The Eagles are four games into the 2016 season and are one of the surprise teams in the league, sitting at 3-1 going into divisional play. The team has looked very strong in all three facets of the game, which is shocking considering the amount of turnover they have had this past offseason. However, none of this would nearly be possible if not for the performance of the Eagles first round pick and starting quarterback, Carson Wentz. What is even most surprising is Wentz is the teams only major rookie contributor and the team is still finding ways to win big, a testament to his impact and also the established talent of the team.
Wentz has been excellent. Not just for a rookie but by any standard of NFL quarterback play. The assertion by quite a few that he is merely "dinking and dunking" to avoid turnovers and pad his stats is mightily ridiculous and, to me, misunderstands many aspects to Wentz' situation.
For one, Wentz is asked to make a lot of throws within the structure of the offense. That structure includes a handful of screens, pop passes and drags. This is a west coast principle, because it manufactures the impact of a run game in the absence of talented running backs, while also getting quarterbacks into a rhythm and forcing defenses to want to compress the field. Once teams sell out to stop those short passes, the offense is set up to fire down the field for the big play, something Wentz has done very well through for weeks of the season.
To say that he is merely "dink and dunk" implies that he favors forcing short throws to running backs or any sub seven yard pass despite the presence of the long play and that is simply not true. He is working within the confines of an offense and doing so incredibly efficiently. The other aspect is that the Eagles, with the exception of yesterday, have mostly been playing with the lead, so the need to be aggressive on offense is superfluous in the ladder stages of the game, so the opportunities simply are not there for Wentz to open up the passing game any more.
A fair critique of Wentz would be that he can be too robotic at times in the execution of the offense, while also being too aggressive. For instance, he will tend to force passes that the offense asks him to make and has trouble moving off of his first read consistently.
However, I would rather Wentz have that gunslinging mentality than not. His game ending mistake against Detroit was bad and could have been avoided had he went underneath, seeing that the deep throw had two defenders in the vicinity, but I am at least a bit pleased that the mistakes come from him trying to make a positive play. I would much rather Wentz go down swinging then throwing stupid check downs that neuter the offense. However, he can definitely stand to nuance his play a lot more, but that can be said for any rookie quarterback.
The bottom line with Wentz is that he has run the Eagles system to near perfection and has shown huge improvement from his time in college to the preseason to now, showing new stitches to his game on a weekly basis. There is no reason not to be encouraged about Wentz moving forward as the guy to lead this team.
As for the rest of the Eagles rookie class, the team has only seen contributions from two of their other picks and nothing has been overwhelming from them. Wendell Smallwood, the Eagles fifth round pick, has seen limited action with the team through four games. However, the bulk of his 20 carries came in the team's week three win over the Steelers. On 17 carries, Smallwood looked very impressive. He was elusive, showing good vision and burst while he gained almost 80 yards and a touchdown on the day. Smallwood is obviously a gifted athlete, so it would be great to see what the team has in him over the coming weeks considering that Ryan Mathews has not exactly been a revelation this year.
The other rookie who has seen a lot of playing time has been their seventh round cornerback, Jalen Mills. Mills was always considered a talented player but fell in the draft due to his off the field reputation. Mills has seen an astounding amount of playing time against the likes of Antonio Brown, Marvin Jones, Alshon Jeffery, Terrell Pryor and Cory Coleman. Pretty big tasks for a seventh round rookie.
However, even more surprising is that Mills has not been a complete liability. He has not exactly been shut down by any means, but the fact he has merely been below average or even average to this point is encouraging. Rookie corners tend to struggle early on and the fact that his learning curve looks the same as some first round rookie defensive backs of the past, there is a smidgen of a reason to be excited. Now, the Eagles could absolutely stand to have better players out there at cornerback, don't get me wrong, but at the least Mills looks like a guy who can develop into a starter. He has held his ground, to a certain extent, against some of the league's best.
The other rookies have yet to make any sort of major impact. There might be some change to that coming if Lane Johnson gets suspended and Isaac Seumalo or Halapoulivatti Vaitai are called into action. However, the Eagles rookies who have seen the field have shown promise to vary capacities, so there is a lot of reason to be excited about this crop of players moving forward.
Around the NFC East, there have been a handful of impressive rookie performances.
The Cowboys, most notably, have gotten massively positive impacts from two of their draft picks.
The unsurprising brilliance from their first round pick, Ezekiel Elliott, has catapulted the offense into being one of the leagues most dangerous. Elliott currently leads the league in rushing by a significant margin and looks better and better every week.
As for their other impact rookie, fourth round pick Dak Prescott has been a huge surprise for the Cowboys. Prescott has moved the offense incredibly efficiently with his arms and legs while avoiding turnovers for the most part. Prescott, like Wentz, has wrongly been hit with the "dink and dunk" narrative that I suppose is the go-to to undermine good rookie performances. The reality is that Prescott is similarly working within the structure of the offense. He has done a great job working the intermediate section of the field and has been slowly getting more and more opportunities to pass in the red zone.
The Cowboys were smartly hesitant to give him full control of the offense from day one considering he is a fourth round pick, but he is showing more and more with each passing week. It may get to a point where Dallas is totally comfortable with Dak as their starter and his play certainly warrants that, but he will likely be replaced by Tony Romo whenever Romo is healthy. Regardless of if Prescott plays out the season, he has been outstanding to this point and likely gives Dallas the future at quarterback that they so desperately need.
The Giants have probably seen the most impact from their rookies in terms of sheer numbers. Their first round pick, Eli Apple, has seen significant playing time for the Giants in their young secondary. While he has not blown anyone away, he has been really solid and had moments of brilliance that hint at the talent that warranted such a high selection. I would not be surprised if he took over full time on the outside by the end of the season, as he is likely a much better option there right now than Dominique Rodgers Cromartie.
The other rookie starter in their secondary was Darian Thompson. Thompson was playing incredibly well through two games at safety before he sustained a foot injury that has held him out since. After not allowing a play longer than 23 yards in Thompson's first two starts, the Giants allowed five in their first game without him. That speaks to the type of impact he has had and could continue to have on that unit once he comes back.
The Giants' most impressive rookie has been Sterling Shepard who has already posted a hundred yard game and caught two touchdowns this season. He is obviously not the team's go to guy with Odell Beckham still their primary playmaker, but he absolutely looks like he is ready to be Odell's complementary player and a dangerous second option in the New York offense.
The Giants are also beginning to see some return from Paul Perkins, who was their fifth round pick out of UCLA. Perkins has yet to get a massive amount of carries, but he has had an explosive play where he took a modest screen for almost 70 yards, showing his wiggle and vision in the process. The volume in which New York is seeing returns from their rookies is very impressive and sets up the team to have a nice, young core of talent moving forward.
Washington has probably seen the least from their rookies, although they have still been decently impressive. Easily their best rookie is safety, Su'a Cravens. Cravens has been flying around that defense and has looked really good attacking the line of scrimmage and also working in coverage. Cravens has the potential to be one of the next very good hybrid players in the NFL and through four games he has been a top three player on the Washington defense.
Kendall Fuller has also made a decent impact as one of the team's back up corners. He has looked solid in dime packages as a cover guy and is a very reliable tackler. I am not sure if he will ever have the ability to be a great outside corner, but his ability to play underneath and be a dependable run defender makes me think he could be a very good slot cornerback.
Josh Doctson, Washington's first round pick, has had a slow start as he has rebounded from injury. He's had few moments where he has looked like a star, but has also had limited opportunity. Doctson was one of the best receivers in the 2016 class and as he gets healthier, expect him to grow into a big part of the team's passing game and he could end up being the third option in that group this year.
I doubt any other division is getting an impact from their rookies like the NFC East is as a whole. There are already two very good rookie quarterbacks in the group as well as a handful of impact offensive and defensive skill players. It should be fun to see these players continue to grow, especially the Eagles young playmakers.