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Dak Prescott v. Carson Wentz: A Deep-Dive Comparison

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What can years of film and stats tell us about the great debate among NFC East quarterbacks?

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan or LeBron? Hot dog or sandwich? Dak Prescott or Carson Wentz? Two are among the Internet’s greatest debates — the third is well on its way.

The Prescott v. Wentz debate is a natural extension off of the Eagles/Cowboys rivalry, and is only heightened by their shared draft class and disparity in draft stock; the inability of any NFC East team to win the division in consecutive seasons; and, of course, our exacerbated offseason boredom in 2020.

As such, I cast aside my fan goggles as best I could and dove into Wentz and Prescott film from the last three seasons, targeting best/worst performances, top DVOA defenses, and divisional rivalries to get a full taste of each quarterback’s abilities and growth. I’ll tell you now, as a disclaimer: I didn’t walk away convinced of anything, though I was surprised with the results of my film study in multiple areas.

Before I get into what I saw, however, a moment for the necessary caveats.

The Necessary Caveats

Few are as familiar with the Eagles’ 2019 receiving corps as I am. I not only cover the team, but I cover the NFL Draft, so I actually knew who Robert Davis and Deontay Burnett were before they ever donned the midnight green. There is no doubt that, had Carson Wentz had better receivers in 2019, he would have played better football.

I am also aware that Prescott suffered woeful drops in the 2019 season. Both Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper are tremendous talents at wide receiver, and both caught a bad case of the dropsies in 2019. It happens, but it does not affect how I view quarterback play. Accurate passes are accurate passes.

If I forgot any, feel free to yell at me in the comments. But I tried to control for as much context as I could.

Where Prescott Wins

As this is for Bleeding Green, I feel compelled to say this: there must be some facet of the game in which Prescott is better than Wentz. Even if you believe Wentz is a better quarterback than Prescott, Prescott has the better career portfolio when considering catch-all stats, like ANY/A (6.92 to Wentz’s 6.30) and quarterback rating (97.0 to Wentz’s 92.7). That isn’t a mistake — it’s because Prescott’s pretty good at this.

Prescott does things well. Let’s talk about them.

Pocket Management

One of the noticeable differences between Prescott and Wentz is the way they handle a pocket. Stylistically, they’re opposites. Wentz is a statuesque quarterback, who likes to hang tall and strong among the flying bodies of the pocket and absorb glancing blows. Prescott is a nimble and at times jumpy quarterback who constantly adjusts and re-sets his drop point relative to pressure. He is more prone to moving within the pocket to extend the play and find his checkdown before pressure arrives, while Wentz is more prone to breaking the pocket to extend the play and attack downfield.

That is not to say Wentz never moves within the pocket — rather, Wentz has the frame to handle obscured throwing lanes or survive minor hits that Prescott can’t. By the same token, Prescott has the quickness and rapid release that Wentz doesn’t, which allows him to hop quickly into open pocket space and buy an extra second. Both are good escape players who have the athletic ability to break a tackle and get outside of the pocket altogether and create with their legs, though Wentz’s ability here has depreciated since his 2017 ACL injury (4.7 YPC in 2017; 2.7 in 2018 and 3.9 in 2019).

Wentz’s tendency to either hang and deliver, or completely break the pocket, is reflected in PFF charting data, which shows him as quicker to all his decisions than Prescott is — when to leave the pocket, when to tuck and run, and even when to get sacked, as Prescott is better at lengthening plays.

Dak Prescott v. Carson Wentz: Time to Event (2017 - 2019)

Measure Prescott Wentz
Measure Prescott Wentz
Time in Pocket 2.83s 2.69s
Time to Sack 3.53s 3.31s
Time to Run 5.22s 5.04s
All data per PFF

The delta between the two becomes larger if you remove 2017 from the data, thereby looking only at post-injury Wentz.

Dak Prescott v. Carson Wentz: Time to Event (2018 - 2019)

Measure Prescott Wentz
Measure Prescott Wentz
Time in Pocket 2.84s 2.67s
Time to Sack 3.72s 3.28s
Time to Run 5.38s 4.92s
All data per PFF

The proof is in the film as well. Some of Prescott’s best plays come as a result of his ability to adjust his drop timing and set point to incoming pressure. On some plays, like the first Bears play, it’s a bit obvious: Prescott quickly abandons his drop and works away from the blitz to get enough time for a tough, cross-body throw. On others, it’s more subtle. The best pocket managers make it look like pressure was never really going to arrive at all, by adjusting their footwork to help their blockers nullify pressure.

There’s no doubt that Prescott is at his best from a clean pocket — as all QBs are — and that he’s a deadly thrower on designed rollouts as well. But in comparison with Wentz — another quality pocket passer and rollout passer — the glaring difference is how Prescott extends plays within the pocket, by changing his drop location.

Wentz’s unwillingness to adjust his drops to a collapsing pocket has long been an item of discussion for his career, and the negative repercussions of this habit were exacerbated last year by a poor receiving corps that couldn’t uncover on quick-game concepts. They often left Wentz stranded.

When watching Wentz’s clips specifically, a common term may come to mind: pocket presence. I use “pocket management” because it encapsulates both the presence to feel pressure and the reaction to that pressure, but if you want to divide the ideas, Wentz’s pocket presence pales in comparison to Prescott’s. This weakness of Carson’s is why Wentz has more fumbles (25) over the last two seasons than any other quarterback, and Prescott — who has played in more games and has more rushes — only has 18. Prescott is safer with the football largely because he’s able to get out of dangerous situations with more consistency.

Again, the difference is fundamentally stylistic: Wentz is a Roethlisberger, Prescott is a Brady (with athleticism). They could stay in the same styles and completely reverse in terms of efficacy — but that doesn’t look likely. For now, Prescott has a big edge over Wentz in generating big plays and avoiding negative plays, because of his ability to manage a typical NFL pocket.

Out of Structure Play

I was surprised, following my film watch and during my research, to discover that there is some doubt regarding Prescott’s ability out of structure. It’s tough for me to wrap my mind around any concerns with Prescott’s ability out of the pocket or when his first read is denied. He’s aware of his progressions and alerts, shrewd when tucking and running, and willing to take a gamble under the right circumstances.

Wentz is a strong player out of structure in his own right, though again, it is important to underline that he has waned in this category since the 2017 injury. The biggest difference between Prescott and Wentz here, however, doesn’t concern athleticism. It concerns risk management.

Prescott strikes a lovely balance between aggression and ball security when he’s forced to create for himself. He retains downfield vision while understanding how coverage is going to rotate and adjust in a scramble drill or following a heavy blitz package, and has a quick internal clock to avoid getting hit frequently on his release. We’ll certainly get to the genesis of Prescott’s interceptable throws later — but I feel confident in saying it’s not improvising that leads to his worst passes.

It’s worth noting that Wentz undoubtedly has higher peak plays than Prescott does outside of the pocket. As we transition the conversation to where Wentz has the advantage, we’ll discuss the positive effects Wentz’s arm strength has on his game that Prescott can’t hope to match. As such, when we’re talking pure scramble YOLO plays, Wentz is truly one of the league’s best. Prescott doesn’t hold up.

The problem is that very same advantage also makes Wentz risk-prone. Wentz wants to hold onto the football, because of his bottomless faith in his own ability to make something out of nothing; and in that hunt for something, he makes some boneheaded plays. Wentz is late to checkdowns if and when he takes them, runs himself into bad sacks, and can push the ball into windows that have already closed.

Again, if we wanted to use a different framework for this trait and its variable expression between Wentz and Prescott, we might call this “poise.” Prescott is more poised than Wentz. He handles bad situations with a better script and more maturity, which levels out his play relative to Wentz. Perhaps when Wentz’s receiving corps reaches the level of Prescott’s, Wentz will get enough of those dazzling improvisations that typified the younger years of his career that he is equal to Prescott here. That is, however, far from a sure thing — if the receiving corps ever gets there at all.

For now, Prescott has the advantage when things don’t go as the quarterback planned. And that advantage matters — because the better defenses get in deep playoff runs, the more likely it is things won’t go as planned.

Where Wentz Wins

Just as Prescott has his areas in which he’s beaten out Wentz across their four years in the pros, Wentz was picked 133 slots ahead of Prescott for a reason: he often looks like the better quarterback. So much has happened to Wentz in his first years in the league: the injury, the Super Bowl, the subsequent comparisons and examinations. But that which remains buried under all of the narrative continues to inspire many to put their chips behind Wentz in this head-to-head: the film.

The film for Wentz is daggum good.

Accuracy, Arm Strength, and Anticipation

When I was asked for my opinion on the Wentz/Dak debate before this exercise, I said this:

My opinion remains generally unchanged on these categories, but the one area in which I’ve experienced a significant shift is on accuracy.

When Prescott came out of Mississippi State in 2016, he was a later-round pick largely due to his ball placement: it was average for a college quarterback. But credit Prescott immediately and resoundingly: he’s made big strides in ball placement that most young pros who need to make such strides fail to make. With that said, Prescott remains a quarterback without elite ball placement, especially on throws that require anticipation.

Prescott does not like throwing in-breaking patterns before he sees them uncover, especially when he’s tasked with progression reads. OC Kellen Moore gave Prescott a ton of level-based, hi-lo stretches that would allow Prescott to quickly attack flat-footed linebackers in short zones and hit playmakers in stride. Prescott was generally fine, but left meat on the bone by failing to trigger on quick-breaking routes that required early releases into tight windows. After missing those concepts, he’d often have to eat the play for a throwaway or a sack.

Late throws from Prescott have led to PBUs or limited YAC across the course of his career, with such examples coming in the final few plays of the above cut-up. Prescott’s multiple hitches and “burping the baby” — patting the ball excessively before starting his throwing motion — delay his throw, which forces him to add extra zip to yam that thing in a window that no longer exists.

In the case of the outside routes against Minnesota and Houston, consider how the hitches Prescott must take limit his ability to make these throws on time and accurately. This is an issue that, again, Prescott has done admirably well to address, but still remains on his film. That is in direct contrast with Wentz, who has a government-registered rocket launcher attached to his right shoulder, and is accordingly capable of making such throws late.

But Wentz also demonstrates a willingness to throw players “covered to uncovered” that Prescott doesn’t have. He’ll release into open field before his receivers actually flash color into their breaks, and on top of that, he’ll throw with great placement to hit tight-window screamers and maximize YAC.

It’s important to consider the interplay between arm strength and anticipation. On a play on which they both decide to throw at the same time, Wentz’s throw will arrive before Prescott’s (on average), because Wentz’s advantage in arm strength is just that large, even with Prescott’s quicker release. As such, Prescott needs anticipation in his tight-window throws more so than Wentz does, because he doesn’t have the same physical advantage to account for a late trigger. So even if Prescott’s anticipation were equal to Wentz’s in a vacuum, it’s still not equal in practice.

When we consider tight window throws, it’s interesting to note: In 2017, Wentz lead the league in Aggressive throws (% of throws during which a defender was within one yard of the catch point when the ball arrived, as measured by Next Gen Stats) with 25.7% of his throws classifying as such. Since then, he has been around league average at 16.0% in both 2018 and 2019. In 2017, PFF also had him as the most accurate tight window passer in the league.

That sudden shift coincides with a coordinator change in Philadelphia, and a change in their RPO dependency. In 2018, the Eagles started running more traditional West Coast spacing stuff and moved away from the packaged plays (like the first play in the above cut-up) that often rely on a split-second hesitation from a nearby defender to open a throwing window. With a new offensive thinktank in Philadelphia in 2020, a stat to monitor is how many tight-window throws they trust, encourage, or allow Wentz to make. Such throws could be where he’s at his best, relative to the average NFL passer.

In continuing our discussion on accuracy, we should note that both Prescott and Wentz have some delightful placement throws, both with touch and with velocity, when slingin’ it in rhythm. With that said, even on designed rollouts, Prescott’s accuracy on the move depreciates at a greater rate than Wentz’s, who remains a perplexingly accurate passer on the hoof.

Prescott was always an accurate passer on the move, going back to his college days — it was consistency from the pocket that irked him. The mechanical improvements he’s made from the pocket have helped smooth over the rough edges, but his inconsistencies flare up when he can’t build a clean throwing base on the run.

Prescott regularly misses inside, which leaves the ball susceptible to being played on by trailing defensive backs and puts his receiver in jeopardy of getting hit big. His vision just isn’t the same when he’s working laterally — he doesn’t understand how defenders are going to drive and close with the same clarity.

Wentz will occasionally flash similar issues, as he tends to underrate safety closing speed all the time. With that said, Wentz drives the ball to the outside shoulder almost invariably, and that is especially true when he’s throwing on the move. Wentz’s ability to hit players in the numbers while on the hoof is really quite something, and he once again benefits from the velocity advantage he has over Prescott. While Prescott’s mobile throws tend to idle in the air, leading to the behind placement, Wentz can rip throws through ridiculous angles to hit partially covered players, as you can see on the final throw on this cut-up.

Where They Are The Same

Everywhere Else

This is, of course, a bit facetious. But in a lot of other aspects of quarterback play, Prescott and Wentz are equal enough that we can’t make any definitive claims. Wentz is more risk-prone with the football, as we’ve touched on above with his fumble numbers, but they have equal interception rates and nearly equal sack rates. Wentz is a bit more willing to air it out deep, while Prescott is a bit more accurate on deep passes — but neither to any degree of relevancy, and Prescott’s deep ball accuracy numbers are particularly high-variance.

Dak Prescott v. Carson Wentz: Deep Passing (2017-2019)

Measure Prescott Wentz
Measure Prescott Wentz
Rate of Deep Passes (PFF) 10.8% 12.7%
Deep Adjusted Completion Percentage (PFF) 45.9% 44.5%
All data per PFF

Wentz has better mechanics, and is a better natural thrower of the football. Wentz is also more consistent week-to-week. Prescott seems to get into ruts more easily and struggles more to get out of them, though Wentz certainly had some rutty play in 2019.

There are undoubtedly small differences that exist between these two passers in every facet of quarterback play. But, for the sake of understanding the key, defining separators, we’ve covered the important ones.

So Who’s Better?

Congratulations on making it this far (either for the diligence of your reading, or the speed of your scrolling). You’ve made it to the finale, where I tell you who I think is better.

I really don’t know. I hate to disappoint you, but I really don’t. I thought Dak was better by a hair before I started, and now that I’m done, I think Wentz might be better by a hair. Perhaps if I watched another 20 games, I’d flip back the other way.

As ex-Eagles analyst Namita Nandakumar said on Twitter the other day, Dak v. Wentz is a useless question to teams, because you’re never going to be in a position to swap those players. Perhaps it’s an interesting or fun question for media, but I’m a bit of a football nerd, and to me, the more interesting and fun question is “In that they’re both good, why are they good, and how do you build around that?”

As such, the fruit of my deep-dive comparison is this:

Dak Prescott is a quality starting quarterback in the NFL with a high-ceiling/high-floor projection. Prescott wins with a quick release, great pre-snap recognition, and excellent movement skills to manage the pocket and minimize pressure while presenting a threat to break and run at any time. Prescott’s best throws are vertical throws that are either layered between zones or placed against man coverage to maximize a strong downfield receiving corps. The Cowboys have done well to build a strong group of route runners around Prescott to account for his unwillingness to throw to covered receivers with anticipation, and utilize the play-action game well to create vertical stretches that Prescott can read without resetting his feet, which is often the source of his inaccuracy. Prescott may never be a pinpoint passer, but he’s a clear long-term starter with admirable intangible traits.

Carson Wentz is a quality starting quarterback in the NFL with a high-ceiling/low-floor projection due to his injury history. Wentz is an elite quarterback in terms of ball velocity, which allows him to make a wide variety of throws both in rhythm and on the move. Wentz’s ability to create explosive plays by throwing deep or into tight windows was capped last season by a milquetoast offense and poor receiving options, and he showed a concerning lack of poise and pocket presence when working under such conditions. The Eagles have failed to pair Wentz with the premier deep speed and strong catchers that a passer of his velocity and aggressiveness warrants, and have accordingly shoved him into the mold of a nickel-and-dime rhythm passer that he can fill, though it doesn’t maximize his tools. Wentz’s pre-snap determination and unwillingness to give up on a play will always lead to painful moments, but the trade-off is truly elite flashes in scramble drills and under pressure. A healthy Wentz provides a high floor to his offense, but more is needed around him for his development to continue in a positive direction.