Carson Wentz: Separating Fact from Fiction About the Draft's Most Baffling QB

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Carson Wentz: Separating Fact from Fiction About the Draft's Most Baffling QB
Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Carson Wentz's pro day at North Dakota State University is Thursday, which means we should probably start monitoring Mike Mayock's caffeine intake now. 

Mayock loves tall, strong-armed quarterbacks so much that if you show him an inkblot of a butterfly he shouts, "Next Ben Roethlisberger!" He already compared Wentz and Jared Goff to Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota at Goff's pro day last week. By Thursday, he will have nowhere to go but to turn Goff vs. Wentz into Batman vs. Superman.

If you are a normal sports fan, the kind who spends this time of year watching basketball or enjoying the arrival of spring instead of obsessing over a college draft that is still six weeks away, you may find the Wentz conversation in NFL circles baffling.

On the one hand, television analysts sound like they not only want to draft Wentz and build a franchise around him, but to actually adopt him. On the other hand, the professional and amateur analysts in the #DraftTwitter echo chamber insist that this year's quarterback class (and overall class) is nothing special.

Sure, big guns in the draft media sometimes exaggerate a smidge to be heard over the sound of buzzer-beaters. And the rest of the draftnik nation is full of cool kids who think every college quarterback is, like, lame and stuff. But if you just want to get a sense of Wentz, a player you may never have seen or heard of before December and who may be a top-five draft pick, it's hard to separate fact from fiction.

Luckily, we're here to cut through the hype and backlash. Here are some of the statements you may have heard about Wentz in recent weeks—and just how accurate those remarks or opinions truly are.

Before we get to that, a quick overview for the uninitiated: Wentz is a 6'5", 237-pound quarterback who led North Dakota State University to a pair of Football Championship Subdivision (FCS, or what we used to call I-AA level) championships. Here are his stats from his junior and senior seasons:

Year GP Cmp-Att Cmp% Yards TD-INT Rushes Yards TDs
2014 16 228-358 63.7 3,111 25-10 138 642 6
2015 7 130-208 62.5 1,651 17-4 63 294 6

North Dakota State

Wentz is a native of Bismarck, North Dakota. He missed two months of his final season with a wrist injury but participated in the Senior Bowl and the combine, throwing well in both events and posting credible workout numbers, including a 4.77-second 40-yard dash.

Those are the basics. Now let's sort through some spin and counterspin.

 

Fact or Fiction: Carson Wentz is the next Andrew Luck

Mayock has made Wentz-Luck comparison several times, most notably during a pre-combine conference call with the media. I find the comparison downright silly.

Luck is the son of an NFL quarterback and played his first two seasons at Stanford for Jim Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback. For the most part, Wentz's North Dakota State coaches had no NFL experience and maxed out as position coaches at the major college level.

Luck's calling card as a first overall draft pick was his unique, exceptional background and his uncanny ability to progress through reads to his third or fourth receivers in college. Wentz certainly checks down and finds secondary targets now and then. But there is a wide gap between dissecting USC's defense and finding a running back in the flat against South Dakota.

Luck was also a better athlete than Wentz: one-tenth of a second faster at the combine when he entered the draft and slightly better in other measurables. Their numbers are similar, but Luck's are better in every case, and when you stack that atop his other advantages, he blows Wentz away before you even watch either of them throw a football.

(Mayock did point out that experience was the major difference between Luck and Wentz, which is a little like saying Manhattan and Easter Island are similar except for population).

The Luck comparison sets up an unrealistic expectation for Wentz. Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco are also ambitious comparisons for a young prospect, but they at least match the general outline of Wentz's resume as a big, strong-armed guy from a lower competition level.

Verdict: Fiction

 

Fact or Fiction: Carson Wentz is more NFL-ready than any quarterback prospect in years

This comes from ESPN's Jon Gruden's predraft television show (via Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot). The statement's accuracy hinges on how you define "NFL-ready."

The term "NFL-ready" means many things to many people, but let's assume it means the player is prepared to master complex playbooks, read defenses, command huddles and handle the NFL lifestyle. It's very broad and intangible, making it a delightfully unverifiable thing to say about someone.

While Winston and Mariota enjoyed some rookie success last year, neither was considered particularly NFL-ready before the draft. Winston had the character questions and interceptions. Mariota had never called a play in the huddle.

Go back to 2014 and 2013, and it is hard to find quarterbacks in the draft pool whose major selling point was "NFL readiness," though prospects like Derek Carr and Teddy Bridgewater had more to offer than some others.

Go back to 2012 and you again reach Luck, the most NFL-ready quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning.

As mentioned above, it's a little irresponsible to compare Wentz to Luck. But there is good evidence that Wentz is as ready for the NFL, if not more ready, than the top quarterback prospects of 2013 through 2015, for reasons we are about to get into.

Verdict: Fact, though an exaggerated one

 

Fact or Fiction: "If the Browns take Carson Wentz at No. 2, they'd be set for 15 years"

That's a direct quote that our dear friend Anonymous Executive (the boss of legendary expert on all topics, Anonymous Scout) gave Cabot during Senior Bowl week.

To give you a sense of the absurdity of this remark, keep in mind that Manning only played 13 seasons for the Colts.

Verdict: Fiction

 

Fact or Fiction: There are no good NFL QBs in this draft class. The Wentz hype is just an attempt to boost ratings

If Mayock, Gruden and others are guilty of a little hyperbole to draw attention to their television shows and draft coverage, then the social-networking draftnik chorus is equally guilty of insisting that the festival headliners are terrible and all the cool bands play on the side stage.

According to the crowd wisdom, there has been one good quarterback class since #DraftTwitter crawled from the primordial Internet ooze seven or eight years ago. Yet the NFL is full of young starters like Winston, Mariota, Carr, Bridgewater and Blake Bortles, plus young veterans from Andy Dalton to Kirk Cousins who were sneered at by draftnik connoisseurs.

Wentz, Goff and others in this draft class have the attributes of quality NFL starters. If you spend every draft season searching for Tom Brady, or even Luck, you'll come up empty nine or 10 times per decade.

Verdict: Fiction

 

Fact or Fiction: No one in the media really knows what to make of Wentz because no one saw him play

The folks at DraftBreakdown.com currently have a dozen cutups of Wentz's game tape, so even a novice armchair scout can watch hundreds of his throws and runs.

No, this is not the coach's film that scouts and top media analysts use, but it's not a three-minute highlight montage set to hip-hop, either. The seven 2015 cutups represent all of Wentz's tape from last season, so you can actually watch every pass he threw in a few hours.

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press
Wentz during Senior Bowl practices.

I also had the chance to watch Wentz throw dozens of practice passes against live defenders during Senior Bowl week, as did Mayock and many of your other favorite online draft personalities. It was a great chance to see Wentz ramp up his game against All-Star competition, and he met the challenge.

This isn't 1988, when a kid who played in North Dakota might as well have played on Mars. Wentz may have been an unknown commodity to NFL-types like me last November, but it's not hard to catch up nowadays.

Verdict: Fiction

 

Fact or Fiction: Wentz is the type of quarterback—big pocket passer with a strong arm—who is overrated by media draft experts

Wentz indeed has a very strong arm. Tape study shows that he can execute two types of throws that make scouts and coaches drool: accurate bombs 30-plus yards downfield and sideline passes in the 15- to 20-yard range. Wentz can fire high-velocity deep passes, or he can put more touch and arc under his throws, and he has the necessary fastball to deliver sideline passes to receivers before defenders break on the ball.

College quarterbacks typically struggle with passes like these. In fact, only the strongest-armed passers consistently complete deep sideline "outs" at the NFL level, though the Brady class of veteran quarterback (Brady, in other words) can use perfect timing and reads to compensate for lack of zip. Deep outs and bombs are not the be-all, end-all of NFL quarterbacking, but they force the secondary to defend the whole field and allow the offensive coordinator to use his whole playbook.

Wentz has some other NFL attributes to offer. But think of his size and arm strength as rare skills, like a 6'2" cornerback running a 4.4-second 40-yard dash or a 310-pound defensive tackle blowing up a three-cone drill. Wentz's size and arm automatically merit first-round consideration.

Verdict: Fact that he's that type of quarterback, fiction that it's overrated

 

Fact or Fiction: Wentz's college accomplishments are misleading because he faced low-level competition

North Dakota State is the Alabama of the FCS division. The Missouri Valley Football Conference is the SEC of that level. The top four teams in the MVC finished the 2015 season ranked in the FCS Top 25. Nine of the Bison's 15 opponents last season were ranked, including some duplicates. It might have been the toughest FCS schedule in the nation, except for the fact that North Dakota State never had to face itself.

The lines between power-conference teams, mid-majors, FCS powerhouses, small FCS programs and so on are much blurrier than many fans think. North Dakota State and the FCS teams they meet in the playoffs each year are as good or better than Sun Belt Conference, Mid-American Conference East or second-tier American Athletic Conference Teams.

Level of competition must always be monitored and adjusted for, of course, but Wentz wasn't facing seminarians on fields pitted with prairie-dog mounds every Saturday.

Verdict: Fiction with some factual basis

 

Fact or Fiction: A top prospect at a small school must stand out as a "man among boys." Wentz did not do that

Wentz led the Bison to a national championship in 2014 and came back from injuries to win a second national championship game in 2015.

Granted, North Dakota State dominated the FCS level before Wentz showed up. But it's easy to put small-school prospects in a no-win bind: If they produce huge stats, the numbers are used as proof that they were facing Our Lady of Nowheresville each week, but if their stats are more ordinary, we wonder why the numbers weren't better.

David Purdy/Getty Images

Wentz looks like Cam Newton in much of his game tape, in part because the lower competition level distorts his rushing ability. Wentz barreled through tacklers and routinely completed passes 25-plus yards down the field. He was obviously the best player on the field in most games.

Verdict: Fiction

 

Fact or Fiction: If Wentz were a true first-round-caliber prospect, he would never have wound up at an FCS school in the first place

Many fans who consider the NFL draft a "crapshoot" and predraft analysis like this to be a load of hooey nevertheless trust the collegiate recruiting process to somehow be airtight.

NFL teams have a hard time selecting the best college players; how well do you think colleges really do with comparing still-growing teenagers from the Dakotas with their peers in, say, Dade County, Florida?

Wentz went through a well-documented growth spurt in high school, going from 5'8" as a freshman to 6'5" as a senior. He played in a recruiting hinterland where even the state universities are FCS football programs.

There is no real mystery about why power-conference schools overlooked him or why he chose the largest, most prestigious college program in his home state.

Verdict: Fiction

 

Fact or Fiction: Wentz played in a pro-style offense, making him more NFL ready than most quarterback prospects

The term "pro-style offense" is more meaningless than misleading in a world where four straight NFC champions relied heavily on option concepts and where the shotgun, three-receiver formation has become the NFL's base set. If you want to see a college quarterback operating out of the I-formation on first and second downs, you should invest in a time machine.

Wentz ran an offense with shotgun, under-center and pistol formations. There was a substantial option component to the scheme, but there were also old-fashioned runs and play-action passes that would make Gary Kubiak smile.

Wentz called plays in the huddle instead of interpreting hand wiggles and posters of turtles from the sidelines. In those respects, the North Dakota State offense was more "pro style" than the systems prospects like Mariota have run.

The folks at Optimum Scouting randomly selected six-game samples from all of this year's top quarterback prospects and charted the percentage of under-center snaps each player took, the air length of each pass and other data that can help determine how "pro style" an offense looks, at least on the surface.

Wentz took 71.0 percent of his snaps from shotgun (or pistol) formations, which sounds high until you learn that Connor Cook (82.1 percent) was the only other major prospect to take less than 90 percent of his passes from shotgun.

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Wentz also did not feast on tunnel and bubble screens, plays that turn ordinary spread-system quarterbacks into NCAA record breakers.

Optimum Scouting determined that 33.5 percent of his passes traveled fewer than five yards downfield. Cook's percentage (25.3 percent) was lower, but 42.6 percent of Goff's passes were screens or short tosses, as were 41.7 percent of Paxton Lynch's passes and a whopping 49.9 percent of Christian Hackenberg's passes.

You should be getting a sense of what the buzz is about by now. Wentz is not just some tall kid who throws hard. He's a tall kid who throws hard, takes snaps from the center in situations other than 4th-and-inches and does much more than fling wide-receiver screens. There aren't many players like him entering the NFL these days.

Too big a deal is made about learning how to take a snap from center or bark a play in the huddle. It's more like going from an automatic transmission to a stick shift than going from automatic transmission to a fighter jet.

Given the choice between someone who can throw an 18-yard out-route pass on a clothesline or someone who has a commanding voice in the huddle, most coaches will take the former and try to teach the latter. That said, Wentz brings both to the table.

Verdict: Fact, though overstated

 

Fact or Fiction: Wentz's exact draft position won't matter at all once he's actually drafted

Wentz is a worthy first-round prospect; anyone who disagrees has an unrealistically high standard of what a first-round quarterback looks like or is making a gross misinterpretation of Wentz's qualifications and skill set. The once-a-decade Luck comparison is extreme, but that's irrelevant; no matter how much any team loves any prospect, no one can be picked higher than first overall.

Given the advantages a young Roethlisberger enjoyed—a stable organization, a great supporting cast and so on—Wentz could have a Roethlisberger-level upside. That cannot be said of most quarterback prospects, because even the very good ones have obvious physical limitations that would force them to achieve true greatness via the Brady-Drew Brees route, which about two humans per generation accomplish.

If the Browns draft Wentz, he will encounter the same problems any quarterback would face playing for the Browns. If the Cowboys draft him and Wentz replaces an injured Tony Romo in Week 10 behind a great offensive line, his early career may look very different. If Wentz undergoes an unexpected Aaron Rodgers-like draft-day slide until the Broncos trade up to get him, that's another possible career journey.

All we can do six weeks before the draft is verify that Wentz belongs in this conversation. He does, and nothing short of lightning striking him during a passing drill on Thursday will change that.

Despite the small-program background and Mayock-Gruden infatuation, Wentz is no more a mystery than any other first-round quarterback. He has the tools. The draft will determine just how and where he will get to hone and use them.

Verdict: Fact

 

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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