Rookie Blur

They often say that a rookie year in the NFL goes by in a blur. In the case of 2016 rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, that might be an understatement.

The Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Dallas Cowboys on New Year’s Day to end the 2016 season. The win pushed the Eagles to 7-9, but a game below average in last year’s NFC East sat them in the cellar. On the polar opposite end of the spectrum, the Cowboys dropped to 13-3 with the (meaningless) loss while most of their starters rested to prepare for the playoffs.

While many believe that they fell far short of any real goal, there is more reason to be impressed with the Wentz-led Eagles, and optimistic about where they’re potentially headed. There have been comparable-to-worse rookie seasons from quarterbacks who’ve been in even better situations than Wentz was during 2016. There have been worse outcomes than 7 wins during the first year of a new regime. And there has definitely been less life in young, growing teams than what you saw from a club who dropped 6 of their 9 losses by one possession.

April 28, 2016:

The Philadelphia Eagles select Carson Wentz 2nd overall, and immediately it seemed that nothing would be too big, too fast or too much for Wentz to handle.

Despite the glowing confidence that Wentz displayed, new head coach Doug Pederson reiterated that his plan would keep his rookie quarterback learning from the bench for at least one year before being named the starter. Returnee QB Sam Bradford and the newly signed Chase Daniel were both ahead of Wentz on the depth chart to begin offseason activity.

Reports surfaced that on game day the Eagles planned on making Wentz inactive. If Bradford was injured, Daniel would head in and take the live bullets. This would prevent Wentz from being forced into action unprepared. Many wondered what the case would be if Bradford was significantly injured; would Daniel be given a few weeks until Wentz was ready? Wentz was throwing with the 3rd team thus far, so he’d obviously need a grace period.

Young quarterbacks are fragile — they can easily develop poor habits if they aren’t groomed properly. They kept Wentz in the background. They continued to state that slowly bringing him along would help refine his tools. The staff had the right to be cautious.

The offensive line was an unknown as longtime left tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelce seemed to be on a serious decline. The wide receivers were young, inexperienced and underdeveloped. The running back picture wasn’t anything to rave about especially after trading the most talented true lead in DeMarco Murray. This team had no identity, a completely new coaching staff and plenty of question marks at key positions on the offensive side of the ball. It wasn’t exactly the ideal environment for a rookie quarterback.

July 25, 2016:

Training camp officially kicked off as the initial flock of Birds arrived at the NovaCare Complex. All eyes were on the future franchise QB despite his placement on the depth chart. However, the team was focused on rallying around their starter. They all had jobs to do to help the Eagles win and there was hardly room to pay attention to the rookie third stringer.

The Eagles moved up specifically to draft Wentz, but that didn’t automatically make him a leader. Leadership is earned over time. He was simply QB3, a project for this new coaching unit.

So all of these things were adding up, and at that point in camp, the FCS quarterback who threw 612 total passes in college wasn’t expected to be a leader yet. He wasn’t even expected to play.

August 11, 2016:

There was excitement as Wentz took the field for his first preseason action. This was his chance to show the home fans a glimpse of the future, and to get a taste of the NFL for the very first time. The backup offensive linemen, especially rookie right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, really struggled to protect Wentz as he dropped back. Coach Pederson, though, kept dropping him back. The result? Broken ribs.

Just like that, Wentz had his rookie offseason cut short.

In summation, he followed up spring activities (t-shirts and shorts) with a limited training camp due to broken ribs sustained in the few possessions of his first (and last) 2016 preseason appearance. It’d be blasphemy to think that he’d survive in an NFL game at this point.

August 30, 2016:

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffers a gruesome non-contact knee injury at one of the final practices of the summer.

September 3, 2016:

The Eagles and Vikings agree to a trade: The Eagles would give up QB Sam Bradford in exchange for the Vikings’ 2017 1st round and 2018 4th round draft picks. Shortly after the trade was official, Doug Pederson announced that the starting quarterback would be Carson Wentz.

This entire timeline is unheard of. From running with the 3rd string, to being limited in all but two weeks of training camp, and missing all but 30-or-so preseason snaps, to being named the opening day starter eight days before the season began. It isn’t something you see often, if ever, in the NFL.

All of this only led to his opportunity to become the starter. The focus then shifted to enduring a full season on a team that, all of a sudden, would be looking to him for answers.

The Wide Receivers:

Arguably, when it was all said and done, the Eagles’ unit was only rivaled by the San Francisco 49ers’ unit as the league’s worst. Throughout the season, the Eagles lined up with these 6 wide receivers:

Nelson Agholor: In 26 career starts (2 seasons), Agholor has scored 3 touchdowns. He was a healthy inactive for a 2016 Monday Night Football game in late November after admitting he had gotten into his own head.

Josh Huff: The Eagles released Huff on November 3, 2016 after an arrest. Prior to his arrest, he had caught 13 passes for 72 yards in 7 games.

Jordan Matthews: He is the best of this bunch. His first two touchdowns in 2016 came during weeks 1 and 3. He scored one more touchdown all season. He also missed two games with an injury.

Dorial Green-Beckham: Despite only starting 7 games, Green-Beckham was targeted 74 times. He caught less than 50% of his targets, he scored just twice and his longest catch went for 26 yards.

Bryce Treggs: In his first game action, in Week 9 against the New York Giants, Treggs caught a 58-yard pass. He’d go on to appear in 8 more games and catch 2 more passes.

Paul Turner: This UDFA was a long shot to make the team, but locked in as a practice squad body. He eventually made 2 starts and appeared in 4 games, catching 9 passes total.

The Other Guys:

Zach Ertz: The 4th-year tight end was injured during Week 1, and when you couple that with the injury Wentz sustained in the preseason, you come up with another “too little, too late” season for Ertz.

Trey Burton: He has been a primary contributor on special teams throughout his career, but he saw an increased role when Ertz was injured. He never established himself as a consistent threat, though, suffering from drops and an inability to separate from defenders.

Brent Celek: He’s older now, and he also has trouble separating from defenders. He is mostly used as a blocking tight end at this stage in his career.

Running Back Group: Lead runner Ryan Mathews was oft-injured yet again and his costly fumble against the Detroit Lions arguably lost the Eagles the game. Rookie Wendell Smallwood also fumbled in a key moment against the Dallas Cowboys in an eventual loss, and despite showing flashes, he gave you what you’d expect from a 5th round pick. Kenjon Barner wasn’t much to write home about. Darren Sproles carried a career-high 94 times, but at age 33 he just couldn’t provide much in terms of consistent explosion. He was one of the biggest playmakers on the team, but you cannot expect a 33-year old gadget back to lead your offensive arsenal in the NFL today.

Offensive Line: The offensive line started with a bang. Then, right tackle Lane Johnson was suspended for 10 games and all hell broke loose. Between that, Kelce’s struggles and Brooks’ anxiety issues that kept him sidelined for a few games late in the year, the line was anything but stable. The most consistent piece of the puzzle here was indeed Peters, who had a career resurgence in a more favorably paced offense. Still, the Eagles lined up 11 different combinations over the final 7 games, and that just won’t get it done.

Head Coach Doug Pederson: Pederson has never been an NFL head coach before 2016. Obviously, as stated prior, Pederson did not have much roster optionality (or talent in general) which may have hindered his offensive system. A lack of talent will hinder any offense, to be fair. It is also fair to say that in the first year of an offense, you won’t see much complexity.

Still, Pederson didn’t seem to learn much from the preseason game in which Wentz broke his ribs. Wentz threw the ball 607 times, and dropped back to throw even more than that. As mentioned before, this is a rookie who threw 612 total passes in college at the FCS level. Basically, when all else failed (and it often failed), Pederson relied on Wentz to make something from nothing.

If you want a silver lining, it’d be that the 2016 season likely taught the team a lot. It put them through a crash course and they learned on the fly from the minute the starting quarterback was traded in late August. If this picture was laid out in front of any NFL fan, and they were asked to predict the results, the guess would likely be a lot worse than the reality.

Here is the line Wentz put up during his rookie year:

16 starts :: 62.4% CP :: 3,782 yards :: 18 total touchdowns (2 rush) :: 14 int :: 79.3 rating

The Eagles finished with a 7-9 record, were ranked 22nd in total offense, 24th in passing offense and 16th in points per game.

For perspective, here are some footnotes on various active quarterbacks who were praised for their potential as rookies, and have since been recognized as some of the better QBs in the game:

*Record will reflect only the games in which the quarterback started during his rookie year.

Eli Manning (1st pick, 2004): After pouting his way out of San Diego before even giving them a chance, Peyton’s little brother landed in one of the biggest spotlights in sports. However, the New York Giants were in the midst of a serious rebuild just a few years removed from a Super Bowl loss. The rest is history, and Eli is no longer just Peyton’s little brother.

7 starts :: 48.2% CP :: 1,043 yards :: 6 total touchdowns :: 9 int :: 55.4 rating

1-6 :: 23rd total offense :: 26th passing offense :: 22nd points per game

Ben Roethlisberger (11th pick, 2004): On an established team surrounded by veterans and a veteran head coach, rookie Roethlisberger experienced success early after stealing the job from starting quarterback Tommy Maddox, who was injured during Week 3. However, it took him a while to grab the reigns of the Steelers’ offense. From his rookie year, 2004, to 2010 he threw 20+ touchdowns just twice. From 2011-2016, he’s thrown 20+ each year. He’s also a 2x Super Bowl Champion.

13 starts :: 66.4% CP :: 2,621 yards :: 18 total touchdowns (1 rush) :: 11 int :: 98.1 rating

13-0 :: 16th total offense :: 28th passing offense :: 11th points per game

Matt Ryan (2nd pick, 2008): As a rookie, Ryan came into a great situation. Wide receiver Roddy White was on the verge of becoming a star, and newly acquired running back Michael Turner gave the Atlanta offense the balance it needed to play host to a rookie quarterback. White finished 4th in receiving yards that season, becoming Ryan’s go-to guy immediately. Turner finished with 1,699 rushing yards, just 61 yards shy of Adrian Peterson for the rushing title. Ryan has thrown double-digit interceptions all but two seasons in his career, and one of those years he won MVP + appeared in the Super Bowl.

16 starts :: 61.1% CP :: 3,440 yards :: 17 total touchdowns (1 rush) :: 11 int :: 87.7 rating

11-5 :: 6th total offense :: 14th passing offense :: 10th points per game

Joe Flacco (18th pick, 2008): Out of a small school, Flacco was drafted and stepped into a playoff-ready roster. In fact, just two seasons prior to his arrival, the Baltimore Ravens finished 13-3 and made a deep postseason run. He’s actually thrown double-digit interceptions every single year he’s been in the NFL, but the Ravens have experienced a great deal of success since drafting Flacco, including a Super Bowl victory.

16 starts :: 60.0% CP :: 2,971 yards :: 16 total touchdowns (2 rush) :: 12 int :: 80.3 rating

11-5 :: 18th total offense :: 28th passing offense :: 11th points per game

Matt Stafford (1st pick, 2009): This gunslinger came into a situation in which he’d be throwing to one of the best wide receivers of all time in Calvin Johnson. Stafford turned the modern image of the Lions around, with Johnson’s help, and eventually got them into the playoffs after a rough start to his career.

10 starts :: 53.3% CP :: 2,267 yards :: 15 total touchdowns (2 rush) :: 20 int :: 61.0 rating

2-8 :: 26th total offense :: 21st passing offense :: 27th points per game

Andrew Luck (1st pick, 2012): The 2012 top pick was supposedly the best QB prospect to come out since his predecessor Peyton Manning. His Indianapolis Colts surged into the playoffs in a weak division, but it was clear that Luck’s presence made a notable difference.

16 starts :: 54.1% CP :: 4,374 yards :: 28 total touchdowns (5 rush) :: 18 int :: 76.5 rating

11-5 :: 10th total offense :: 7th passing offense :: 18th points per game

Teddy Bridgewater (32nd pick, 2014): The Minnesota Vikings traded back into the end of the 1st round to select Bridgewater. He was inserted into an offense that was predicated around running the ball, and in 2015 the Vikings surged into the playoffs. High hopes were cut short due to a non-contact knee injury, as mentioned before.

12 starts :: 64.4% CP :: 2,919 yards :: 15 total touchdowns (1 rush) :: 12 int :: 102.4 rating

6-6 :: 27th total offense :: 28th passing offense :: 20th points per game

Derek Carr (36th pick, 2014): For over a decade, the Oakland Raiders have struggled to field a respectable team. Since drafting Carr, the Raiders have turned their modern image around. Surrounding him with receivers like Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, plus a stellar offensive line, has helped him grow. It’s much easier to build around the guy that you know is “the guy”. Carr’s Raiders went from 3-13, to 7-9, to 12-4, but a broken leg unfortunately held Carr out of the playoffs.

16 starts :: 58.1% CP :: 3,270 yards :: 21 total touchdowns :: 12 int :: 76.6 rating

3-13 :: 32nd total offense :: 26th passing offense :: 31st points per game

Jameis Winston (1st pick, 2015): Winston was the top pick because he had all the physical tools coming out of college, but he also had the intangibles that you can’t teach. He was supported by a strong run game and a top flight wideout as a rookie, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have since blessed him with even more weapons, making him a QB to watch in 2017.

16 starts :: 58.3% CP :: 4,042 yards :: 28 total touchdowns (6 rush) :: 15 int :: 84.2 rating

6-10 :: 5th total offense :: 17th passing offense :: 20th points per game

Marcus Mariota (2nd pick, 2015): The opening day starter, Mariota threw 4 touchdowns on 16 passing attempts in his big debut. Injuries sidelined him further down the road, and he wasn’t really surrounded by much talent, so Week 1 was an outlier in a rather standard up-and-down rookie year. The Tennessee Titans bolstered their offense, and Mariota made a huge jump in year two before a late-December broken leg ended his season. Like Winston and the Bucs, watch for Mariota and the Titans in 2017.

12 starts :: 62.2% CP :: 2,818 yards :: 21 total touchdowns (2 rush) :: 10 int :: 91.5 rating

3-9 :: 30th total offense :: 25th passing offense :: 28th points per game

Tony Romo, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady – all of these quarterbacks didn’t start a single game during their rookie seasons.

Wentz, compared to the ten quarterbacks listed, ranks like this:

T-1st starts :: 3rd completion percentage :: 3rd yards :: T-5th total TD :: 4th int :: 7th rating

5th record :: 6th total offense :: 6th passing offense :: 4th points per game

It’s obviously difficult to make a linear comparison because so many things factor into these numbers. A quarterback with less starts obviously has a lesser chance of putting up bigger numbers than a quarterback who started all 16 games. However, a quarterback who started more games and threw more passes has a larger window for error. So, all in all, it must be judged for what it is. Wentz was capable of making it through 16 games, unlike some of the QBs on this list. This helped and hindered his statistics when matched up with some of these guys, but the numbers tell the story of what was expected of each of these players and how they handled their responsibility.

The team statistics can show the type of offense that the rookie quarterback was in, and also how he played within that offense. Wentz held his own up against these quarterbacks.

His rookie year went by in a blur, but considering all things, the jump he could make in year two has potential to be astronomical.

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