Commanders

How much of an upgrade is Wentz for Commanders?

Commanders

The Commanders' trade for quarterback Carson Wentz has been met with a fairly strong reaction in Washington that seems to be a good portion negative. You see it from fans on social media, hear it from radio callers and even from those who cover the team. NBC Sports Washington's Brian Mitchell said he's "not thrilled" with the move, while Ethan Cadeaux argued it reeked of "desperation."

Sure, but does Wentz not still represent a significant upgrade for Washington? Taylor Heinicke is a great story, a guy who went from taking engineering classes at Old Dominion University to diving past pylons into NFL endzones. But in trading for Wentz, Washington has quite clearly improved their outlook, right?

There seems to be a split between the numbers and the eye test, at least for some. Wentz, 29, put up stats last season with the Colts that may overrate the player he actually is, but they do suggest he's at a minimum an average starting quarterback. He had the 13th-best quarterback rating (slightly better than Derek Carr), the 11th-highest touchdown percentage (just behind Josh Allen and ahead of Kyler Murray) and the third-lowest interception percentage (behind only Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins).

And that's accounting for a late-season collapse by him and the Colts. Through his first 11 games last year, Wentz was at 18 touchdowns and only three interceptions. His ceiling may not reach stardom, but it's decently high. He can play well enough to win you some games and doesn't often lose them due to his low turnover rate.

 

Heinicke, meanwhile, was 25th in quarterback rating (just ahead of Daniel Jones), 21st in touchdown percentage (in between Ryan Tannehill and Jared Goff) and had the fifth-highest interception rate (in between Baker Mayfield and Zach Wilson). Only Matt Stafford and Trevor Lawrence threw more picks than Heinicke's 15, which were more than double that of Wentz (7).

Washington Football Talk PodcastListen and Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

There are some, though, who would argue the stats don't tell the whole story. For instance, ESPN's Mike Tannenbaum had Wentz as the 25th-best quarterback in the NFL and behind Heinicke at 23 in his final position rankings of the 2021 season. Pro Football Focus had them in about the same tier, with Wentz at 20 and Heinicke at 25.

Others paint a more positive picture for Washington with Wentz in comparing the two. Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com ranked him 19th and Heinicke 27th, while Pro Football Network put them at 18th and 26th.

What is perhaps more objective in comparing them is that Wentz is a bigger threat throwing down the field. Last season, he attempted 14 passes of 40 yards or longer compared to only eight for Heinicke. On a somewhat related note, Wentz was really good at drawing pass interference calls. He was tied (with Dak Prescott, Mac Jones and Carr) for No. 1 in the NFL in pass interference penalties drawn and was second only to Carr in total yards on those plays (284).

According to NFL NextGen Stats, Wentz was more successful throwing down the field than Heinicke was based on their quarterback rating per zone, and ranked above average compared to the rest of the league..

NFL NextGen Stats
Carson Wentz vs. Taylor Heinicke in 2021

Another interesting angle of the move from Heinicke to Wentz is the Commanders and Colts run a nearly identical amount of play-action and run-pass option plays. The Colts last season were sixth in play-action passes per game (9) compared to the Commanders, who were 11th (8.3). Meanwhile the Commanders were seventh in RPO plays (9.4/g) with the Colts ranking eighth (7.2).

 

Wentz's cause was helped in that regard by having arguably the best running back in the NFL, Jonathan Taylor. Washington, though, does boast a 1,000-yard rusher in Antonio Gibson. Either way, the style of play should be familiar to Wentz.

Now, there are some negatives about Wentz that have to be mentioned. He has been criticized for his intangibles as a leader and for his willingness to be coached. It is ominous the Colts gave up on him so quickly after trading a first and third round pick to acquire him just one year ago.

There is also the matter of his salary, as he's due to count $28.3 million against the cap this season. That ranks him eighth among quarterbacks in the NFL, when most would agree he's not a top-8 player at the position.

That said, it's worth noting quarterbacks are generally expensive when they aren't on rookie contracts. Wentz makes a similar amount to Kirk Cousins ($31.4M), Goff ($31.2M) and Jimmy Garoppolo ($27M). And his cap hit is considerably lower than Matt Ryan ($48.7M) and Tannehill ($38.6M).

Cousins may be the one to take a closer look at in terms of a comparison, not necessarily the Cousins who has improved his numbers in Minnesota, but the player he was in Washington before he left in free agency.

Cousins was far from elite in D.C., but he provided some stability over the course of several years because he was durable and consistently what he was. In fact, Wentz just had an extremely Washington version of Cousins-type of year. His numbers were better than he actually played and he laid an egg in the final game against a division opponent with the playoffs on the line.

What Wentz represents is essentially the Commanders getting back to sea level. They aren't on land yet, but they aren't underwater anymore. They are, in a way, right back to where they were before they let Cousins walk.

Perhaps this time they can do what they should have done back then, in hindsight, which is draft a quarterback and groom them to be the long-term replacement. Wentz could be more than a bridge, in that they might be able to win some games while they search for something better.

In the meantime, the Commanders seem to have found themselves an average NFL quarterback. Given where they were last season, and in previous years when Alex Smith was out due to injury, that doesn't sound too bad.