A Bold Bet: Eagles' Future Falls Fully on Carson Wentz's Shoulders

I'm sure most people saw it as the silly kind of posed photo that comes with every NFL draft. You know, the shot of the draft pick standing with the front office, grinning and holding up his new jersey. Yeah, there is Carson Wentz with Jeff Lurie, Howie Roseman and Doug Pederson. Everyone say cheese …
Just a photo op, right? What's the significance? Usually nothing.

Except this time I was struck by the number on the jersey. It was No. 11, which isn't surprising since that's the number Wentz wore at North Dakota State. But it is a number that carries a lot of significance if you are a student of Eagles history which, for better or worse, I am.

The Eagles have won only three NFL championships since their founding in 1933 and all of them were won by quarterbacks wearing No. 11. They were Tommy Thompson in 1948 and '49 and Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin in 1960.

It is a tenuous thread, I admit, and it may mean absolutely nothing. Other quarterbacks have worn No. 11 in this town and no one noticed except the guys who did the laundry. Rick Arrington in the '70s, Jeff Christensen, Kyle Mackey, Casey Weldon in the '80s, Jay Fiedler in the '90s. Any championships there? No.

Ron Powlus, Tim Hasselbeck and Jeff Blake have worn 11 since then, mostly in obscurity.

Mark Rypien spent one season here (1996) wearing No. 11 but few people remember. He won a championship, but it was in Washington. Scott Tinsley wore the number for three games as a replacement player in 1987 and went 0-3. So while the jersey has some history, it comes with no guarantee.

But not since Van Brocklin has No. 11 been handed to a quarterback with such high expectations. That's what struck me when I saw the photograph. I doubt Wentz ever heard of Thompson or Van Brocklin, but that's OK. If he is able to do what they did in this town, he will learn their names soon enough.

That's what this whole draft was about, obviously. Isaac Seumalo, Wendell Smallwood and the others may make the team and they may even contribute, but this draft will ultimately be judged by what Wentz either does or doesn't do. For the price they paid to acquire him, he can't just be OK. Even good isn't good enough. He has to be a game changer, a Joe Flacco, a Ben Roethlisberger, a guy who makes the jump from a small school to the big time and lifts an entire franchise. It is a tall order.

Full disclosure: I questioned the decision to trade up to No. 2. I felt the price was too steep and the risk too great. I would have stayed at eight and taken the best player available. If it was Jack Conklin, the offensive tackle from Michigan State, or Vernon Hargreaves, the cornerback from Florida, I would've been fine with that. They are both good players.

But the Eagles chose a bolder course, trading away a bundle of future picks for the chance to draft a quarterback who started just 23 games at North Dakota State. Chances are he won't even play this season and he probably shouldn't given the learning curve he faces. But the Eagles made the decision that after years of trying to just patch the hole at quarterback, they want to fill it with a player who has a chance to be truly special.

The risk is enormous and if they are wrong, it will haunt this team for years. But if they are right, they will be right for a decade.

In the weeks leading up to the draft, I studied both Wentz and Jared Goff. I gave a higher grade to Goff in part because there was a larger sampling (he was a three-year starter) and he faced a higher level of competition. I also felt he was a more accurate passer on a consistent basis. But the more I studied Wentz, the more I liked him.

You know all about the physical part - his size (6-5, 237), his speed (4.70 in the 40), his overall athletic ability. His arm strength is really impressive. One personnel man told me the ball "explodes" out of his hand and you see that. But I became more intrigued as I watched the tape. The North Dakota State offense wasn't some rinky-dink, draw-it-up-in-the-dirt offense. It was quite sophisticated with a lot of motion, formation variation and NFL concepts. There was real complexity to it and Wentz, unlike most college QBs, ran it himself, calling audibles and pass protections at the line. We've heard about his intelligence - 4.0 GPA and all that - and you see it on the field.

The biggest adjustment Wentz will face won't be in the playbook or the classroom. It will be on the field adjusting to the speed of the game. The defenders he will be playing against will be much faster than the ones he faced in college. The windows will close more quickly. Coverages will change in befuddling ways.

In college, Wentz made a lot of pre-determined throws; that is, he came to the line, saw the coverage and knew right away where he was going with the ball. Usually, he was right on. But in the NFL, defensive coaches are masters of disguise. They show one look at the line then switch to something else at the snap. Here comes the blitz. No, they're dropping off. It's not man coverage, it's a zone. What's that safety doing there? He's supposed to be over here. The tight end should be open but, uh oh, he's bracketed by two guys.

It's what offensive coaches call "processing information" and it is a key component to playing quarterback in the NFL. All that stuff is happening once the quarterback has the ball in his hands and he has just two or three seconds to figure it out. If he can't, all the arm strength in the world can't help him. By all accounts, Wentz has the smarts to do it, but don't expect him to do it right away. This process will take time.

But one thing really struck me as I studied Wentz over the past few weeks. Of all the people I talked to, no one said a bad word about him. That's rare. Normally prior to the draft, people start picking apart the top prospects, even sure things like Andrew Luck. I recall people questioning Luck's arm strength. One man told me Luck "pushes the ball" down the field. Yeah, I thought, he pushes it right into the end zone. It was all nonsense, but the draft creates that sort of thing.

With Wentz, I heard nothing but praise for his physical ability, his intelligence, his character, leadership, all of it. The only thing that could be considered a negative - and it is a fair point - is some questioned the level of competition. But that had nothing to do with Wentz himself. He seems to be a good kid and the way he has handled himself in the craziness of the past few days supports that.

Will he be everything the Eagles need him to be?

Well, he has the right number.

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