Can Carson Wentz Become the 2016 NFL Draft's Top QB Prospect?

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyContributor IJuly 11, 2015

North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz (11) carries the ball during the FCS Championship NCAA college football game against Illinois State Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015, in Frisco, Texas.   North Dakota State won the game 29-27 for their fourth straight national championship.  (AP Photo/Tim Sharp)
TIM SHARP/Associated Press

Finding a franchise quarterback is one of the most difficult tasks placed on talent evaluators. Not only is it a hard position to project forward into the NFL, but also there just isn’t enough talent to fulfill the demand. Almost half of the NFL starts a quarterback with very little chance to lead his team to the Super Bowl.

That’s a harsh reality that is extremely hard to fix. It takes a certain degree of luck to find even a second-tier quarterback via the draft. As we prepare for the 2016 NFL draft, North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz is a player who could provide that lucky ticket to greatness for a franchise next season.

The big question around Wentz is if he can become the top quarterback prospect in 2016. Right now, the class has several promising, but flawed, prospects at the top. There’s certainly room for a player like Wentz to show in 2015 that he is the guy deserving of that crown.

We’re going to break down Wentz’s positives and negatives as a prospect entering the year. This will help provide a full scope of his talent. Then, we have two comparisons for Wentz, and an early conclusion to our big question about whether he can become the top quarterback prospect.

Positives

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It’s best that we start with Wentz’s resume. As a first-year starter in 2014, Wentz helped the Bison win their fourth-consecutive FCS title. The Bison finished the year 15-1, and Wentz won the Most Outstanding Player award for his play in the national title game.

Wentz set school records for passing attempts, completions, yards and total offense per game. He threw for 3,111 yards and 25 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions. There were numerous clutch touchdown passes toward the end of games that helped the Bison continue their winning ways.

At 6’5” and 222 pounds, Wentz has the prototypical frame for an NFL quarterback. There should be no concern about whether he can absorb hits from defenders or see over his offensive line. Those are questions that much smaller quarterbacks face, as their size can create massive issues.

Although size isn’t everything, it helps Wentz’s outlook. What’s also impressive about his size is how well he moves. He shouldn’t be characterized as a running quarterback, but he has the ability to scramble and punish defenses on the ground.

In Wentz’s first season as a starter, he had two 100-yard rushing games. He totaled 642 rushing yards on the season, which is the most among the other top 2016 quarterback prospects. This doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s a strength that can help in the NFL.

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Quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers are terrific scramblers while also being great in the pocket. When the quarterback knows when to pull the ball in and when to extend plays, you have a special and effective playmaker at the position.

As seen above, Wentz has at least flashed the ability to extend plays and complete tough passes downfield. He avoided the free pass-rusher by using a small pump fake and then scrambled to the sideline before throwing. We’ll touch more on his ability to handle pressure later, but if Wentz can show more of this skill in 2015, he’ll shoot up draft boards.

One way that the Bison put Wentz into a position to succeed is to keep him on the move. His athleticism at his size is notable, but more important is his passing ability while mobile. Wentz has plus arm strength when working to the far side of the field, and also when throwing across his body.

By completing off-balance short to intermediate throws, Wentz creates more open passing lanes than more limited quarterbacks can. Defenses cannot simply sag off their assignments in hopes that Wentz will deliver an inaccurate throw because he’s moving toward his left.

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On this next play, Wentz wasn’t flushed from the pocket, but he still shows off his strong arm. Working in the middle of the field, Wentz delivers a strike into the chest of his receiver. If this throw is behind his target even by a foot, this is a pick-six.

Ideally, we’d like to see this throw happen from the far sideline across the field on a deep out-route pattern. Through the three games available on YouTube, Wentz attempted no such throw. That is the best measure of arm strength, and a throw that even good NFL quarterbacks will make via anticipation or pure arm talent.

Hopefully we’ll see Wentz show his talent in this area more in 2015.

An important area where Wentz has shown confidence is throwing into tight windows. This is a massive positive to work with. By understanding leverage and spacing, Wentz is able to thread the needle the way only a dozen or so NFL quarterbacks can.

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Below is an example of an NFL-caliber throw into a small area.

As Wentz drops back into the pocket, he reads the linebackers taking away the underneath receiver. This allows his slot man to dip inside of the zone and exploit the small gap between his man and the safety over top.

This throw is dangerous, not only from a turnover aspect but also for his receivers’ health. The receiver ultimately drops the throw, but Wentz showed poise and great accuracy to deliver a catchable pass. His willingness to make these throws is notable; the opposite mindset is what limits average NFL quarterbacks.

Let’s move on to the negatives found in Wentz’s game.

Negatives

The first thing that must be acknowledged is Wentz's competition. The Bison program is the standard in the FCS division, possessing more talent than numerous FBS teams. Their win against Iowa State in 2014 was their only game against an FBS program.

2016 Quarterback Prospect Statistics in 2014
Games StartedCompletionsAttemptsYardsTouchdownsInterceptions
Carson Wentz162283583,1112510
Christian Hackenberg132704842,9771215
Jared Goff123165093,973357
Trevone Boykin133014923,9013310
Cody Kessler133154523,826395
Cardale Jones3569286072
Sports-reference

It’s hard to get a good feel for Wentz when he’s playing with much better talent than the opposition. Not to mention, Wentz doesn’t have to do much heavy lifting in comparison to other top quarterback prospects. Below are the numbers for Wentz and other quarterback prospects.

Without an FBS foe on the docket for 2015, Wentz must showcase great talent at the Senior Bowl, if he’s invited. That’s where Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois solidified his status as a legitimate second-round pick in 2014.

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There are several areas of concern in Wentz’s game that could hold him back in the race to be the top quarterback prospect. The first is his ability to handle pressure in the pocket. Below is one example of many where Wentz did not feel the heat and made a poor pass.

The inaccurate throw was a direct result of Wentz’s poor poise. As the rush is crashing in, Wentz slides backward before the throw. The top of his dropback was at the 2-yard line, but he releases the ball close to the goal line.

This shuffling of his feet cost Wentz the ability to deliver through his throwing motion. His arm is strong, but not good enough to overcome bad footwork. This applies to almost every quarterback in the NFL.

Handling pressure with poise is Wentz’s biggest weakness and potential stock killer in the draft. It’s imperative for any prospect to show competence in the pocket. But Wentz’s film has more examples of his not feeling the rush or reacting to it too late.

Remember, the jump from FCS-level pass-rushers to the NFL is going to be even more severe than what an FBS quarterback faces. Poor pocket presence will be magnified tenfold at the next level. The opponent is much faster, longer and more instinctive in the NFL.

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Another concern with Wentz is his deep ball. Despite having a strong arm, he is a bad deep passer at this juncture. Even when he had wide-open receivers, Wentz struggled to hit receivers in stride on throws past 15 yards.

Above is one example of his poor deep passing mechanics. Wentz had time to step into a throw and follow through his passing motion. His receiver has steps on the defender, and yet Wentz throws the ball out of bounds.

Where the concern comes is when the ball leaves his hands; it’s as if Wentz is shot-putting the ball. He has little control over where his deep passes are heading. This could be due to small hands.

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The small-hands theory may hold water, although there is no official measurement of his hands available online. In the three games evaluated, Wentz consistently had issues with fumbles and deep passing. These are problems that often plague quarterbacks with a small hand radius.

Lastly, an area where Wentz could stand to make a major leap is working off his first read. 2014 was his first season starting, so there were some growing pains and moments where he didn’t show much polish. That’s understandable.

Nevertheless, Wentz must show the ability to read through progressions. When he couldn’t go to his first option in 2014, he would immediately look to scramble or make a panic throw elsewhere. It's paramount that Wentz improves this aspect of his game.

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Below we can find an example of Wentz locking onto his first target.

Facing Iowa State, Wentz drops back to pass into the end zone. His receiver is running a slant into off coverage. This is a dangerous pass that has little chance of being completed, as the cornerback just has to hit the receiver to jar the ball loose or play the ball for a pass defensed.

The linebacker underneath is also unaccounted for. Wentz never takes his eyes off his first read, and the linebacker and cornerback see the play unfold with ease. The pass is tipped and luckily not turned into an interception.

Again, this is one example of numerous found in just three games. These patterns are potentially crippling for Wentz’s rise to the top of the 2016 draft class.

Conclusion

There’s a lot to like about Carson Wentz entering the 2015 season. He’s one of the top 10 quarterback prospects in the country, without a doubt. He could be the top senior quarterback in the country.

His size, athleticism and arm talent are all above average. He’s not a freakish athlete for the position, but he doesn’t have to be to find success. His running ability is simply another positive to build around.

Wentz has the ability to stick very difficult throws when he has a clean pocket. He shows flash as a creator outside of the pocket, but he needs to show more consistency and take fewer risks in this area.

But Wentz has at least shown the competence to build off this year and beyond.

In terms of a comparison, Wentz’s 2014 tape is reminiscent of Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and Carolina’s Derek Anderson. Each are big, athletic quarterbacks with strong arms. Wentz’s arm strength isn’t quite on par with those two, but that could be due to poor deep passing mechanics.

Like Flacco, Wentz struggles with passes that go 20 yards or more. His arm talent allows him to control the short to intermediate game and hit all of those throws, though. It’s possible to be a very good quarterback without an efficient deep passing game.

Considering how Wentz struggles against the rush, his floor is similar to Derek Anderson. Anderson found brief success as a starter but could not consistently win inside of the pocket when pressured. Now he is a backup with the Panthers.

Whether or not Wentz can become the top quarterback prospect in the 2016 draft class depends on if he becomes more like Flacco or more like Anderson. Although Flacco isn’t an elite playmaker at the position, he is successful with a very good team around him. He was well worth the first-round pick he was taken with.

Wentz’s ceiling is that of a top quarterback prospect. He has some major concerns to address in 2015, though. As always, we can expect the on-field play to help hash out this question, and surely we will revisit this discussion after football starts next month.

All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.

Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.