Jalen Hurts over Carson Wentz: How the Eagles’ decision has fared through seven games | David Murphy
A look inside the numbers shows the deep divide between Wentz and Hurts and an uncomfortable reality for the Eagles.
You have to watch Jalen Hurts from field level to fully appreciate the physical disadvantages (Hurts is generously listed at 6-foot-1) he faces in an NFL pocket. There are moments when you lose sight of him as he settles into the pocket and is enveloped by a tangle of linemen, the majority of whom hold at least three or four inches on him.
Hurts wouldn’t be the first quarterback to thrive in the NFL at his stature, but he might be the first who does not possess an elite level of some other skill. He does not have Russell Wilson’s arm strength, or, consequently, his ability to throw dimes on the run. He does not have Drew Brees’ footwork, or his proprioception (internal clock). As a result, Hurts does not have Brees’ remarkable ability to position himself in passing lanes while keeping his eyes downfield.
Late last season and throughout a franchise-defining offseason, the argument for transitioning to Hurts as the Eagles’ full-time starter emphasized the supposed advantages that he had over Carson Wentz: mobility, ball security, durability, the ability to rally teammates.
More often than not, though, that argument ignores the two critical skills that Wentz possesses and Hurts lacks: size and arm strength.
Seven games into the 2021 season, an uncomfortable reality has emerged. Over in Indianapolis, Wentz is looking a lot like the quarterback who led the Eagles to three straight playoff berths, including the No. 1 seed that helped to set up their eventual Super Bowl run in 2017.
Through seven games, he has completed 64.4% of his passes for 1,695 yards with 11 touchdowns and one interception. His 102.8 quarterback rating would be the best of his career. So too would his 7.7 average yards per attempt.
The disconcerting thing about Wentz’s performance is that he is doing a lot of the things that we’ve previously seen him do. He is pushing the ball down the field. He is converting on third-and-long. He is making the kinds of throws that prototypical franchise quarterbacks tend to make.
These are things that we have yet to see Hurts do. They are things that he simply does not have the physical tools to do. The deeper you look inside the numbers, the more apparent the divide becomes.
Wentz has thrown for eight first downs and three touchdowns on third-and-10-plus. Hurts has thrown for three first downs and one touchdown in those situations.
During his MVP-caliber 2017 campaign, Wentz was at his best when the odds were the highest. Of his 43 attempts on third-and-10-plus, a remarkable 17 went for first downs, including five touchdowns. That’s a success rate of 39.5%. Over the next three seasons, his production dropped dramatically. Between 2018 and 2020, he converted just 22 of 105 third-and-long opportunities with three touchdowns, a conversion rate of 21%.
This season, Wentz is 8-for-19 with three touchdowns on third-and-10-plus. That’s a conversion rate of 42.1%, higher even than his 2017 season. Hurts, conversely, is 3-for-17.
Overall on third down, Wentz has 24 first-down throws in 60 attempts, a 40% success rate. That’s lower than his otherworldly 61-for-121 performance in 2017, but better than his 37.8% rate last season.
Here is Wentz’s conversion rate on third down from 2017 to 2021:
And Hurts’ conversion rate on third down from 2020 to 2021:
On pass attempts of 20-plus yards, Wentz is 13-for-26 for 462 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. Hurts is 12-for-32 for 408 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions.
There’s a reason it sounds so cliched when somebody says a quarterback prospect “can make all the throws.” It’s important. And not many quarterbacks can do it. This was always the biggest argument in favor of sticking with Wentz.
This season, you’re seeing it in his production in two critical areas of the field: deep, and between the numbers. Through seven games, Wentz has 20 more completions in the middle of the field than Hurts. He has thrown four touchdowns of 20-plus yards, three more than Hurts.
While Hurts has thrown for 1,716 yards this season — 21 more yards than Wentz — nearly a quarter of that total has come in garbage time.
In fact, only two quarterbacks in the NFL have accumulated a higher percentage of their yards while being blown out (we’re defining “garbage time” as situations in which a team is trailing by 15-plus points). Hurts has feasted on soft defenses late in games, completing 31 of 48 passes for 392 yards in those situations, compared with 117 of 194 for 1,324 in all others. Four of his 10 passing touchdowns have come with the Eagles trailing by 15-plus points. Of his 361 rushing yards, 108 have come in blowout situations.
All told, Hurts’ passer rating in blowout situations is 35 points higher than his passer rating in non-blowout situations: 117.7 vs. 82.5. Conversely, Wentz has attempted just six passes in blowout situations, with a mere 48 of his 1,695 yards coming with the Colts trailing by 15-plus.
The story is the same if you look at Hurts’ production in one-possession games.
Hurts relying on YAC
More than half of Hurts’ passing yards (53.3%) have come on runs after the catch. Only Jared Goff (60.8%) has been more reliant on YAC for his passing total.
Consider the rest of the company that Hurts keeps in this department: Besides Goff, the other NFL quarterbacks with more than 50% of their passing yards coming after the catch are Ben Roethlisberger, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, and Taylor Heinecke.
In other words, it’s mostly guys who can’t throw. (For what it’s worth, the combined record of that group is 13-27, and none of the six quarterbacks has a winning record in his starts).
Regardless of the Colts’ overall record (3-4), or Wentz’s overall numbers, the reality through seven games is that the former Eagle is making the kinds of throws in the kinds of situations that make the quarterback position such a difficult one to fill.
Some will argue that Hurts doesn’t need to be a franchise quarterback to justify the decision to move on from Wentz, that a pick in the top half of the first round is more value than the Eagles would have realized by hanging on to Wentz and hoping for him to steady his ship.
Only time will tell. If Wentz keeps playing like he has, there’s no telling where the Colts’ first-round pick will land. They still have two games remaining against the Jaguars, one against the Texans, and one against the Jets, giving them four likely wins to go with the three they already have. That would leave them sitting with a winning percentage of at least .411, which would have earned them the No. 13 pick in last year’s draft.
There’s plenty of value to be had drafting at No. 13. That’s where the Eagles landed Brandon Graham back in 2010. Other Pro Bowlers who have gone at No. 13 include Aaron Donald, Andrus Peat, and Laremy Tunsil. But talent tends to evaporate quickly in that portion of the draft. For instance, the Eagles picked Derek Barnett at No. 14 overall. Not since 2014 has a No. 14 overall pick gone on to make a Pro Bowl.
Wentz still has plenty left to prove. He needs to stay healthy. He needs to prove he can avoid the back-breaking mistakes that plagued him last season. Right now, though, his skill set is paying serious dividends on the field. It’s a skill set the Eagles could find difficult to replace.