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Comparing New Colts QB Carson Wentz to Last Season’s Starter Philip Rivers

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Last week, the Indianapolis Colts and general manager Chris Ballard traded a draft compensation package to land former Philadelphia Eagles franchise quarterback Carson Wentz.

With the Colts having had last season’s starter, Philip Rivers, retire, we take a quick look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of having Wentz now behind center—when comparing the two NFL starting quarterbacks recently:

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Arm Strength:

While Wentz may not have a Patrick Mahomes or Matthew Stafford unworldly cannon, he does have a very strong rifle of his own and can make all of the throws—including downfield or fitting the football through tight windows in a hurry.

At age 39, Rivers obviously lost a bit from his best fastball and faced diminished arm strength this past season. It limited the Colts offense’s ability to take chances downfield and generate more big passing plays. That’s not a knock on the veteran, who in his prime was one of the game’s best deep ball throwers—as father time catches up with everyone.

Wentz should enable the Colts to take more calculated shots deep, but the franchise would be wise to provide him another ‘field-stretcher’ or two at wide receiver this offseason.

Advantage: Strong in Wentz’s favor.

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Wentz is coming off a season in which he completed just 57.4% of his passes—which was the league’s 34th highest sandwiched between Sam Darnold and Drew Lock—and can really tell you all you need to know how last year went for him (i.e., pretty poorly):

Wentz had the league’s 2nd worst completion percentage above expectation at -4.1%, as only the Washington Football Team’s Dwayne Haskins (-7.1.%) was worse in 2020.

Now, Wentz’s receivers didn’t do him any favors—dropping a lot of passes, and he has a career accuracy percentage of 62.7% in five pro seasons, so he’s not been as bad as last season’s struggles indicated.

That being said, Rivers completed 68.0% of his passes for the Colts, which was the 2nd highest mark in a single-season in franchise history behind only Peyton Manning in 2009 (68.8%). Even at his advanced football age, it was safe to say that Rivers was about as accurate it got at starting NFL quarterback these days:

Yes, Rivers had the advantage of playing with a stronger supporting cast and better offensive line this past season, but he had a career 64.9% completion rate in 17 NFL seasons during his arguable Hall of Fame career.

One thing to note too is that Rivers may have benefited in accuracy from shorter throws and taking the underneath routes—while Wentz took more contested gambles downfield.

Given Wentz’s past season struggles and Rivers’ stellar 2020 in accuracy, and this seems like a wide gap—even if the former Eagles’ #2 overall pick rebounds to more of his career norms as far as his overall accuracy is concerned.

Advantage: Strong in Rivers’ favor.

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Line of Scrimmage Command:

This isn’t to say that Wentz cannot command the line of scrimmage, but he’s been in the league 5 years compared to Rivers’ 17 seasons before the latter’s offseason retirement.

What you see in Wentz is a quarterback still in his twenties (28), who is still learning the position of quarterback and commanding the line of scrimmage.

This one may simply be a byproduct of Rivers’ wealth of NFL experience—from 240 career starts, but the grizzled veteran seemed to perform a commendable job—more often than not in adjusting line protections, audibling out of ill-advised plays at the line of scrimmage based on the defense’s look, and getting the Colts into the proper play/formation.

Advantage: Moderate in Rivers’ favor.

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Progression of Reads:

Another category, another advantage to Rivers.

Last year was a huge setback for Wentz, who held onto the football for way too long and locked onto receivers, but prior to that point, had shown continued development as a passer—working through his passing reads:

Per NFL next generation stats, in 2020, on extended dropbacks (4+ seconds), Wentz undertook 62 pressures (2nd most), 40 sacks (most), and 4 interceptions (tied for most).

Additionally, he averaged 2.91 seconds to throw, which was the 5th most among all passers, while Rivers was at 2.52 seconds in time to throw—which was the 5th lowest (via NFL next gen stats).

Now, some of this was a natural byproduct of the Colts’ offense—which emphasized shorter throws (and mitigated Rivers’ deficiencies in arm strength). Wentz averaged 9.1 air yards per attempt compared to Rivers’ 7.4 air yards respectively—meaning he definitely held onto the football longer for deeper throws, presumably at least somewhat because of the Eagles’ intended offensive play call design.

Still, Wentz just didn’t get rid of the football quick enough, whereas Rivers may have been ‘the king of getting the football out’—and getting it out in a hurry, making quick decisions in the pocket to avoid anticipated pressure.

Wentz shouldn’t be as bad as he showed last season progressing through his reads, but if we’re talking the quarterback as is, the advantage clearly goes to Rivers here.

Advantage: Strong in Rivers’ favor.

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Pocket Presence:

Wentz was dealt with a bad hand behind a banged up Eagles offensive line that had the league’s most o-line combinations in 2020—at a unit where continuity is critical.

However, even when given a clean pocket, Wentz still struggled mightily this past season:

Per FantasyData, when pressured, his 32% pressured completion percentage was 32nd in the league (and keep in mind, there are 32 NFL teams).

Wentz has consistently been a quarterback, who’s fared much better, when given a clean pocket to work with (like every quarterback often does):

That being said, whether faced with a clean pocket or pressured, Wentz was just downright dreadful regarding his pocket presence in 2020.

I wouldn’t say Rivers was awesome when faced with immediate pressure, but the veteran did a great job of anticipating where the pressure would come from and getting rid of the football before it could get there (knowing full well that he’s a sitting duck back there otherwise).

Rivers had historically been exceptional at handling pressure too in recent seasons:

Again, Wentz should be better in this category than what he showed last season—as he has nowhere to go but up by being reunited with Colts head coach Frank Reich.

However, as it stands, Rivers wins this category clearly.

Advantage: Strong in Rivers’ favor.

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Okay, okay, so at this point, you’re probably thinking, ‘Wow, a twilight in his playing career Rivers sure sounds like the better quarterback—even retired right now.”

However, this is one of the categories where Wentz is significantly stronger than Rivers and with big implications.

Even coming off a 2017 ACL injury, Wentz is a dual-threat quarterback with the ability to make plays with his legs. He can execute strong throws under duress by moving around in the pocket and can extend plays outside of it when pressured.

His sizable upgrade in mobility also enables the Colts to run play-actions and RPO’s again, which should provide new wrinkles and allow for more calculated passing shots downfield.

Simply put, Rivers was a statue and hands down the league’s most immobile quarterback in football this past season—with the inability to even run QB sneaks or play-action and avoid immediate pocket pressure.

Overall, this limited the Colts’ play-calls and big-play ability offensively.

Wentz provides a far more mobile option—as he’s similar in playing style to former Colts franchise quarterback Andrew Luck.

Advantage: Strong in Wentz’s favor.

Overall Verdict:

So Rivers clearly won more categories than Wentz here.

That being said, the latter provides a potentially far more dynamic option when it comes to Wentz’s significant upgrades in arm strength and mobility.

This should provide the Colts with more play calls offensively to keep opposing defenses off-balance and generate more big plays—by both going downfield and utilizing Wentz’s legs both inside and outside the pocket.

The Colts needed to better keep up with the Mahomes, Josh Allens, Lamar Jacksons, and Baker Mayfields of the AFC’s top competition at starting quarterback athletically.

One also has to keep in mind here that this was based off of last season’s Wentz, who was one of the worst starting quarterbacks in all of football. He has the chance to improve in all of the other categories that Rivers bested him in than he clearly showed—as he falls more in-line with his career norms and by being reunited with Reich again.

Still, there are some other things to consider.

Wentz has a high ceiling—if he can fix some acquired bad habits, but also a very low floor—if he cannot. Rivers would’ve presumably presented a much safer, comfortable option (and higher floor), but the Colts were limited in their play calling offensively and may have already maxed out their ceiling with the longtime Chargers quarterback behind center (and his clear physical limitations to work around).

There’s also the small chance that Rivers at age 39 could’ve fallen off the face of the earth entirely, as one truly never knows when it’s all going to go for a quarterback of that advanced football age.

As such, Wentz has the chance to be much more dynamic and a starting upgrade to Rivers—if he can potentially iron out some of his deficiencies from this past season, but not without inherent risk for the Colts.

This is still a gamble, but the obvious talent and upside are apparent.