Sam Bradford vs. Carson Wentz: Who has the edge?
When Teddy Bridgewater went down in practice this preseason, it looked like the Minnesota Vikings’ season had ended before it had even begun. A team that had Super Bowl aspirations, however, wasn’t about to let 2016 evaporate without a fight, and so they went to the phones, and ultimately pulled off a trade to move Sam Bradford from the Philadelphia Eagles.
That trade has been the defining feature of both franchises so far in 2016, and it’s seen the Vikings storm out to a 5-0 start and the Eagles get some surprisingly excellent play from Carson Wentz, their quarterback of the future who looks far more like the QB of the present.
Right now, both players sit in the top five of PFF’s QB grades, with marks of 86.4 (Bradford) and 90.9 (Wentz) through six weeks. They are mixing in with the likes of Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, and Drew Brees at the sharp end of quarterbacking performance, and now get to face off just weeks after being teammates.
Although Wentz has the slight edge in terms of overall grade this season, let’s take a look at each player in specific areas to determine who has the edge in the matchup.
The raw numbers suggest that Bradford will be under a lot more pressure in the game than Wentz will be, but the full-season numbers for Philadelphia will mislead, because the change at right tackle for them is huge. Lane Johnson was playing at an All-Pro level, and had allowed just five total pressures in 159 pass-blocking snaps before his 10-game suspension was finally upheld. He was replaced by rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who allowed four pressures in 29 snaps of pass blocking.
So far this season, Bradford has been pressured on 35.6 percent of his dropbacks—the 11th-highest rate in the NFL—and Wentz just 28.0 percent, ninth-lowest, but with a new right tackle, that will likely change. Minnesota’s line has been slowly improving from its ugly start, despite losing players to injury. Somehow T.J. Clemmings has been even worse than Matt Kalil at left tackle, but the other four positions have slowly improved, and Jeremiah Sirles looks a big upgrade at RT from the play of Andre Smith, now on IR.
So far, when under pressure, Bradford has been able to complete a ridiculous 65.0 percent of his passes, the highest mark in the league by more than three percent. Wentz is at 48.5, 17th in the league. Bradford’s performance under pressure this season has actually been staggering, and a huge reason why the Vikings are undefeated. He has made some fantastic throws with players bearing down on him, and actually has a passer rating of 108.8 when pressured this season, just 1.4 down on his rating when kept clean.
Philadelphia’s defense can bring pressure and likely will put the heat on Bradford, but if he can sustain his performance in those circumstances, he holds the edge here.
One of Bradford’s strengths has always been accuracy. As a draft prospect, he had an incredible ability to not only hit his receiver, but place the ball so that he didn’t have to break stride or even adjust to it. He had accuracy with the football in its purest sense. Although that often deserted him at times in his NFL career, he has always been one of the more-accurate passers in the league, and this season is no different. Only Tom Brady (76.0 percent) is completing a higher percentage of his passes than Bradford’s 70.4, and on the surface, he would seem to be a much more accurate passer than Wentz, whose college numbers never quite lived up to the same kind of accuracy.
Last year, Wentz completed only 62.4 percent of his passes against FCS competition. He was not seen as one of the most-accurate prospects in the draft, but rather, one that could make all the throws and was at least accurate enough.
This season, Wentz has upped that to 65.0 percent, a good 5 percent worse than Bradford, but if you look deeper at those numbers, it’s far closer.
PFF’s adjusted completion percentage filters out spikes, passes thrown away, and plays where the QB was hit as he released the ball; it also adds back in drops as completions, since they were accurate passes, to give a better indication of a QB’s true accuracy on the throws he attempted to complete. Both Bradford and Wentz are among the top 10 passers, and are separated by just 0.5 percent. Bradford has the ninth-best figure in the league, at 77.4 percent, and Wentz is just one spot below, at 76.9 percent. Wentz has suffered a dropped pass on 5.1 percent of his pass attempts, while Bradford has only had a single pass dropped this year. Bradford may be the more accurate QB of the two historically, but so far this year, it’s been too close to separate them in any meaningful way.
Over the first two weeks of the season, Wentz recorded an average depth of target of 8.9 yards downfield, which was middle of the pack. Since those games, it has dropped to 6.4 yards, a figure lower than every QB in the league except the chronically-conservative Alex Smith, at 5.9 yards.
Wentz showed the ability to make big plays and strike deep early in the season, but as the Eagles have faced tougher defenses, they have tried to dial it back and make things easier for their rookie QB, manufacturing him easier throws and trying to produce yards after the catch. The Vikings have one of the league’s best defenses, so the Eagles are likely to try the same trick this week.
Against Pittsburgh, Wentz threw a screen on 33.0 percent of his pass attempts, but still took deep shots. Even in that game, he went deep (throws traveling 20+ air yards) on 12.9 percent of his attempts (four times), scoring a touchdown on one of them. For the season, Wentz takes one of those shots on 12.1 percent of his pass attempts, the 12th-highest rate in the league, and significantly more often than Bradford, at 9.6 percent. Bradford has been more accurate so far on his attempts (58.3 versus 52.6 percent) this season, but we’re dealing with small enough sample sizes that the difference there is one pass in either direction.
Wentz definitely has the bigger arm and the abstract ability to achieve throws that Bradford might not be able to, but so far this season, it hasn’t actually manifested itself in a greater propensity for big plays. The pair is separated by just one “big-time throw” over the season, which is a throw that gets graded at the higher end of PFF’s grading scale.
The bottom line
So far, the trade executed between these two sides seems to have resulted in a rare win-win situation. The Vikings have a QB playing the best football of his career, who has been instrumental in their undefeated start, and his departure opened the door for Wentz to prove that he was far more ready than most believed him to be early on.
Right now, the two players are exceptionally-closely matched, and it would be tough to give the edge to either. Wentz has edged Bradford so far in overall grade, but the surrounding circumstances for both players seem to be moving in opposite directions, and Bradford may be able to close that gap—and even surpass Wentz—before long. If I was coming down on either side, I would expect Bradford and the Vikings to come out on top.