INDIANAPOLIS – As Carson Wentz towered over a pretty sizable lectern Thursday and dozens of reporters and cameramen swarmed him to form what was one of the largest media mobs at this year’s NFL scouting combine, the North Dakota State star and Bismarck native tried to process how far he has come and how quickly it happened.
“It was always a dream. But … I didn’t think [two years ago that] this is where I’m going to be,” he said. “I didn’t think like that. It was a goal, but I was always just one day at a time trying to get better. Obviously I only started for two years in college. I knew I had to make the most of the opportunities. I thought I did the best I could.”
Over the past six months, the strong-armed quarterback has gone from a small-school prospect to a national curiosity to one of the most scrutinized players in this draft.
Wentz led the Bison to two FCS national titles and looked the part at last month’s Senior Bowl. But QB-needy teams picking at the top of the draft are still trying to determine whether the 6-foot-5 Wentz is capable of making the long leap from NDSU to the NFL.
“You just look at the body of work of the player. … You get a chance to see his physical tools and then you match that with an opportunity to sit down and talk with him and judge what his maturity level is. There’s a whole process that goes along with it,” Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome said about evaluating small-school prospects. “You just cannot sit there and say a guy cannot play in the National Football League if he played at a smaller division.”
Newsome would know. In 2008, he used a first-round pick on Delaware’s Joe Flacco, a similarly sized small-school QB. Four years later, Flacco led the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory.
Flacco was one of four quarterbacks from below the FBS level to have been drafted in the first round since 1979. Steve McNair, the record-setting signal-caller from Alcorn State, went the highest at third overall in 1995. Wentz could land in the top two this year.
While Flacco was a three-star prospect who started his college career at Pittsburgh, Wentz noted that the success of Flacco, along with Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo (Eastern Illinois), at the FCS level helped pave the way to him being a likely first-round pick.
“There’s a lot of talented individuals at the FCS level that can play,” Wentz said. “Especially a guy like Flacco, coming in really right away as a rookie and winning some ballgames I think shows that that adjustment can be made by special players for sure.”
Wentz, who was lightly recruited coming out of high school, was pretty special during his time in Fargo. In 2014, he threw for 3,111 yards and 25 touchdowns and was named Most Outstanding Player of the national championship game, a 29-27 victory over Illinois State. In 2015, he returned from a broken wrist to throw for a score and rush for two others, and take home Most Outstanding Player honors again, as the Bison seized their fifth consecutive title by beating Jacksonville State 37-10.
At the Senior Bowl, Wentz displayed the ability to rifle passes outside the numbers on comebacks and deep out routes. The 23-year-old has prototypical size for the position and played in a pro-style offense at North Dakota State. And he is surprisingly spry for a player his size, so much that the Bison often featured him on designed quarterback runs.
On Saturday, Wentz will be on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium, going throw for throw against and trying to distinguish himself from the top quarterback prospects from the FBS level.
“If a guy fits for us and what we’re looking for, we’ll draft him regardless of where he’s from at the position we think he’s draftable,” said Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson, whose team has the second overall pick and a desperate need at quarterback yet again. “Again, I don’t want it to be about the school a player comes from. Can he play?”
That is what teams such as the Browns, Cowboys, 49ers and others picking in the top half of the first round are trying to figure out about Wentz.
But Wentz is certain he has what it takes to follow in the footsteps of Flacco, Romo and McNair.
“I’m really focused on myself and being the best I can be,” Wentz said. “I believe in myself. I’m confident. I believe in myself to be a franchise quarterback.”