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Commanders fans feel increasingly better about the Carson Wentz trade

There just weren’t a lot of better options.

Indianapolis Colts v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

A lot of Commanders fans were speechless when it became public that the team had traded with the Colts to acquire Carson Wentz. The initial negative reaction was driven by a lot of factors.

Most immediate was the fact that the team had been publicly pursuing a trade for Russell Wilson, and with the Seattle quarterback having been raised in Richmond. Virginia, it didn’t seem outrageous to think that he’d consider ‘coming home’ to the play ball. By comparison, Wentz struck many fans as a less-than-desirable consolation prize.

But there was more. Rationally, many people objected to the cost, which is likely to end up being a swap of 2nd round picks in the 2022 draft (dropping 5 spots), Washington’s ‘22 3rd round pick and 2023 2nd round pick, with the Commanders taking on the full burden of Wentz’s salary. Given that Indianapolis had made it clear that they wanted to get rid of Wentz at almost any cost, this felt like a dramatic overpayment — Ron Rivera, it was said, should never play high stakes poker.

But there was the emotional factor as well. Never forget that Carson Wentz, through no fault of his own, had been drafted by the Eagles in 2016. It was a requirement of being a Redskins fan that Wentz be hated just for wearing that ugly green uniform. Later, as his play deteriorated to incredibly low levels in 2020, Wentz became the easy object of ridicule as the #2 overall draft pick who had simply “lost it” and ended up getting benched after the Eagles had signed him to a four-year, $128 million contract extension that only started paying Wentz in 2021. In other words, Philly signed Wentz to a contract extension, then ended up benching him before that extension even took effect. As an NFC East rival, that was just too funny to ignore.

The fact that the Indianapolis Colts owner, Jim Irsay, wanted to get rid of Wentz so badly by season’s end in ‘21, and that the Colts fans blamed Wentz for the team’s failure to make the playoffs made it even easier, as a Washington fan, to add these factors to the derision already heaped on the former Eagle. By the end of 2021, Washington fans were able to make a sport out of laughing at the former Eagle’s fall from grace. Emotionally, then, it was a huge shock to accept that Carson Wentz, former Eagle and object of scorn, was now our starting quarterback!

And so it was that emotional reactions, rational reasoning and disappointment at having missed out on signing Russell Wilson turned into a “WTF?!” moment for most Commanders fans when they heard about the trade and its terms.

The quarterback situation in the NFL rearranged itself quickly in the days that followed, with the Browns “winning” the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes and signing him to an unprecedented 5-year, fully guaranteed $230m contract. The Falcons, who had tried to trade for Watson, faced an untenable position with Matt Ryan, and traded the 37-year-old quarterback to Indianapolis for a 3rd round pick.

National pundits began to opine that Washington had made a mistake by jumping on Wentz early. If they had waited, many talking heads said, they could have made the trade for Matt Ryan, getting a better (albeit older QB) for less draft capital.

At the time, we were curious how Washington fans perceived that argument, and asked the question to readers here on Hogs Haven: As a Washington fan, would you rather have done the Carson Wentz trade or the Matt Ryan trade?

The results were surprisingly one-sided as 76% of those surveyed were happier with the trade for Wentz than they would have been to have traded for Matt Ryan. Reading through the comments associated with the poll, it was clear that Hogs Haven readers perceived the 29-year-old Wentz to have higher upside potential than the 37-year-old Matt Ryan, whom many fans perceive as being on the downside of his career — perhaps not very surprising after back-to-back disappointing experiences with older quarterbacks in Alex Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Well, another huge chunk of data about the quarterback market has been logged with the April draft, which saw a lack of interest from teams in the quarterback class that was close to being unprecedented in the past 30 years or so. Only one quarterback was drafted in the first round, and that one, Kenny Pickett, lasted until the Steelers took him off the board with the 20th pick. The next quarterback didn’t get drafted until the third round, and UNC’s Sam Howell was taken by the Commanders in the 5th round after being projected as high as the #1 overall pick following his sophomore campaign in 2020.

Clearly, it would have been a challenge to have confidently drafted any rookie quarterback last week and relied on him to lead the team to success in 2022 and beyond.

So, given all that’s happened in the quarterback market since the last time we asked about the Carson Wentz trade at the end of March, we thought we’d ask again how Hogs Haven members are feeling about the Wentz trade. On May 4th (Star Wars Day - ‘May the fourth be with you’) we asked the question: Do you feel better or worse about the Carson Wentz trade after free agency and the draft?

As you can see, with the disappointment of Russell Wilson’s decision to play in Denver fading in the rearview mirror and the realities of Washington’s options in free agency, trade and the draft becoming clearer, 83% of fans responding to the survey said that they feel better about the early offseason trade to acquire Carson Wentz.

Welcome to SB Nation Reacts, a survey of fans across the NFL. Each week we ask questions of the most plugged-in Washington Commanders fans and fans across the country. Sign up here to join Reacts.

While few people would suggest that Carson Wentz represents a ‘sure thing’, as a lottery ticket, he probably doesn’t represent bad value. He was widely considered to be a leading candidate for league MVP in 2017 prior to tearing his ACL. His on-field struggles seem to stem largely from a tendency to attempt to play ‘hero’ ball — a habit that he may be more amenable to breaking after failing to win enough hearts, minds and games in each of the past two seasons with that style of play. Interestingly, while they are very different players in other ways, Wentz and his backup Taylor Heinicke share this habit of wanting to never quit on a play, sometimes with spectacular results and sometimes with disastrous outcomes. Scott Turner seemed to find a way to rein in Heinicke, so perhaps he can do the same with Wentz.

Another concern with Carson Wentz is his mental toughness. The popular narrative is that he reacted poorly to the drafting of Jalen Hurts by the Eagles in 2020, despite having a monster extension already in place. In Washington, not only is he the unquesioned starter, and not only is the newly drafted rookie a 5th round selection who is considered not to be pro-ready at the moment, but also Wentz has the support of Ron Rivera, who is widely loved and respected by the players who have been in his programs over the years. While Rivera proved, in the way he handled Dwayne Haskins in 2020, that there are limits to his patience and loyalty, in general, Ron is known for standing by players and supporting them both on and off the field. In many ways, it’s hard to imagine Wentz landing with a better coaching situation — though similar remarks were made a year ago when he joined the Colts and his former QB coach, Frank Reich.

From a salary cap standpoint, while Wentz represents a much larger salary than did Ryan Fitzpatrick a year ago, his 3-year, $81.7m contract with the Commanders ($27m APY) is modest by current standards.

Wentz also has a low-risk contract that has no guaranteed money beyond the end of this season. If he flames out like he did in Indianapolis, then the team can release him, having given up some draft capital, but with the salary cap situation basically intact. On the other hand, if Wentz plays well, his contract will represent good value for a veteran quarterback — one that leaves enough money to pay other players on both sides of the ball.

All in all, fans seem to be talking themselves into Carson Wentz, at least on a provisional basis. It probably matters that there weren’t really better options available. Despite the early drama and headlines, Aaron Rodgers was never leaving Green Bay; the Commanders front office obviously made a very public play to sign Russell Wilson, but he went elsewhere. Hogs Haven members have already said via an earlier survey that they prefer Wentz to Ryan. While any given fan might prefer another option (Trubisky, Winston, Bridgewater), there was probably no other veteran available by trade or free agency that a majority of fans would agree on as being superior to the one the front office traded for. The draft demonstrated how underwhelming the NFL in general perceived the rookie class of quarterbacks to be.

What Carson Wentz is likely to offer that Washington fans have been hoping to see for a long time is a strong arm and the desire to use it. Last year, I said that I thought Washington fans who hated watching Alex Smith play and win should enjoy having Ryan Fitzpatrick as the quarterback, because he was fearless, and had a ‘consequences be damned’ attitude towards his passing decisions. We ended up with Taylor Heinicke instead. Heinicke was exciting to watch primarily for his grittiness and heart, but it simply can’t be denied that he was unable to produce a downfield passing game. By the latter part of the season, opposing defenses had adjusted and simply didn’t worry much about defending against the deep ball that they knew was never coming.

Wentz shares Heinicke’s penchant for extending plays; he has demonstrated a big arm, but he’s not particularly reckless with the ball. His career TD:INT ratio is 140:57, while it was 27:7 a year ago. If Wentz is going to struggle statistically, he seems most vulnerable to giving up sacks (he took 50 in 12 games in 2020) but even that has not been a huge issue for him outside of his final season in Philly.

The Washington front office is doing a lot to try to put Carson Wentz into a position to succeed. The team has an offensive line that features Chase Roullier at center, Leno and Cosmi at tackle (with Lucas as the swing tackle) and 5-time pro bowler Trai Turner at one guard and former fist-team All Pro Andrew Norwell at the other, backed up by the uber-dependable Wes Schweitzer. Wentz should be well protected in the passing game, and the line should also be able to control the line of scrimmage in the run game.

At the skill positions, Wentz may have the best group of receivers in his career to date. Obviously, the group is headlined by Terry McLaurin, but with Curtis Samuel, Dyami Brown and Jahan Dotson, the offense will be able to put speed on the field on every down. The tight ends might just as well be renamed the tall towers — starter Logan Thomas and backup John Bates are both listed at 6’6”, developmental TE Sammis Reyes is 6’5”, while newly drafted rookie and converted WR Cole Turner stands nearly 6’7”. All but Reyes have proven their abilities as pass catchers, and both Bates and Thomas are strong blockers.

The running back room was solid a season ago with Antonio Gibson and JD McKissic, but has gotten stronger with the addition of Brian Robinson Jr., the 3rd round draft pick out of Alabama. The depth of this group and its range of skills will be impressive, especially if last year’s UDFA Jaret Patterson can again make the 53-man roster to round out a 4-man RB room. When it comes to pass-catching running backs, JD McKissic has few peers and a lot to prove after choosing Washington over Buffalo in free agency.

For fans, it’s been a journey from the day of the trade announcement to where we are now, and the acquisition of Carson Wentz has triggered a number of roster moves, but with free agency and the draft behind us, it’s possible for fans to now see the plan for 2022, and is seems to be one that — at least insofar as the quarterback position is concerned — they’ve come to accept.