Don't Buy the Hype on Rising Small-School QB Carson Wentz

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Don't Buy the Hype on Rising Small-School QB Carson Wentz
MIKE STONE/Associated Press

If recent rumors are true, one of the more unprecedented hype trains in NFL draft memory is happening right before our eyes. Entering the 2015 regular season, Carson Wentz was a sleeper quarterback prospect. He had the tools and the frame, listed at 6'5" by North Dakota State's official site, to play at the professional level, but because he played in the FCS, most analysts kept the dark-horse label on him throughout the year.

From the eyes of most on the outside, his rise has been sudden. Some might have caught Wentz in the season opener against Montana, the game which kicked off the year for many, but once FBS games hit their television sets, there wasn't much of a point for casual fans to tune into Bison games. In mid-October, Wentz broke his wrist. With that injury, it was assumed that his season was over.

North Dakota State would battle their way through the playoffs without Wentz, though, giving him the opportunity to play in the national championship game on January 9 against Jacksonville State, a game which the Bison won 37-10. Wentz had his worst game of the season through the air, completing 55.2 percent of his throws and getting intercepted twice while tossing one touchdown, but he also punched in two scores on the ground.

On that day, the Bison won their fifth straight national title, while Wentz once again entered the conversation as a top-60 prospect, not because of his performance, but because his presence reignited previous interest.

One aspect about the draft world that you must realize is that most big rumors start from one of three networking events: the East-West Shrine Game, the Senior Bowl or the combine. Why? Essentially, every decision-maker with power to team scouts to NFL media members will attend those events.

This week kicks of the first major event of the draft circuit, the Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Florida. Jeff Risdon of ESPN 961 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, among other others, seemed to snatch the biggest piece of gossip in the Tampa area—Wentz might go in the first three picks of the class: 

It should be noted that the Dallas Cowboys are significant because they will be coaching Wentz at the Senior Bowl, as their staff will represent the North team. Their starter, Tony Romo, missed 13 games to due injury in 2015, be it missing the match entirely or having to leave because of a health issue. His collarbone is a liability, which is why possible free agents Johnny Manziel and Robert Griffin, two Texas legends, make sense as high-upside developmental backup options in the Metroplex.

With that being said, Romo told HBO's Bill Simmons, formerly of ESPN and Grantland, (via NFL.com's Marc Sessler) he believes he has four years left in the tank.

Risdon isn't the only one claiming that Wentz will go from unheard of to one of the key pieces in the draft, either. NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah dropped his first big board and mock draft this week. Wentz was ranked as the seventh overall prospect in the class, behind only Laremy Tunsil of Mississippi, Jalen Ramsey of Florida State, Myles Jack of UCLA, Joey Bosa of Ohio State, DeForest Buckner of Oregon and Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State. As Jeremiah wrote:

Wentz was a two-year starter at quarterback for the Bison. He lines up both under center and in the shotgun in this offense. He has quick feet in his setup and he throws from a wide, firm base. He is very quick to work through progressions and he throws with excellent touch and anticipation. He is very accurate underneath and intermediate but he has been inconsistent with his deep-ball accuracy. He has a quick release and he can throw from a variety of arm angles. The ball doesn't jump out of his hand but he has enough velocity to make all of the throws. He is very athletic to create plays with his legs and he's effective on designed QB runs. He is extremely tough to hang in the pocket vs. pressure and he's played really well in big games. Overall, Wentz has an enticing blend of size, ability and toughness. Don't be fooled by his level of competition. He's a big-time talent.

Those above him were all projected first-round talents heading into the 2015 season and come from modern blue-blood programs. All of them were highly touted prospects, considered at least four-star recruits by 247 Sports' composite ranking. They are established names in the football world, while Wentz was an underdog passer who was unrecruited and went to a small school as a virtually nameless player until the past couple of weeks.

When someone like Jeremiah, who has an NFL scouting background and league ties, drops a player as his fourth overall choice in a postseason mock draft—and titles his article after him—you have to take it seriously.

Still, the evaluation of quarterbacks is too volatile to trust outside eyes. Matt Barkley and Logan Thomas were tabbed as future No. 1 overall picks, only to return to school, perform in similar fashion and ultimately be drafted as Day 3 selections. With only seven games to look through over his senior year, I scoured through the 23-year-old's broadcasts in an attempt to pin down exactly who the passer is, both in positive and negative traits.

Positives

Generally, everything you hear about Wentz's tools is going to be true. He doesn't have an arm like Michael Vick or Brett Favre, but it's nothing that should limit him at the next level. Those who claim he has an A-grade arm will more than likely do so because of his willingness to attempt high-difficulty throws. He has a B-grade arm, and that's more than acceptable.

He doesn't lack confidence. At the college level, wide hashes make throws to the sideline much tougher due to the added distance that the "zip" on the ball must be sustained for. Don't tell Wentz that, though. He doesn't seem to care what the physical limitations are supposed to be for an FCS quarterback, even throwing early-down timing routes to the far side of the field.

The deep ball isn't something he's scared of, either. This isn't a pre-2015 Kansas City Chiefs Alex Smith situation. The highlight throw of his season came against Northern Iowa, when he threw the ball from 25 yards out for a score. His man had two defensive backs on him, but Wentz put it in the perfect spot for the go-ahead touchdown with less than a minute left in Fargo.

Arm motion, for the most part, can't be coached. You can try to put the effort in, and if you succeed, you're a "quarterback guru" for life. However, Tim Tebow is still going to throw a football like a javelin when the bullets start flying in a regular-season game, no matter what you do in the offseason. Wentz checks out with a compact motion.

One place where the North Dakota State product is advanced is in the arm angles he takes. One common trait among successful mobile quarterbacks at the NFL level is that they don't need a perfect base and passing lane to get a ball into the right window. Even pocket guys like Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers don't throw out the prettiest film from a release-point perspective. Wentz uses his play-making ability to throw sidearmed when needed.

The last and possibly most important trait in this category is his ability to move. He can throw on the run. Oh boy, is he a threat on the run. In some ways, the argument for taking him in the top three makes sense, as Marcus Mariota's best trait was also movement, and he was drafted second overall by the Tennessee Titans last year.

Wentz is also a threat as a ball-carrier. He doesn't always show the best body control, but he's able to make plays that others can't. His running style is reminiscent of Jake Locker's coming out of the University of Washington:

It's seems odd that NFL Draft Scout, which typically has the most accurate 40-yard dash estimations before the combine, has Wentz listed as a 4.84-second athlete. He doesn't have Locker's 4.5 breakaway speed, but a 4.84 mark would have put Wentz as the eighth-fastest quarterback at last year's combine. That's something to remember in February.

Negatives

Here comes the diatribe. Wentz is a quality quarterback prospect, but if we're going to treat him as a top-three selection in this class, we also need to criticize him like one.

It appears he currently has a fatal flaw—one which should come with a mandatory "don't play for a year or two" tag. He can't walk and chew gum at the same time. While he's more than talented on the move, when he's in the pocket, his flat feet freeze.

He takes long, awkward pauses that don't look right, as our eyes aren't accustomed to seeing that trait at the next level, since most passers with that trait never get an NFL snap.

Timing is everything in the NFL. The jump in speed from the FBS level tosses plenty of college stars to the dumpster, let alone the FCS game. Wentz can't be running through clocks like Flavor Flav every time he's asked to throw past the sticks. He needs to go through his progressions better on deep throws.

Wentz's extended time holding the ball has led to many unnecessary hits over multiple games. Late-down passes being deflected at the line of scrimmage also seem to be an issue on the relative scale of 6'5" passers.

It's the small things that start to add up in the NFL. You can't double-clutch passes on 3rd-and-11 out of an empty set, but our Bison got away with it in the FCS. A two-on-three screen, in the red zone no less, with a blown block—essentially making it a one-on-three layup for the defense—doesn't go for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. On Saturdays against North Dakota, though, that hits paydirt.

Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Summary

Carson Wentz went from the sleeper quarterback that everyone in the industry quietly liked to someone who was thrown into the top of the draft without the proper prerequisites. He is limited to a vertical style passing system early in his career because of his tendency to hold onto the ball and load up, wasting extra time in the pocket.

It's hard to see what he does better than Paxton Lynch of Memphis, another "small-school" quarterback that might as well be a red Craftsman tool drawer to general managers. Ideally, if they were to start in 2016, they'd land with an offensive mind like Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak, who would both get them under center, which typically means more pass protectors and bonus seconds on a throws, and on the move, which is where the tandem excel.

Nothing says that Wentz can't vastly improve his footwork at the next level and become a force down the line, but it's hard for young quarterbacks to develop while also being tossed in as the Week 1 starter. If you look at the best passers in today's NFL, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tony Romo all took time before they were full-time starters.

It's the new-age mobile passers, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson, who were good to go out of the box, outside of the generational talents like Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck and Jameis Winston.

Wentz's mobility will have to save him from his own feet. At this point, he looks more like a Joe Flacco, another FCS product and a mid-first-round pick, than a layup franchise passer that we're accustomed to seeing as the first quarterback taken off the board.

The Senior Bowl, next week's all-star game in Mobile, Alabama, should be telling, as final thoughts on Wentz will develop after a week of practice. Even playing vanilla concepts against the best athletes he's ever lined up against should give us a better feel on how big of a splash the Bison passer can really make.

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