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Week 3 NFL Picks: All Aboard the Wentz Wagon

It’s a beautiful time for a league that desperately needs great young quarterbacks

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There are two ways to view the dawn of the Carson Wentz era. You can say that it’s been only two weeks and that the hype is overblown, and to prop up your argument you can note that the quarterbacks who reached similar rarefied air this early eventually flopped. The last rookie QB to throw as many passes as Wentz and win his first two games was Rex Grossman. The only rookie QB to start a season 3–0 was Mark Sanchez. And in case you’re interested in one more gloomy factoid: Wentz had the third-best QB rating of any first-year passer in a Monday-night road game ever, finishing well behind … Geno Smith.

Here’s the other way to look at it, and the way I’m choosing: It doesn’t cost anything to get on the Wentz wagon. This is really fun, and we should all relax and enjoy the ascendence of a potentially great young quarterback in a league that desperately needs some.

Wentz is Pro Football Focus’s highest-rated quarterback through two weeks, and he’s reliably making throws that no rookie should be making. These aren’t fluke passes, and Wentz isn’t relying on ball control and defense like Sanchez was. He’s hanging in the pocket, getting drilled, and finding receivers in traffic.

He’s also throwing on the run.

Given what had to happen for Wentz to get here, his emergence has big implications for the NFL. Remember that, in essence, three teams passed on Wentz: The Titans (who are set at quarterback) and Browns (who are, uh, not set) traded out of the top two slots, and the Rams, who traded into the first pick, opted for Jared Goff, who has yet to see an NFL snap (and whose coach, Jeff Fisher, is already tired of talking about it. Good times). After Philly drafted Wentz second overall, of course, he became the starter only after a fluke noncontact knee injury to Teddy Bridgewater led the Vikings to trade for then–Eagles starter Sam Bradford. A parade of unexpected outcomes led to Wentz starring in Philadelphia, and now that he is, he’s simultaneously making a lot of people look bad and saving a lot of jobs. Let’s break down the winners and losers.

Winner: Doug Pederson. The NFL is one large, lucrative middle school, meaning that if you get two or more NFL types together, they immediately start gossiping about which coaches and GMs are good or bad. Over the last few months, Pederson was mentioned unfavorably in these gossip snakepits as a former coordinator with limited play-calling history and not enough coaching experience. Media members felt the same way. Mike Florio compared him to Jim Tomsula. Now, though, Pederson looks like a revelation. His scheme for Wentz has been inspired, working in play-action, routes that use every part of the field, tight ends over the middle, and deep passes on the outside. Wentz can make every throw, and the playbook allows for it. Doug Pederson: good football coach.

Loser: the Cleveland Browns. The Rams get an honorable mention for picking Goff over Wentz, but we don’t know what Goff will look like when he plays. We do know that the Browns will be starting Cody Kessler this week and said that Wentz wasn’t a top-20 quarterback. If the Browns don’t find a franchise-changing quarterback in the next two years, Wentz will be a looming spectre for the franchise for ages. Ben Roethlisberger, whom the Browns passed on in 2004, twisted the knife this week, saying he’s stunned Cleveland didn’t go with Wentz. Whoops.

Winner: redheads. My favorite scouting anecdote of all time — maybe my favorite anecdote of all time — is a scout wondering aloud just before the 2011 draft whether Andy Dalton’s red hair would prohibit him from being a great quarterback. Dalton is leading the NFL in passing and Wentz is lighting it up. Draft only redheads.

Loser: the spread offense. The league’s good, young quarterbacks are starting to fit a mold: In college, few played in the kind of strict spread offenses that limit the need to read defenses. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, the most exciting player in college, recently told Sports Illustrated that during his recruitment, he looked for a college offense that had more pro-style elements instead of the simplified route trees that many college spread offenses employ.

It’s hard to argue with that logic once you look at the list of legitimately good young NFL quarterbacks: Andrew Luck and Jameis Winston came from pro-style college systems, and Wentz’s North Dakota State team featured a hybrid scheme that incorporated so many pro-style elements the Eagles fell in love with player and scheme alike. It’s a risk-averse league, and teams will no doubt view Wentz’s emergence as another reason to avoid pure spread products — like, uh, Goff.

Winner: the NFL. It says a lot about the recent state of young NFL passers that we’re essentially shocked that this year’s no. 2 overall pick is good. But the league hasn’t seen a concentration of good young passing talent since around the start of this decade, when players like Matthew Stafford, Joe Flacco, and Cam Newton arrived. Since then, franchise quarterbacks, the lifeblood of the sport, have been hard to find. Having one in Philadelphia is good for the league, good for Philadelphia, and good for everyone except maybe Chase Daniel. Which brings us to:

Loser: Chase Daniel. Poor Chase has backed up Drew Brees and Alex Smith, both noble jobs. Then he came to Philadelphia for what he thought was a competition with Bradford. Instead, he lost out to Bradford and Wentz, whom he probably thought he could edge when Wentz’s greatest offseason contribution was getting stuck in a New Jersey gas station bathroom. Both of those quarterbacks are starring for teams, while Daniel’s chief contribution is still convincing Wentz to start watching film at 5:15 a.m.

He’s a loser, but you can be a winner. On to the picks:

(Note: Home team in CAPS.)

GREEN BAY (-8) 30, Detroit 20

Scary thought: The last two times the Packers were favored by this much, they lost outright, and they haven’t covered three such games in a row. Really, there’s no downside to picking the Packers, because if Aaron Rodgers has a third bad game and can’t blow out a banged-up Lions team, everything will collapse upon itself and no one will be around to mock you. DeAndre Levy, one of Detroit’s best players, is out, leaving the team with two healthy linebackers. Defensive end Ziggy Ansah, probably their best overall player, is also out. If Rodgers again fails to break 220 yards, it’ll be time to start legitimately asking questions about what’s wrong in Green Bay — and with the universe.

CAROLINA (-7) 24, Minnesota 23

I’m not saying that the Vikings will be better without Adrian Peterson, who’s still the running back who scares NFL defenses the most. I am saying that Peterson was averaging 1.6 yards on 31 carries before injuring his knee on Sunday night. Everything the Vikings did in their win over the Packers was powered by Sam Bradford and a talented crop of receivers, and that makes Minnesota’s Sunday-night performance repeatable. The Vikes may not have Peterson or Matt Kalil, but they have Bradford and Stefon Diggs.

Meanwhile, Carolina’s Week 2 win over San Francisco led to more questions than answers. Why the hell did someone named Vance McDonald score a 75-yard touchdown? Why did Cam Newton fumble and throw an interception against a team that may be the league’s least talented?

Regardless, the Panthers will be able to sneak by at home: The Vikings’ secondary won’t be able to keep up with Newton’s deep passing well enough to prevent a few game-changing plays, and I still believe in the Carolina defense’s ability to create a few big turnovers.

N.Y. GIANTS (-4.5) 23, Washington 16

The following quotes came out of the 0–2 Redskins’ locker room this week:

That edge is understandable: The last team to start 0–2 with both losses coming at home and still make the playoffs was the 2003 Eagles. Are you betting on the Redskins being the team that finally matches that feat? Didn’t think so.

The angst in D.C. isn’t the only big news heading into this contest: ESPN is reporting that Josh Norman will shadow Odell Beckham Jr., giving us a rematch of last year’s epic showdown between the two. Head coaches and players alike have downplayed the matchup and swear we won’t see the same unhinged fighting the pair produced last year. Even absent that level of heat, the Norman-OBJ duel might be the only thing that keeps this one interesting.

Baltimore (-1) 21, JACKSONVILLE 18

The only head man in NFL history to coach at least 50 games and post a worse winning percentage than Gus Bradley is Bert Bell. Old Bert was actually commissioner of the NFL shortly after his departure from the coaching ranks, so there’s some hope for Gus yet. There are some grim names on the list of coaches with significantly higher winning percentages: For instance, former Jets and Bengals coach Bruce Coslet, oft listed among the all-time worst coaches, posted a .379 mark. While helming the Jaguars, Bradley, a defensive specialist, has not had a defense rank better than 26th in points against.

My overarching advice here is to not watch this game. The Jaguars kept it close against the Packers (that’s good) and got rocked by the Chargers (that’s bad). The Ravens beat the Bills at home (that’s good) but almost lost to the Browns on the road (that’s bad) and are on their way to becoming an uninspiring 3–0 by beating perhaps the three worst teams in the NFL.

Denver (+3.5) 24, CINCINNATI 22

The Bengals have lost the last four regular-season games they’ve played against teams with winning records. The Broncos have won five of the last six against teams with winning records, and the Bengals don’t even rise to that standard right now. (Oh, and they won the Super Bowl.) The Cincy offense sometimes stalls against good teams; the Denver defense does whatever it wants to, no matter the opponent. I like Andy Dalton, who’s leading the league in passing. But I like Von Miller more.

MIAMI (-10) 20, Cleveland 12

Rookie quarterback Cody Kessler is going to start. Everyone assumes this is a disaster waiting to happen, to the point that the Dolphins are favored by 10 for the first time since 2009.

Before you concur, read this great Sun-Sentinel column on all the terrible quarterbacks the Dolphins have lost to in recent memory: Geno Smith posted a perfect passer rating against them in a 2014 win; Mike Glennon, Thad Lewis, and E.J. Manuel all claimed wins. The question isn’t whether you think Kessler and the Browns are bad; it’s whether you trust the Dolphins to make them look that bad.

Arizona (-4.5) 30, BUFFALO 16

The Bills tried to solve their defensive problems by firing their … offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, last week. They replaced him with Anthony Lynn, by all accounts a fine coach, but one who has never called plays in the NFL and who had a little more than a week to implement his vision. He’s going against an angry Arizona team that last week rocked a Tampa Bay bunch that has a better quarterback and more healthy offensive weapons than Buffalo. Meanwhile, Rex Ryan is moping around, talking about being uncomfortable with the pressure in western New York. Rex is at his best when he’s in “Let’s go eat a goddamn snack” mode and getting his players to buy in. A quiet Rex is a bad, sad Rex. He’s going to be able to tell us all about it on TV next fall. Or next month.

Oakland (+1) 24, TENNESSEE 17

One of the biggest misjudgments of the NFL offseason was the collective punditry talking up the Raiders’ defense. Khalil Mack predicted Oakland’s D could be as good as Denver’s was last year, and that’s proved to be slightly off: Instead of being the best defense in the league, the Raiders are instead the first team since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to allow 500 yards of offense in each of their first two games.

On the other hand, the masses pegged the Titans correctly: Their offense has scored 16 points in both games and has been wildly uninspiring for long chunks of time during those games. I’m betting on the Raiders improving from being literally the worst defense ever, and I’m guessing the Titans will score … around 16 points.

SEATTLE (-9) 20, San Francisco 13

So. The last time the 49ers covered the spread against the Seahawks was September 2011, when Tarvaris Jackson threw for 197 yards. Since then, they’ve gone 0–9–1 against the spread, with the “under” prevailing seven of nine times. Logic dictates that the Seahawks are the easy pick here, but they’re not scoring points right now. Their offense looked frightfully disjointed against the Dolphins in Week 1 and no one knows what the hell they were doing against the Rams in Week 2. Seattle will win, but it’s tough to anticipate a blowout when Russell Wilson and Co. are scoring this few points.

Los Angeles (+5.5) 20, TAMPA BAY 17

These are two of the weirdest 1–1 teams in the league. The Rams lost to Blaine Freaking Gabbert in Week 1, then beat Russell Wilson. The Bucs looked unstoppable against Atlanta in the opener, then lost by 33 to Arizona, with Jameis Winston throwing four picks.

Picking the winner here comes down to how you feel about Winston’s ability to replicate his four-touchdown performance from the Falcons game. In his rookie season, Winston was prone to slumps after massive performances: After posting a 131.6 rating in a game against the Eagles last November, for example, he delivered marks below 90 in four straight games. He hasn’t shown much of an ability to build on success thus far, and against a Rams defense that turns every game into a slog, I don’t see him doing so now.

Pittsburgh (-3.5) 23, PHILADELPHIA 21

Pittsburgh hits the crap out of opponents, and its best chance to win this game (aside from, you know, 10 successful deep looks to Antonio Brown, which is possible) is to hit Wentz hard when he runs out of the pocket and fails to protect himself, something he’s done with alarming regularity so far.

But I believe in the Philly crowd being completely nuts, and I believe in Wentz’s ability to make big NFL throws, especially against a Steelers defense with some holes in the secondary. I believe in Wentz! (Or I just believe in close games in which the home team covers.)

San Diego (+3) 33, INDIANAPOLIS 31

Big stakes here: At 5-to-1, Chuck Pagano is just ahead of 10-to-1 Mike McCoy in Bovada’s newly released odds for first coach fired. I’m giving Pagano a slight edge in that race, simply because he’s a defensive coach, and that’s still where Indy’s problems are. When your area of expertise is a tire fire, that’s bad. Here’s the state of the Colts defense: Everyone spent the last eight months assuming they would be bad. And guess what. They’re bad. Indianapolis is 29th in rush defense; 25th in pass defense; one of nine teams with two sacks or fewer; and one of 11 teams allowing a passer rating better than 100 through the first two weeks. Philip Rivers just torched the Jaguars for four touchdowns and hasn’t thrown a pick this year. Is there any evidence that he won’t light up this bad Colts defense?

N.Y. Jets (+3) 24, KANSAS CITY 21

Two fringe AFC contenders facing one another for the right be 2–1 and get some early hype? I like it! This seems like a dream matchup for the Jets, whose biggest weakness is Darrelle Revis, last seen saying there was “no doubt” that his former agents planted a story about his poor conditioning. Revis can’t cover receivers deep anymore, but that won’t matter much on Sunday, because the Chiefs don’t ever send their receivers deep. Perhaps no team in the league relies on short passes more than Kansas City, and if this comes down to plays near the line of scrimmage, I’ll give the Jets’ physical defense the edge.

DALLAS (-7) 20, Chicago 16

The Bears are terrible. So terrible that when discussing his team’s mistakes, John Fox said, “You name it, we’ve done it.” Always encouraging words from a head coach. Still, I’m slightly concerned about the Cowboys’ offense and their ability to blow a game open and cover a seven-point spread, especially after they failed to do even more against the Redskins last week. Even prized rookie Zeke Elliott is getting some heat from Jason Garrett for fumbling. The Bears, with Brian Hoyer starting for the injured Jay Cutler, can at least drain some clock. I saw the Hoyer-led Texans, people, and I’ve seen his ability to create low-scoring, awful, boring games. It’s unmatched.

NEW ORLEANS (-3) 35, Atlanta 30

Here’s a funny headline: “New Orleans Saints seeking more balance on offense.” Huh. The Saints seeking run-pass balance is as funny as The Fast & the Furious franchise trying to incorporate more high-minded literary references. It will never happen given the franchise’s current construction. Neither of these teams have any pass rush, but the Saints are also going to be without two top cornerbacks after Delvin Breaux broke his fibula and P.J. Williams went on injured reserve with a concussion.

Among quarterbacks with 50-plus attempts this season, this matchup features two of the NFL’s best in yards per attempt. In a shootout, Drew Brees at home is a surer option than Matt Ryan. Take the over on points and the under on the Saints’ rushing attempts.

Kevin is 16–14–1 on the season.