It seems like much longer, but it was actually less than five years ago that Jared Goff and Carson Wentz were selected as the top two picks of the 2016 NFL Draft. By the beginning of his fourth full season as the Los Angeles Rams’ starting quarterback, Goff had already made the Pro Bowl twice, led his team to Super Bowl LIII (an ugly loss to the New England Patriots) and received a four-year contract extension that included the most guaranteed money in NFL history (an honor that was eventually surpassed by Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes).
Wentz had an almost identical resume at the helm for the Philadelphia Eagles in his first three seasons. He had been a Pro Bowler and a second-team All-Pro, but had been sidelined with injuries twice as he watched his backup, Nick Foles, lead the Eagles on two playoff runs, including a win in Super Bowl LII against the Patriots. Fortunately for Wentz, the Eagles committed to him as their signal-caller by rewarding him with a lucrative extension (which would serve as the template for Goff’s own extension), while allowing Foles to walk in as a free agent.
Less than two years after each quarterback put pen to paper, they’ve both been traded away for little more than getting rid of their massive contracts. So what went wrong, and what can it teach NFL executives about how to deal with highly drafted quarterbacks?
Goff hardly lit the league on fire in his rookie season. In fact, although the Rams traded away multiple picks to the Tennessee Titans to move up in the draft and select Goff first overall, he actually rode the bench for the initial nine games of the season behind starter Case Keenum. In the seven games that he did start, the Rams lost each one and Goff finished the season with more interceptions than touchdowns. With some premature “bust” labels swirling, new head coach Sean McVay was able to put those concerns to rest, as Goff had a Pro Bowl year capped by the Rams winning the NFC West for the first time since 2003. While their title hopes ended with a disappointing Wild Card loss to the Atlanta Falcons, Goff took even greater strides forward in the 2018 season. He set career highs in touchdown passes, passing yards and completion percentage, and the Rams (controversially) beat the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship game to reach Super Bowl LIII. As the fourth-youngest starting quarterback in the game’s history, the future looked bright for Goff — which made it all the more remarkable how quickly it all fell apart.
In one of the worst Super Bowls of all time, the Patriots mercifully overcame the stingy Rams defense to win, 13-3. Goff was miserable, only completing half of his passes and throwing a game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter. Questions remained about his ability to lead his team in big games, but with Goff now extension-eligible and without any other options on the roster, the Rams were left with little choice but to commit to him to the tune of four years and $134 million. Since then, Goff has continued his Super Bowl LIII-like performances (and not in a good way). He ranks second in the league in turnovers through the past two seasons, just one behind Daniel Jones. He regressed mightily in the 2019 season, when the Rams missed out on the playoffs, and looked even worse in 2020, when the Rams made the playoffs in spite of Goff. He even got benched for undrafted free agent John Wolford in the Wild Card Round against the Seattle Seahawks on Jan. 9. Even though he would replace Wolford due to injury and lead the Rams to a victory, Goff’s fate was sealed before their loss to the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round on Jan. 16. Just a few weeks after their season had ended, the Rams agreed to trade the former number one pick along with two first-rounders to the Detroit Lions for another former number one overall, Matthew Stafford, thus ending the Goff era in Los Angeles.
Carson Wentz’s journey with the Eagles began differently than Goff’s before succumbing to the same fate. Like the Rams with Goff, the Eagles traded up in that same 2016 draft with the Cleveland Browns to nab Wentz with the second overall selection. The Birds then cleared a spot so their young quarterback could start right away by dealing Sam Bradford to the Minnesota Vikings. Wentz took the opportunity and breathed life into Philly. Though the Eagles only finished 7-9 in their 2016 season, Wentz provided more than enough reason for optimism going forward. The following season would prove to be the finest of his career. Through 13 weeks, the Eagles had the joint-best record in the NFL in large part due to Wentz. He was among the league leaders in passing yards and touchdowns and was considered the MVP favorite. Unfortunately, disaster struck in 2017 when Wentz tore his ACL in a Week 14 matchup against Goff and the Rams. Cult hero Nick Foles stepped into the starter’s role and guided the Eagles to the first Super Bowl in franchise history while Wentz watched from the sidelines. Wentz would recover from his injury in time to reclaim his job in Week 3 of the 2018 season and performed admirably for 11 games. But when a back issue forced Wentz on to the bench for the rest of the season, it was Foles who led the Eagles on an unexpected playoff run.
Going into the 2019 season, the Eagles were faced with a difficult decision. On the one hand, they had Wentz. His high draft pedigree and flashes of greatness were hard to ignore, but so were his injury problems and the fact that he would likely command a market-setting extension. Foles, on the other hand, didn’t have the same upside or potential. What he did have was the love and support of Eagles Nation thanks to his playoff exploits, with Bud Light even erecting a statue of him and head coach Doug Pederson in front of Lincoln Financial Field. In the end, talent won out as the Eagles made Wentz one of the highest-paid players in the NFL and let Foles sign a large free-agent contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Wentz seemed to justify the Eagles’ vote of confidence in 2019, as he surpassed 4,000 passing yards for the first time in his career, started every game and helped Philly win the NFC East. In another twist of fate, Wentz sustained a concussion nine plays into his first career playoff game and once again could only watch as the Eagles fell to the Seahawks. When the Eagles selected Jalen Hurts in the round of the 2020 NFL Draft, all eyes were on Wentz to see if he could finally make good on the money he was making. Instead, he regressed at an unimaginable rate. He started the first 12 games of the season, a stretch in which he recorded the lowest completion rate of his career, led the league in interceptions, and only managed to win three games. His relationship with Doug Pederson deteriorated, causing Hurts to be promoted to starter for the last four games of the season. When Pederson was fired in the offseason, the writing was on the wall for Wentz. Just a few weeks after the Goff trade, Wentz was shipped to Indianapolis for two draft picks.
In no way do I believe this is the end for Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. On the contrary, a change of scenery can often help revive a player’s career. Goff is still just 26 and will get the chance to reinvigorate a rudderless Lions franchise. Wentz is positioned even better as he steps into a Colts team that made the playoffs last year and has been looking for a consistent quarterback since Andrew Luck’s retirement. However, I think you can see the impact their contracts have had on how teams view their young quarterbacks.
Just one year after Goff and Wentz went first and second overall, in the 2017 Draft, three quarterbacks were taken in the first 12 picks. Mitchell Trubisky has mixed good moments with bad ones, but the Chicago Bears have been hesitant to commit to him as their long-term starter, and he’ll enter free agency barring a sudden change of heart. Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, meanwhile, have established themselves as two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. They were handsomely rewarded with top-dollar contracts, and no matter where they end up finishing those deals, they’ll be worth every penny.
In the coming years, I think all teams will take this wait-and-see approach. If the player leaves no doubt that they are a franchise quarterback, then there won’t be any second doubts about staking a team’s future on them. If a player underperforms, then the team can cut bait. But if a player is somewhere in the middle, if he leaves a team with more questions than answers, franchises will remain patient as long as it takes until they have a definitive idea of who that player is and what he will be.