Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz face divergent paths ahead as rookie starting QBs
Two weeks ago, the NFC East’s projected starting quarterbacks claimed 398 career starts between them. Now, that number stands at 208, and 183 of that total belongs to Eli Manning.
The Cowboys never anticipated turning their season over to fourth-round pick Dak Prescott, certainly not prior to Week 1. The Eagles were hoping to keep No. 2 pick Carson Wentz on the bench for awhile, too.
Circumstances changed. Tony Romo’s back injury propelled Prescott into the starting lineup and then Teddy Bridgewater’s grisly knee injury, in a roundabout way, did the same for Wentz.
The long-term outlook for Wentz remains promising, even if rocky days are ahead. The short-term favors Prescott. Here’s why:
The supporting cast
Matt Cassel, Kellen Moore and Brandon Weeden proved last year that not any quarterback dropped into the Dallas backfield can succeed. The ground game should be better this season with Ezekiel Elliott’s arrival, but let’s not forget that Darren McFadden was a 1,000-yard back in 2015—those QBs were not being buried behind the chains by an inability to run the football.
Dallas’s offensive line should elevate Elliott the way it did McFadden last year. From elite left tackle Tyron Smith to versatile guard Zack Martin to second-year rising star La’el Collins, that unit is built to wear down defenses and control the clock, neither of which requires all that much work out of the team’s quarterback.
Add in Dez Bryant and the still-reliable Jason Witten, and Prescott has no shortage of places he can turn for help early in the season.
The Eagles are not as settled at any spot on their offense, save for tight end, where Zach Ertz, Brent Celek and H-back Trey Burton form an excellent trio of targets. Significant questions loom regarding running back Ryan Mathews’s durability, a rumored 10-game suspension forthcoming for right tackle Lane Johnson, and the lack of sustained success within the receiving corps.
Wentz is stepping into the starting gig for a roster in flux, as GM Howie Roseman and coach Doug Pederson try to undo any damage done by Chip Kelly’s tenure. The first-round pick was supposed to learn and mature as the roster gradually came together around him. The timetable has been accelerated, which leads us to ...
The development plan
As of mid-July, the Eagles were “committed” (quotation marks now required by the events of the past week) to easing Wentz along, so much so that Pederson even admitted Wentz could be inactive on game days while serving as the No. 3 quarterback.
That strategy, with Wentz behind both Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel, remained in place until Philadelphia traded Bradford on Saturday. Suddenly, Wentz jumped two spots on the depth chart, leapfrogging Daniel. Obviously, the Eagles’ trade changed the depth chart, but it also shifted the focus to the future in Philly. Were the Eagles convinced they could make a Super Bowl run this season, they would have held onto Bradford or elevated Daniel. Starting Wentz is a long-term play.
Dallas at least benefited from more time to prepare. Romo did not suit up for the Cowboys’ preseason opener, then played just 13 snaps in Week 2. His injury occurred three plays into the third exhibition, at Seattle, so Prescott received almost all of the time with the first-team offense Romo would have in that game. Prescott of course does not have any regular-season experience under his belt, but he has seen action with all of the expected first-team offense, including Bryant and Elliott.
Rather than hunt for a veteran backup for Romo earlier in the off-season, the Cowboys pressed on with Prescott penciled in there. Even when Romo was healthy, Prescott was next up for reps.
Prescott was a clear star of the preseason, completing 39-of-50 passes and accounting for seven total touchdowns over his three appearances. Wentz? He hasn’t played since suffering a hairline fracture in his rib back on Aug. 11, during the Eagles’ preseason opener against Tampa Bay. (His final line: 12 of 24, 89 yards, one interception).
Of all the factors that point toward Wentz struggling early in the season, this may be the most pressing. A quarterback whom Pederson himself has said needs ample time to smooth out all aspects of his game now will take the field as a starter Sunday. This is a complete 180 from the Eagles’ prior calls for patience.
There is plenty to be gained by sitting and watching, but there is no substitute for actual game action, not at quarterback. Usually, teams use the preseason to get those live reps and the regular season for everything to marinate. Because of the Bradford trade, the Eagles will invert the structure.
“Everybody feels like this kid is ready to go,” Pederson said of Wentz Monday. “We drafted him to take on the reins, and it’s something now that we’re prepared to do.”
If there's a head-scratching decision here, it's not the Bradford trade—getting a 2017 first-rounder to replace the one they dealt to the Browns while chasing Wentz made for a borderline no-brainer. Philadelphia also will host next year’s draft, all the more reason to get into Round 1.
Where the inconsistency lies is the contrast between Pederson’s words Monday with the Eagles’ approach from May through August. There was no public indication that Eagles felt Wentz was ready to be a starting QB out of the gate, so why did the Bradford trade change all that?
The answer, most likely, is because the Eagles realized they were better off setting the wheels in motion for 2017 and beyond than treading water in 2016. Wentz could surprise and thrive, especially in a wide-open NFC East. It is a safer bet that the Eagles’ initial hunch was correct: He will need multiple seasons to develop.
Philadelphia still should be very excited about Wentz’s future, just as it was when Roseman made the aggressive move to nab him at No. 2 overall. Keeping that positive mindset will be tough, however, if Prescott outplays his fellow rookie starting QB this year. Right now, the scale is tipped in Dak’s direction.