INDIANAPOLIS — The buzz and fascination around North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz hasn’t slowed down much since his solid Senior Bowl performance heading into the the NFL scouting combine, and there’s a good chance he could be a top-five pick in the 2016 NFL draft.
The Cleveland Browns are a legitimate possibility at No. 2 overall. The Dallas Cowboys have to be interested at four. The other teams picking in the top five, even without a quarterback need, all could be open for business for trading down for a QB-needy team. NFL Network’s Mike Mayock compared Wentz’s upside to that of Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck.
The hype is starting to become reality.
The level of competition doesn’t appear to scare many teams off, or so they say. San Francisco 49ers GM Trent Baalke — whose team very well could look for a quarterback at No. 7 overall — was a graduate assistant 25 years ago at North Dakota State, in fact, and he said Wentz has the goods to be great.
“They’ve put out a lot of good football players for a small, lower-level play; that conference has,” Baalke said. “Certainly there’s a learning curve they all go through, but I don’t think it’s as drastic as some may [think]. They play at a high level. They won five national championships in a row, and Carson was a part of four of those. He’s a good football player.
“He’s got the stature you’re looking for. He’s got the intelligence you’re looking for. There are so many positive to draw from. Now, how ready is he going to be when he gets to the league? I think there will be a learning curve, but there is for everybody at that position.”
Pittsburgh Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said there’s always exceptions to every rule. Talented players come from all levels, and you want to see them dominate more the lower level of football they’ve played at. Wentz’s two national titles as a starter is a great sign, and Colbert has seen first-hand how a player from a i-AA has done darned well for himself right in the division.
“You’re going to start with [the player’s] physical skill-set,” Colbert said. “And then, the lower the competition level, the more he should dominate. So, a player at any position at any level, if he’s playing Division III, Division II, Division I-AA, there’s a step in between each of those levels and of course the NFL. That’s the part that he skips.
“That doesn’t mean great players can’t come from those levels. We’ve seen a Joe Flacco playing at the University of Delaware — he’s obviously a great NFL quarterback. So, it may take them a little bit longer, but those types of players can certainly develop if they have the right skill-set.”
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter has coached quarterbacks from all levels, and his own starter, Jameis Winston, won a national title at Florida State before be arrived in the NFL as Day 1 starter. But Koetter doesn’t believe that a quarterback’s school should define his potential.
“I don’t think it’s that tough,” he said. “The same skill set is there and there are some great examples. … Tthere are some guys that are just good football players at any level. That’ll show itself over time.”
Time is something the Browns might not have a ton of, not as much as say the Cowboys (with Tony Romo entrenched for now) might have. But hearing Browns head coach Hue Jackson talk about quarterbacks’ hand size being a big factor on Wednesday seemed to tilt the arrow more towards the bigger-framed Wentz or Memphis’ Paxton Lynch and perhaps away from the smaller Jared Goff of Cal, if Jackson is to be believed.
Wentz has yet to speak to the media or work out in Indianapolis. He will throw and go through drills on the field on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Arizona Cardinals have had success working with players from lower levels of college football — not so much at quarterback, but certainly at other positions. GM Steve Keim said it hasn’t been a deterrent for them as long as the players check off certain boxes.
“We’ve had a lot of success with those players,” Keim said. “You start with the height, weight and speed. They have to have a certain talent level. Then it goes into what kind of passion does he have for the game? What I found with a lot of the small-school guys, which has been beneficial for us, is they come in with a chip on their shoulder. They come in with the mindset and attitude that we are going to prove people wrong.”
“When we signed Jared Veldheer in free agency I looked at Jared and said, here’s his skill set but he was drafted in the third round out of Hillsdale College, he’s never been given anything. He’s a guy who is going to come in here, he’s going to get this salary and he’s going to continue playing hard and not just cash the check. He’s a guy who is going to prove people wrong.”
If Wentz goes in the top five, it would be rare. There have been four non-FBS quarterbacks who have been first-round picks in the past 37 years — Flacco in 2008, Steve McNair in 1995, Ken O’Brien in 1983 and Phil Simms in 1979. Of those, only McNair (third overall) went in the top five.
But in a draft with no clear-cut stars at quarterback, and yet plenty of teams in need of talent at the position, it would not be stunning right now to see a Wentz and his 23 FCS starts hear his name called very early in this April’s draft.
– – – – – – –