes under 10 yards.
Another area that Wentz especially excels is making plays with his legs. Wentz took off scrambling 11 times for 55 yards, but was a legitimate part of the designed running game too. He carried the ball 39 times for 277 yards (7.1 yards per carry) as a legitimate runner and had another four QB sneaks, finishing with six rushing scores overall.
There are multiple plays where he looks like a different caliber athlete entirely to the guys trying to tackle him, which of course in the FCS he should. What is interesting however is that he’s a big quarterback even by NFL standards. He isn’t Cam Newton-big, but at 6-foot-5 and almost 240 pounds, he has the kind of size to be an effective runner in the NFL.
I underestimated Newton coming out because I didn’t think the way he ran could succeed in the NFL against bigger, stronger, faster and better athletes. It turns out Newton was so much bigger, stronger and faster that he still held a big advantage at the next level. Wentz isn’t as big or athletic, but he’s over the necessary threshold to still be a viable weapon if teams want to use him that way. In fact I believe they should do exactly that, to add an extra dimension to his game and mitigate some of the teething pains he will likely have as a passer.
Where he struggles
Wentz isn’t very accurate. As with all of Wentz’s flaws it comes hand-tied to his inexperience – which some would put in here as a negative on its own – and means that there’s a chance he can improve in all of these areas in a way you wouldn’t expect a quarterback with twice the starting experience. Wentz has only attempted 612 passes in college. Christian Hackenberg is leaving school after his junior season but has more than twice as many to his name (1,235). Wentz is significantly more accurate than Hackenberg, but he is errant on throws too often to get away with it at the NFL level the same way he could in college.
When you adjust his completion percentage for drops, spikes etc. he ends up middle-of-the-pack amongst his draft class — one spot above Cardale Jones, a player whose accuracy is a question mark among most draft evaluators. Wentz was accurate on 72.9 percent of his passes this past season, while Paxton Lynch was accurate on 77.1 percent. Sleeper prospect Brandon Doughty from Western Kentucky was accurate on 81.8 percent to lead the class.
As I mentioned earlier, he is actually far more accurate on underneath passes, ironically for a player whose arm is one of his biggest-selling points. On deep (20+ air yards) passes his accuracy was 29th in the class at 38.5 percent, behind Christian Hackenberg (39.7), Cardale Jones (46.9) and all of the other top end prospects. Goff was 10th in the class, accurate on 50 percent of deep passes.
However,iIt’s not as if he’s just inherently unable to hit a target. Against open receivers we charted him as accurate on 69.7 percent of his attempts, which was actually ahead of Goff and close to the better marks in the class. Whatever the cause of his inaccuracy at the moment, it’s an issue significant enough to garner specific focus from his future team.
Perhaps the biggest concern with Wentz from the PFF draft room is how slow he is to go through his progression, and consequently how late he can be on passes or and finding the right outlet.
This showed up a lot in the roll out play that Wentz and ND State ran. It usually involved three receiver options to the side that he was rolling out to, and the read went short to deep (as opposed to systems that read deep to short). This play against Montana is a good example:
It’s important to point out that a lot of these plays still ended up as positive gains, so don’t focus on the result but instead on what happens. Wentz reads the flat, which is covered well, but he hangs with it far too long and is late coming to the second option who has been wide open since his break because his defender fell over at that point. Wentz eventually comes to him and gets him the ball, but the opportunity for anything extra after the catch has gone. Wentz needs to be quicker with this progression. Check the flat, bail on it, hit the second option.
If he had been quicker to his second read then he could have hit him in space and with the chance to gain yards after the catch. On this play the lack of YAC was the only damage, but in general at the NFL level this will cause problems — players rarely stay open for long. Windows are smaller, time is opportunity, and Wentz is wasting both by being consistently slow to work through his progression. I’d be more concerned if he simply wasn’t working through it at all, so I’m not convinced this is a fatal flaw in his game, but it’s certainly something that needs work.
The last issue with Wentz is that he doesn’t run to open up the pass very often. When he is spooked in the pocket, he’s taking off and trying to make things happen with his legs. We have already talked up his athleticism as a big plus, and he will make a lot of big plays at the next level doing this, but the best quarterbacks are always looking to pass until there isn’t another option, or the space in front of them opens up enough that it becomes the better option.
He attempted just eight passes this season after breaking the pocket, and only completed one of them. It lost yards. When pressured generally his completion percentage dropped from 70.1 to 42.6 and his NFL passer rating dropped almost thirty five points.
Right now this propensity for running might not even be a net negative, but if Wentz is to develop into a franchise quarterback he will need to develop his game on the move. He’ll need to be prepared to use the movement out of the pocket to open up passing lanes, not just instantly flip a switch to become a ball carrier.
The bottom line
Carson Wentz is not a finished product as a quarterback, but his upside is off the charts. He has arguably the best arm talent in the draft, and couples it with very impressive athleticism and size, giving him maybe the best overall physical skill set in this draft among quarterbacks.
He is inexperienced as a starter, but he’ll be 24 years old before the year is over. He has work to do on the mental aspects of the game, as well as his accuracy. He played his football at North Dakota State and will likely be the first FCS quarterback to be drafted in the first round since Joe Flacco in 2008, and potentially the highest-drafted in a long time.
The competition he faced is by no means the Power-5, let alone the NFL, but the bottom line is that on a play-by-play basis he out-graded any quarterback in this class. With the tools he has, he’ll be practically irresistible to teams chasing that elite quarterback prospect. Jared Goff may be the safer pick, but Wentz is the potential jackpot prospect — and of course you never win the jackpot without a little bit of a gamble.