2020 NFL Preview: It feels like a referendum is starting on Eagles QB Carson Wentz

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 5. 

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

About eight minutes into his first NFL playoff appearance, after a single completion for 3 yards, Carson Wentz was out of the game.

Every season since 2015, which includes Wentz’s last college season, an injury was part of his story. He got through all 16 regular-season games last season, only to suffer a concussion in Philadelphia’s playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Injuries are part of football and can be a product of horrible luck — or, in Wentz’s case last season, a wholly unnecessary hit from behind by Jadeveon Clowney — but the drumbeat won’t stop when it comes to Wentz.

Unfair? Probably. Plenty of people came to Wentz’s defense after the tweet from Danny Kanell, the former NFL quarterback turned radio host. But it’s not like nobody else has had the thought go through their mind.

Before Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, Wentz was on track to win an MVP in his second season. Then he tore his ACL. Nick Foles became a hero forever in Philadelphia. Wentz has 3 career playoff passing yards and some question about his standing among NFL quarterbacks. In 2017, it seemed like he was a lock to be the league’s next star quarterback, and a few years later, that’s not such a sure thing.

Then came the draft.

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The Eagles insist that second-round pick Jalen Hurts, coming off a fantastic season at Oklahoma, was a value pick and not a statement on Wentz. Maybe there were coronavirus concerns behind the pick. Or the Eagles are planning to get creative and use both quarterbacks at the same time. The fact is, the Eagles just took a quarterback in the second round when they had a lot of other needs. It was a confusing pick in many ways.

“We’ve shown how we feel about Carson by our actions, we showed it by the amount of picks we put into him and we showed it by the contract extension and we believe this is a guy to lead us to our next Super Bowl championship,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said after the draft, via NBC Sports Philadelphia. “But for better or worse, we are quarterback developers. We want to be a quarterback factory and we have the right people in place to do that and no team in the National Football League has benefited more from developing quarterbacks than the Philadelphia Eagles. This is who we are.”

There’s nothing wrong with pouring resources into the QB position; teams have a blind spot when it comes to adding talent there for some reason. It doesn’t decrease the pressure on Wentz.

There should be pressure on the entire Eagles franchise this season. They needed a nearly miraculous rally to make the playoffs in 2018, after their Super Bowl title. Last season, they won the NFC East by winning their final four games, but the “race” with the Dallas Cowboys can be better described as a “you take it ... no you take it” game of hot potato among two flawed teams. The Eagles were 9-8, counting their playoff loss.

It seems like the Eagles are better than two straight 9-7 regular seasons. Injuries have played a part, and angst over the medical staff was a big story of the early offseason. Locker room chemistry became an open topic of conversation. There were holes on the roster due to bad draft picks at receiver and cornerback. Doug Pederson’s lineup decisions were questioned, too.

Whatever the reason, the Eagles have underachieved since the Super Bowl. Wentz did well last season considering the lack of available talent around him (his performance in the Atlanta Falcons game in Week 2, dealing with his own nagging injuries, was phenomenal even in a loss). He was the main reason Philadelphia was in the playoffs at all. But it’s a quarterback league and Wentz has a four-year, $128 million deal that puts him under a harsh spotlight.

And now the Eagles have a highly drafted backup in place. Even if the Eagles had no negative thoughts about Wentz or his ability to stay healthy, they’ve invited more questions about their franchise quarterback. With another good-not-great season, 2017 will look like more of an outlier. Especially in a tough market like Philly. And if he misses more games again, most people will have a tough time saying his name without adding “injury-prone” to it.

If Wentz is going to return to that MVP level of a few years ago, now would be a good time for it.

Carson Wentz's injuries have been a focus during his time with the Eagles. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

The Eagles made a big move at cornerback, trading for cornerback Darius Slay. They got Slay on a discount (a third- and fifth-round draft pick) because Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia couldn’t get along with him. That was a great move to improve a position of weakness. The Eagles spent $39 million over three years on former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who they think will help the interior of the defense. The Eagles were dealt a tough blow when guard Brandon Brooks, a Pro Bowler each of the past three seasons, tore his Achilles this offseason. They re-signed longtime left tackle Jason Peters and said he’d be moving to guard, in Brooks’ vacated spot. The Eagles’ draft will be remembered for the Jalen Hurts pick. It seems like a huge leap of faith to believe Hurts can be flipped later in a trade for more than the second-rounder Philadelphia used on him. First-round pick Jalen Reagor could be the answer at receiver, though he’ll be compared to receivers picked after him like Justin Jefferson, Brandon Aiyuk and Michael Pittman Jr.

GRADE: C+

It’s hard to properly judge Carson Wentz’s 2019 season. The Eagles’ receivers were either hurt or mostly bad. Against the Falcons in Week 2, Wentz put a great pass right on Nelson Agholor’s hands that would have been a touchdown and won the game ... and Agholor dropped it. It was that kind of season. The lack of talent around Wentz contributed to a season that was good but not great. His Pro Football Focus passing grade was 14th among 27 quarterbacks with at least 350 dropbacks. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Wentz has an enormous season if his supporting cast stays healthy, and he does, too. He has the talent. But the Eagles surely would like to see Wentz re-establish himself as a top-five QB in the league.

Darius Slay had a down season in Detroit, and there are plenty of possible reasons. He wasn’t a great fit with Matt Patricia, in terms of personality or Patricia’s man-heavy coverage scheme. He faced some tough competition. And before last season, Slay had established himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. The Eagles have to hope it was just a weird season for Slay, because Philadelphia needs to finally find an answer at cornerback. They didn’t get much out of some high picks like Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas, and hope that Slay settles down in at least one corner spot.

The Eagles’ win total at BetMGM is 9.5, and I’d lean under. It’s not a strong opinion since Philadelphia has double-digit talent, but something held them back the past couple years. Maybe a more interesting play is the Eagles to finish second in the NFC East — BetMGM offers props on which team will finish first, second, third and fourth in the division — at +140 odds. I don’t see any reasonable scenario in which the Eagles finish behind the New York Giants or Washington, and I like Dallas to win the division.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Miles Sanders has become a trendy fantasy player in the first few months of draft season, to the point that he’s often a first-round pick or an early second-round selection. His efficiency from his rookie season supports the optimism, but don’t overlook how eagerly the Eagles tend to add depth at this position. When the NFL markets were cool on Jordan Howard, Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount in recent years, it was Philadelphia that stepped forward and found room. 

“This doesn’t mean Sanders can’t be a special player, and perhaps there’s no major ball competition for him at the moment. And the best NFL coaches tend to work player-to-scheme, not the other way around. But with the background concern that Doug Pederson and Co. might see Sanders as slightly less than a bell cow, I view the sophomore back more as a fallback fantasy option, not a proactive pick at the turn.”

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Through nine games last season, rookie running back Miles Sanders played 50 percent of Philadelphia’s snaps just once, topping out at 53.3 percent. Over the next six games, Sanders played 77.2 percent of the offensive snaps, only once dropping below 71.4 percent. He had 635 yards from scrimmage in those six games, and Philadelphia should have faith in him as a featured back in Year 2. Despite reported interest in some veterans, the Eagles didn’t sign or draft a back. Sanders is set up well for a big year.

“Miles is our No. 1,” coach Doug Pederson said, via NJ.com. “He’s the guy we drafted last year, and he had a tremendous rookie season. He’s ready to carry the load, but I think you’ve got to have a second or a third guy there to help him.”

Did the Eagles do enough at receiver?

By the end of the year, undrafted rookie Greg Ward, who was a college quarterback, was Carson Wentz’s most reliable wide receiver. That certainly wasn’t the plan. It spoke to injuries, but also draft errors. Nelson Agholor, a former first-round draft pick, is gone after years of inconsistency. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, taken in the second round last year ahead of D.K. Metcalf, had 10 catches for 169 yards despite playing in all 16 games. Alshon Jeffery has apparently worn out his welcome, but the Eagles didn’t trade him this offseason. DeSean Jackson is still around, but injuries, age and a controversial offseason cloud his future. The Eagles need to hope TCU receiver Jalen Reagor makes an impact right away. Reagor didn’t put up great college stats but his quarterbacks didn’t help him much. The Eagles made other additions like trading for Marquise Goodwin and drafting John Hightower and Quez Watkins in the later rounds. The biggest piece of the puzzle is the rookie Reagor.

If Carson Wentz won MVP, would you be surprised? You shouldn’t be. He’s a great talent and just 27 years old. If Wentz has that type of season, the Eagles can be a championship contender again. They still have plenty of talent on both lines. Miles Sanders could be a breakout player. Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert form an exceptional tight end duo. The secondary should be better with Darius Slay. There are questions at linebacker, if Jalen Mills can help replace Malcolm Jenkins in his move from cornerback to safety, if there’s enough talent at receiver, and if 2019 first-round pick Andre Dillard can replace Jason Peters at left tackle. Their questions aren’t much worse than any other team in the NFL, and the foundation is solid. The way they finished strong last season, after a lot of key injuries, might be something to build on.

Philadelphia’s loss to Detroit last season says a lot about the team since the Super Bowl. The Eagles outplayed the Lions in many ways, but numerous dropped passes, fumbles and a kickoff-return touchdown (one of seven in the NFL all last season) doomed them in a 27-24 home defeat. The Eagles were the better team but terribly sloppy and lost a game they should have won. There has been something lacking the past two seasons. If the Eagles can figure out why they haven’t achieved more with a talented roster since winning a Super Bowl, they can be one of the NFL’s best again. Maybe this is just what the Eagles are.

The Eagles were 4-6 in 2018 before turning it on late. Last season, they were 5-7 before coming alive to win the NFC East. Give Philadelphia credit for making the playoffs both years, but there are flaws that might not be fixed. This is a good team, but not one that’ll win the NFC East. Perhaps if Carson Wentz reaches his top level again, the Eagles’ ceiling gets higher. But the relative disappointment of the past two seasons is hard to shake.

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