Carson Wentz Could Make the Indianapolis Colts Contenders, But There Are Plenty of Red Flags
The Carson Wentz era in Philadelphia is officially over.
The Eagles have agreed to trade their former franchise quarterback -- and the second-overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft -- to the Indianapolis Colts for a 2021 third-round pick and a conditional 2022 second-round pick (which could become a first-rounder), according to Adam Schefter.
Wentz's career in Philadelphia began straight away with a 7-9 record over a full 16-game season in 2016 before a breakout in 2017, but his final season with the team led to a 3-8-1 record in his starts in 2020 while throwing 15 interceptions in 12 games for an interception rate of 3.4%, tied for second-worst among qualified quarterbacks.
What, then, can the Colts expect from Wentz in 2021 and beyond? And do the Colts deserve any love for a Super Bowl outright at +2900 on FanDuel Sportsbook?
Wentz's Career Data
At numberFire, we have a metric called Net Expected Points (NEP), which indicates how many points a player adds or subtracts from his team's expected output. Throwing for 80 yards to march down the field only to have your running back fumble at the goal line shouldn't indicate that you didn't help your team's scoring odds. That's what NEP is for and why it can tell us more than just yardage or touchdown-dependent stats.
Wentz's rookie season had him ranked 25th among quarterbacks with at least 100 total plays (drop backs plus rushes), and then he ascended to second in the NFL as a sophomore.
Wentz crushed the league-average efficiency in Passing NEP per drop back in 2017 and ranked fourth among 45 passers with at least 100 drop backs in that statistic. However, he did so on a Passing Success Rate that ranked 11th among those 45 quarterbacks. That implies explosive plays rather than more consistent plays.
His unsustainable touchdown rate (touchdowns per attempt) supports that. His 2017 touchdown rate was a league-best 7.5%, 0.8 points higher than Aaron Rodgers' second-ranked 6.7%. Only one other passer -- Russell Wilson at 6.1% -- was also above 6.0%. Wentz, naturally, had touchdown regression coming his way.
He still played above the NFL average in 2018 both in Passing NEP per drop back and Passing Success Rate but ultimately ranked as roughly a league-average quarterback in Total NEP per play.
In total, through five full seasons, Wentz has been a top-15 quarterback in Total NEP per play just one time, the season where his touchdown rate was incredibly high.
Reasons to Believe
Quarterbacks -- aside from the true outliers -- depend on situation. And though Wentz hasn't had the most prolific career aside from that standout second campaign, it's not all bad by any means.
Via SportsInfoSolutions, Wentz's catchable target rate (80.8%) in the 2018 season ranked second -- behind Drew Brees' 83.6% -- among 30 quarterbacks with at least 300 attempts. He didn't have the other stats that were there in 2017, but 2018 went well for Wentz as a pure passer. In fact, during his first four seasons, he ranked inside the top 16 in all four years in catchable target rate among quarterbacks with 300 attempts (around 30 quarterbacks per season).
In 2020, that dropped to a career-worst 66.4%, which was also the lowest catchable pass rate of any of the 146 quarterbacks with at least 300 attempts since 2016.
The Eagles' offensive line was plagued with injuries this past season, and so was the wide receiving corps with veterans DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery combining for 12 games and 39 targets on the full season.
Wentz, when he had a clean pocket -- just 62.7% of the time, according to ProFootballFocus, which was sixth-lowest among 29 qualified quarterbacks -- posted the worst drop-adjusted completion percentage in that sample. Notably, 6.7% of his clean-pocket passes were dropped, the highest rate in the subset.
Was he elite from a clean pocket in 2020? No. Did he deal with drops and a limited number of clean pockets? Yes.
Wentz's quarterback rating from clean pockets has ranked 21st, 4th, 9th, 16th, and 28th throughout his career, which does leave some reasons for optimism. We've seen him be an average quarterback. But the most recent season was not one of starting caliber.
Reasons for Pessimism
I can dig into 2020 and all the negatives on the film, but I'm here to talk about the data and the trends. And his drop-off in 2020 compared to where he was in 2019 (ultimately near league average) is concerning.
This may sound a little roundabout, but stick with me.
Since 2000, there have been 153 quarterbacks who played within 0.05 expected points per drop back of the NFL's average with at least 200 drop backs in a particular season and who had at least 200 drop backs the following season to compare to.
Put simply: there are around 150 average quarterback seasons with volume in the following year in our database.
Once more, Wentz's 2019 was roughly NFL average with 0.10 Passing NEP per drop back, same as the NFL average that season. He followed it up by playing 0.25 points per drop back worse than the NFL average in 2020.
That 0.25-point-per-play drop is the second largest among the 153 passers in the sample. Alex Smith fell by 0.36 points per play from 2006 to 2007.
Among the 27 quarterbacks who went from being in line with the NFL average to underperforming by at least 0.05 points per play the following season on significant volume, 16 of them underperformed the NFL average again the next year. Average passers with down years haven't historically bounced back.
Only 3 of the 27 over-performed the average in a meaningful way: Drew Brees in 2004, Jake Plummer in 2003, and Chad Pennington in 2008. Those quarterbacks ranked 3rd, 4th, and 4th in Passing NEP per drop back the year after their falloffs.
The Bottom Line
Wentz is going to a team with a strong offensive line (the Colts ranked 7th in pass blocking last season, via PFF; the Eagles were 16th), and we have seen Wentz be more than competent from a clean pocket in his career.
But the primary issue is that we have to get realistic with expectations from Wentz. Is his 2020 season the most indicative of his abilities? Probably not, no. But is he going to flirt with the top-five in passing efficiency like he did in his touchdown-boosted 2017? The larger sample says no to that, as well.
Wentz has the ability to keep the Colts' offense afloat as a league-average quarterback, which sounds like an insult -- but it shouldn't be. The Colts ranked 16th in Adjusted Passing NEP per play this season under Philip Rivers in an 11-5 campaign with a playoff appearance. Can Wentz give them that? Yeah, most likely, so long as there's some protection for him.
Is he the answer to get them over the hump and contend for a Super Bowl? There are examples of such bounce backs -- but they're few and far between.