By Peter Gleason
It’s hot and muggy down at NovaCare in South Philly as the Eagles prepare for the 2020 season.
And that starts 18 days from today — Sunday, Sept. 13 at FedEx Field in Maryland against the team formerly known as the Washington Redskins.
Here’s how we see the Birds’ prospects:
2019 Record: 9-7
Points For: 385 – Points Against: 354
Projected 2020 Over/Under Win Total: 9.5
In 13 games for the Eagles in 2017, then 25-year-old quarterback Carson Wentz threw for nearly 3,300 yards and 33 touchdowns while leading Philly to an 11-2 record.
Then Wentz tore his ACL in a Week 14 game against the Ram and watched from the sidelines as backup QB Nick Foles guided the Eagles on a magical playoff run that ended with a Super Bowl win over the New England Patriots and Tom Brady, who won the MVP that season.
Prior to his injury, Wentz was in contention for the award that ended up going to Brady; even though he was unable to finish the season, he still garnered a couple of MVP nods from the voting body, a major sign of respect. Now, two seasons later, the 27-year-old is one of the favorites to win the 2020 MVP award in what will be his fifth season in the NFL.
Wentz has amassed a 32-24 record in the regular season as a starter but is just 0-1 in the playoffs, having missed the tournament again in 2018 through injury before bowing out in the Wild Card game to Seattle last season. If there’s one question surrounding his otherwise promising career, it’s obviously whether he’s durable enough to remain upright and on the field for an entire 16-plus-game season. But if there’s a second, subsequent one, it’s whether he can consistently play at an elite level once he gets there.
Though Wentz threw 27 touchdowns last year while playing in all 16 regular-season games for the first time since his rookie season, he was held to a single touchdown pass in nine of them, and often struggled to hit open receivers with accurate throws. In fact, according to ProFootballFocus, Wentz ranked 29th in the NFL in the percentage of accurate-plus passes thrown to a receiver with a step or more of separation.
What that means in layman’s terms is that while Wentz can often make something out of nothing when plays break down and he moves outside of the pocket, he struggles to make simple plays downfield and take what the defense gives him.
To be fair to Wentz, part of the reason for those struggles — especially last season — are the players he is throwing to.
Last season, Philly’s ’s top pass-catchers were tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, followed by rookie running back Miles Sanders. Wentz’s top receiver, Alshon Jeffery, finished with fewer than 500 yards on the season and missed the final four games of the year due to injury. The team’s other two starting wide receivers in Week 1 — DeSean Jackson and Nelson Agholor — were also sidelined for the last quarter of the year.
With Jackson now back healthy and Jeffery potentially returning at some point, Wentz will have those two weapons back in his arsenal as well as speedy rookie WRs Jalen Reagor, Quez Watkins and John Hightower at his disposal, all of whom were drafted in 2020. In addition to that infusion of talent, Wentz will also be playing in a new system that head coach and offensive play-caller Doug Pederson, broadly considered to be a great offensive mind, describes as “different.”
“I think what we’ve done as a staff in the offseason with our scheme evaluation, making things better, the staff hires that I’ve done to bring in new thoughts and new ideas and ways to enhance our offense, I think [the offense] is going to look a little bit different,” Pederson says.
Perhaps that different offense will lead to different Wentz in 2020. Even if it doesn’t, Wentz is not really in danger of losing his job, as the team has him under contract through 2024 after giving him a massive extension (including $107 million in guaranteed cash) a little more than a year ago. That said, there is some pressure on him to deliver the goods now, as the Eagles shockingly selected Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts in the second round of the 2020 NFL draft. While Hurts could serve as the Eagles’ version of Saints’ playmaker Taysom Hill in the short term, Philly’s willingness to invest a second-round pick in him demonstrates that the team may view him as a starter at some point down the line.
The added weapons, revamped offense and pressure of having Hurts behind him on the roster should allow Wentz, who was listed at 237 pounds last year but intentionally put on weight during the offseason to make him less susceptible to injury, to elevate his game in 2020.
Will he get back to where it was in 2017, before the injuries? There’s no way to know for sure, but there’s certainly plenty of reason to believe that the last two seasons were the exceptions, and the MVP-candidate version of Wentz is the norm.