MOBILE, Ala. — Carson Wentz ended his college career as a buzzy size/arm curiosity from the wilds of the FCS competition level. By the time he arrived in Mobile this week, he was being talked up as a top-five selection in the 2016 NFL draft. If Senior Bowl week were two days longer, he might have emerged as a front-runner in next week's Iowa caucuses.
The Wentz hype, early and extreme by even the standards of draft hype, is the result of several interconnected factors:
- Wentz is the best quarterback on either Senior Bowl roster by a considerable margin
- Jason Garrett's Cowboys staff is coaching Wentz's North squad
- The Cowboys possess the fourth pick in the draft and need a developmental quarterback to groom behind Tony Romo, who will soon undergo collarbone surgery
By the draft coverage mathematics of putting two and two together, the Wentz-Cowboys connection officially became a story. That got the rumor mill humming. The rest is history and has little to do with Wentz's college film (which probably few of the people doing the tale-spinning have ever watched, though I have watched a bit) or what Wentz did on the field this week.
The good news is that Wentz (6'5 1/2", 233 pounds) has had a fine week, punctuated with a very impressive Thursday practice.
Wentz found big Michigan State wide receiver Aaron Burbridge for a pair of touchdowns in red-zone drills, showing excellent velocity and ball placement on both throws. He drove a deep pass to UCLA receiver Jordan Payton that Payton failed to track over his shoulder. It demonstrated Wentz's deep accuracy and effortless delivery.
Wentz rifled several impressive passes in earlier practices, mixing them with some throws that just appeared to leave his hand improperly. At his best, he looked like Joe Flacco flicking deep passes from his high platform.
There is still work to be done—Thursday, he led receivers too far into the back of the end zone several times during an extended seven-on-seven red-zone drill—but Wentz showed steady progress during the week. Progress is important for a Senior Bowl quarterback. No one expects a guy to show up from North Dakota on Monday and establish flawless rhythm with his receivers by Tuesday afternoon.
Wentz sounds like he has a good sense of his strengths and limitations.
He admitted to "erratic" footwork in his junior year. "This season, it refined quite a bit," he said, though he acknowledged his footwork still must become more consistent.
Wentz ran a lot of options at North Dakota State, making him look on tape like a small-program Cam Newton at times. But Wentz doesn't expect to generate many rushing yards in the NFL.
"I don't want to say that I'm a 'dual threat' guy," Wentz said. "I'm definitely a pocket passer first, but I have the ability to improve and make plays when the situation calls for it. I'm definitely not a run-first guy, especially at the next level when guys are bigger, faster, stronger."
Wentz does want to emulate Newton—and a certain gunslinger of yesteryear—in one important way.
"I love Cam Newton, the way he has fun with football. That's something that I definitely want to replicate a little bit: just having fun.
"Growing up, my idol or the guy I followed a lot was Brett Favre, the way the guy played the game, had fun with it, enjoyed it. That's what I want to do."
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Wentz was certainly having fun Thursday, firing touchdowns while his parents and sister huddled in the bleachers under North Dakota State blankets.
He knew what he had to prove when he spoke to reporters at the start of the week.
"Obviously, the biggest question is going to be: Can he play at this speed? Can he play against this talent in the secondary? I think I'm going to prove that. At the end of the week, everybody's going to no longer question that."
Wentz can develop into a very good NFL starter. But a top-five pick? Let's not burn out on draft hype just yet. Wentz took a big step this week. He has three months to climb the rest of the staircase.
These notes come not just from Thursday's practice but a week of observations.
Braxton Miller (6'1 3/8", 204 lbs, Ohio State) was having another phenomenal practice when disaster nearly struck Thursday morning. Miller crumpled to the ground untouched while running a crossing route and limped to the sideline.
Miller did not receive treatment and spent the rest of practice stretching and walking on the fringe. Assuming the injury is not serious, Miller has proven all he needs to prove this week and looks like a first-round pick.
Cornerback Maurice Canady (6'1 1/8", 191 lbs, Virginia) has been the best defensive back on the field all week in Mobile. He is physical at the line, turns and transitions well, and tracks the ball on deep routes. He has lined up at both cornerback and deep safety during drills, but he looks like an NFL cornerback.
Canady has the length Seahawks wannabes covet, of course. That said, he took a step back in Thursday's practices. Miller schooled him a few times, and Canady struggled in red-zone passing drills, often committing pass interference in the corner of the end zone instead of turning to play the ball.
There has been some buzz down here about cornerback Tavon Young (5'9 3/8", 180 lbs, Temple). I am naturally inclined to like a scrappy Philly guy (he's originally from Maryland, but four years at Temple makes you a Philly guy), and Young uses his hands and quickness to harass bigger receivers at the line of scrimmage.
Several receivers have separated from him after cuts on deep routes, however, and Young is very late to turn and play the ball. He may be strictly a slot-nickel cornerback in the NFL.
Glenn Gronkowski (6'2 1/4", 238 lbs, Kansas State) was bound to get an inordinate amount of media attention down here due to his highly clickable last name. He has justified at least some of the buzz.
Gronkowski caught a deep pass on a wheel route in 11-on-11 drills early in the week and has hauled in several shorter passes. He holds his own in pass-protection drills. He's not Rob Gronkowski, but he is better than his K-State tape would suggest. (Glenn was used mostly as a situational lead-blocking fullback in college). He will merit a late-round pick as an H-back.
Running back Kenneth Dixon (5'10", 215 lbs, Louisiana Tech) is really good. We knew that before Senior Bowl practices, and we still know it.
He's at his best in one-on-one pass-coverage drills against linebackers. No one here can come close to covering him without clutching a big wad of his North jersey.
Dixon is the perfect Patriots-style running back: He can run any route in the passing game, blocks fairly well and has the quickness to break big plays on draws and delays.
Running back Kenyan Drake (6'0 1/2", 210 lbs, Alabama) looks bigger than his measurements. He has had a tremendous week catching the ball out of the backfield and has a fine burst. I have seen and heard Charles Sims comparisons, and the shoe fits.
Drake is a guy who can take a swing pass at the NFL level and turn it into a size/speed dilemma for defenders on the edge.
Readers on Twitter wanted to know about the Penn State players here in Mobile. Carl Nassib (6'6 3/4", 273 lbs) generally gets second-round grades and has done nothing to hurt himself here. Nassib looks athletic and heavy-handed. He hustles and brings energy to drills. He has not crushed blockers in one-on-one matchups, however.
Austin Johnson (6'4 3/4", 323 lbs) also gets second- or third-round grades from those in the know, and I have liked him in drills. Johnson moves well for a man his size and has won a few leverage battles.
One more running back to watch: Tyler Ervin of San Jose State. Ervin is tiny at 5'9 7/8" and 192 pounds, but he displayed excellent receiving skills (on deep sideline routes as well as short stuff) and sudden cutback ability.
Ervin and linebacker Jared Norris (6'1 1/8", 239 lbs, Utah) dueled in an impressive pass-protection competition with the whole North squad looking on. Norris knifed past Ervin once, but Ervin also walloped the larger defender and held his ground, showing that he has the potential to hold his own as a protector if he sticks in the NFL as a third-down back.
Tight end Henry Krieger Coble (6'3", 248 lbs, Iowa) made a one-handed catch in the back of the end zone and has had a strong week as a receiver and blocker.
QBs Down, WRs Up
This was a rough week for quarterbacks not named Wentz.
Every other quarterback here either lacks adequate arm strength or consistent accuracy. Jacoby Brissett of North Carolina State and Dak Prescott of Mississippi State have late-round draft-and-develop attributes, but that's about it. Then again, Kirk Cousins didn't look particularly special here four years ago.
On the other hand, it was a fine week for wide receivers. Sterling Shepard of Oklahoma, who came to Mobile as a Day 2 draft pick at worst, kept improving as the week went on. The word around the huddled, frozen klatches in the stands went, "I don't like comparing every small, tough receiver to Steve Smith, but Shepard looks a lot like Steve Smith."
Charone Peake of Clemson had a great week. Leonte Carroo of Rutgers had a solid Wednesday before suffering a minor injury. The aforementioned Miller had seasoned observers gasping.
Farewell to Mobile
Friday's Senior Bowl practices are walkthroughs with no hitting. Most coaches and general managers are long gone. Even a large percentage of the scouts were departing Thursday afternoon, not in hotel rooms grinding film.
Saturday's game is for the SEC fans who started pulling into the Ladd-Peebles Stadium parking lot Thursday morning. This week was for the NFL, and for you and me.
Mobile's Mardi Gras festivities are also kicking off on Thursday. Streets were being barricaded, and the store I stopped at for iced tea before practice was stocking up on beer.
The NFL is ceding the Mobile stage to something somehow bigger and stranger.
There will be more to chew on in the weeks and months to come. A handful of NFL stories began this week in Mobile's chilly drizzle. Being there at the start of that journey, during those first stretches and dull installation sessions and rote press conferences, is always a privilege. It's one of the strangest, yet most rewarding, parts of this job.
See you next week in Santa Clara. And then again for the gallop to the draft.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.