Carson Wentz can still surprise Zach Ertz, his favorite target on the field and closest teammate off it.
On Tuesday, during team red-zone drills, Wentz and Ertz hooked up for a touchdown that clearly wasn’t as scripted. But to the naked eye, the improvisation -- in which Ertz broke off his corner route against cornerback Sidney Jones and turned to find a football flying high in his direction -- looked like a detour the quarterback and tight end had practiced for, over and over.
According to Ertz, it was not.
“I was supposed to run a seven [route], but Sidney was so far outside me that I kind of shut it down, and Carson saw exactly what I saw, and I was able to high point that ball,” Ertz said. “We had never repped that, but we were just on the same page.”
Just one of the many he has thrown during training camp, that pass can serve as a reminder that Wentz is still far from a finished product. He has yet to hit his ceiling, which is one reason he has become the darling pick for some analysts to win NFL MVP this season.
But with room to grow, there can be still be pains, as the past week of camp showed. Wentz wasn’t at his sharpest. Given context, his struggles could be explained away by crediting the Eagles’ defense, or noting the difficulty of facing the same unit since May, or factoring in quarterback experimentation.
They’re all valid explanations. Wentz could benefit from finally facing another team. It is just one of several arguments for playing him in the preseason. But coach Doug Pederson doesn’t appear to be in any hurry, and while he said he has yet to make a decision, signs are pointing toward Wentz sitting again when the Eagles travel to face the Jaguars Thursday night.
“I trust Doug’s plan,” Wentz said Tuesday. “I’ll be ready come Week 1, whether I get reps multiple times in the preseason or none at all.”
Pederson isn’t the only coach taking a conservative approach to the preseason. Jacksonville’s Doug Marrone indicated that he will rest most of his starters, including Nick Foles, thus spoiling the opportunity to see the quarterback face off against his former team.
The risks are great, as Nate Sudfeld can attest after his left wrist was fractured in the first preseason game. Wentz said that his backup’s injury didn’t place the perils of playing further in perspective. He said he simply empathized with his teammate.
Wentz fractured ribs in his first-ever preseason game. He’s played in only three of a possible nine preseason games since. Did the three he started in 2017 have anything to do with his MVP-caliber season? Did the four he missed as he recovered from knee surgery have the opposite effect in 2018?
More than anything, it was likely Wentz’s health – the knee, compounded by a stress fracture in his back -- that factored into his regression last season. He took measures this offseason to alter his diet, and when asked Tuesday how he felt this camp vs. previous ones, he said, “I feel stronger, I feel more explosive.”
It’s been difficult to quantify Wentz’s improvement because of the unvaried competition. He looked excellent in the spring and during the first two weeks of the summer. But Wentz and the offense haven’t been as consistent since Saturday, an assessment both the quarterback and Pederson seemed to acknowledge when asked about the monotony of seeing the same defense.
“It’s hard. You get frustrated. I know I’ve been there,” Pederson said. “You’re like, ‘Oh, man, I want that throw,’ and you don’t get it, and things just don’t come off. But what happens is, we get those throws during games.”
Wentz’s first chance to see another defense, if he doesn’t suit up Thursday, will come Monday and Tuesday in scrimmages with the Ravens. There will a controlled environment to protect the quarterbacks, but if Wentz is efficient enough, Pederson could opt to sit him when the Eagles host Baltimore that Thursday.
The Ravens’ 3-4 defense will present a much different test than Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 front in terms of scheme. It might also prove to be more challenging. The Ravens finished second in the NFL in fewest points and first in fewest yards allowed last season.
The Eagles’ defense might be better than last year, but with several key starters still sidelined for team drills, how much improvement could there actually be? Schwartz doesn’t script his calls, but Wentz said he has seen more variety in the coverages, which could partially be of Pederson’s doing.
Wentz has seemingly thrown more from the pocket, something he attributed to the Eagles’ aggressive style of play up front. He has spoken candidly about the need to protect himself. But if Wentz has tinkered with anything, like a veteran pitcher would new pitches in spring training, he said it’s been with new route combinations.
“You try a little bit new,” Wentz said, “but at the same time you stick with what you know.”
The quarterback room has changed without Foles. The offense added new pieces with receiver DeSean Jackson and running backs Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders. And Wentz received a franchise contract in the offseason. But the status is still mostly quo for the 26-year old as he enters Year 4.
Ertz has been there since the beginning. He was one of the first to predict greatness for Wentz. He isn’t there yet, though, and while his struggles in camp suggest he might never get there, Ertz said it’s throws like the one he caught Tuesday that keep him on his toes about Wentz’s potential.