#1 best-selling author Mark Schofield reveals his list of the top quarterback prospects for the 2016 NFL Draft. Schofield, who wrote 17 Drives – a chronicle of the 2015 college football season – has ranked Carson Wentz as his #2 ranked prospect. Click here to look at all of his work on the 2016 QB class.
Carson Wentz was a late bloomer, standing only 5’8” as a high school freshman, but 6’5” by graduation. As a junior, he suffered a shoulder injury which limited his ability to play quarterback, restricting him mostly to linebacker and wide receiver. He recovered in time to return to QB for his senior year, but by then, of the Football Bowl Subdivision schools, only Central Michigan recruited him. Two local schools from the Football Championship Subdivision were hot on his trail, though: North Dakota and North Dakota State. Wentz decided on the Bison, setting him on a path toward the top of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Wentz sat behind three-time national championship-winning QB Brock Jensen and did not start a game until his junior year. His first start came on the road against FBS school Iowa State, and the QB flashed some of the traits in the win that now have teams considering him the top quarterback in the draft. The junior led the Bison to their fourth-straight national championship and, along the way, he engineered two last-minute drives: one against South Dakota State in the quarterfinals, and another against Illinois State in the championship game.
Wentz returned to campus for his senior season and, while expectations were high for the Bison once more, his meteoric rise up the draft board was but a twinkle in the eyes of some few evaluators at the start of the season. He began the year with a loss to Montana on a nationally-televised game, but, despite losing, Wentz fared well, completing 16 of 28 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns. The Bison won their next four games, including another comeback victory against Northern Iowa where the QB led one more last-minute drive to pull out the win. But the following week the Bison lost not only a game (to South Dakota) but their quarterback. Wentz suffered a wrist injury that needed surgery, putting the rest of his season in jeopardy.
The Bison kept winning in his absence, led by backup QB Easton Stick. But when they advanced to the title game, Wentz returned for his final college game to lead the Bison against Jacksonville State. Despite the layoff and lingering shoulder soreness, Wentz led NDSU to the school’s fifth-straight national championship. He completed 16 of 29 passes for 197 yards and one touchdown, against two interceptions. While the stats were average, he again showed some of the traits that evaluators now point to as the reason he might be the first quarterback off the board.
Looking at those traits, the first that stands out is his arm talent. Wentz is up there with the best arms in this class and has the strength to make every throw required of a quarterback in the NFL. He is able to deliver throws in the intermediate range of the field with velocity, he can challenge smaller throwing windows at all levels, and he can make the throw from one hashmark to the opposing sideline with zip and placement. He is very sound with his upper body mechanics, using his off arm and shoulder to generate torque, and he uses a very quick and compact release with the ball exploding out of his hand at the release point. While he has a weakness on his deep ball, this is not due to a lack of arm strength but appears more likely an issue with trying to balance his arm strength with finding the right amount of touch appropriate for each throw.
Wentz is also a very athletic QB for a player of his size (6’5” 237 at the Combine). He can extend plays with his feet, whether by climbing the pocket or rolling away from pressure, and he keeps his eyes downfield looking for a target in the scramble drill. He is athletic enough to have designed runs for him incorporated into the NDSU offense, and he was able to pick up yardage both on QB power runs as well as with the read option attack.
He will need to learn to slide or get out of bounds as he transitions to the next level, as he is prone to trying to lower a shoulder, cut to the inside, or even hurdle a defender to pick up extra yardage. The competitive toughness is nice, but being able to walk back to the huddle for the next play is nicer.
In the NDSU offense, Wentz was tasked with making progression reads – and even full field reads – on a number of plays. In my opinion Wentz does not get enough credit in this area simply because so often his first read was open or breaking open, so he was able to pull the trigger without getting to his second read. But that’s more a function of taking advantage of the skill level of the players around him than a failing on his part, and should not therefore be used as a knock against him. After all, if his first read is open, that’s his job: to throw to the open receiver.
But when tasked with making full field reads, Wentz does this well, and sometimes with good playspeed. This play against Jacksonville State is one such example.
Along these lines, Wentz has the ability to identify external dangers (such as an underneath zone defender) and quickly move to the next read as he showed on one play against Iowa State. Midway through the second quarter, the Bison trail 14-7 facing a 2nd and 10 near midfield. Wentz is under center with 11 personnel on the field, and the defense has their base 4-3 in the game showing Cover 3 in the secondary:
The Bison have trips to the left, and run a stick concept to this side. The tight end and middle trips receiver run quick outs, while the outside receiver runs a streak. On the weak-side, the single receiver runs a short curl:
As the play begins, Wentz looks to the weak-side from the snap. Facing Cover 3, and with the football on the right-hashmark, the short curl route on the weak-side is a good option, and a shorter, easier throw. The defensive back gains depth at the start of the play, and this easy throw has potential for a nice gain. But there is a hitch: the weak-side defensive end drops into coverage from the line of scrimmage:
However, Wentz sees it. Before releasing the throw, he pulls the football down, reconsiders, and then works back to the strong side of the formation. He eventually makes a nice throw to his TE on the quick out route, resulting in a nine-yard gain.
This is just one example, but it illustrates both the recognition and the quick mental-processing Wentz will need to succeed in the NFL.
Building off his aggressive nature as a ball carrier, Wentz is not afraid to challenge narrow throwing lanes in the downfield passing game, regardless of the situation. On the final drive against UNI, Wentz delivered one of his better throws of the year on a play that went for an incompletion:
Wentz challenges the Cover 2 look from the Panthers with a very aggressive decision and throw into a narrow window. Bear in mind, he does this trailing with just minutes to go in the game. This is a great example of ball placement and aggression, one also highlighted by Derrik Klassen in his “Five Throws” series. You can also see, from this angle, how Wentz is able to flash his eyes to the outside and influence the safeties, buying room for his TE:
The play goes as an incompletion in the box score, but on a drive filled with Sunday reads and throws, this might have been his best. It is a perfect example of a quarterback making an aggressive read and decision, even in a crucial moment. Plays like this inspire confidence in a coaching staff that they can keep the entire playbook open even in the biggest of spots.
Another area where Wentz shines is when he identifies a mismatch or a defensive alignment pre-snap that he can exploit. Wentz had the freedom to execute pause or sight adjustments at the line of scrimmage and, in those situations, he was able to quickly identify the mismatch or coverage alignment and simply get the ball out to a receiver after the snap and let his WR make a play with the football. This is also a testament to the trust his coaching staff placed in him. Wentz had the freedom to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage, including protection calls and changing the play. This bodes well for his transition to the NFL, where he will be asked to do even more of this on Sundays.
One question mark surrounding Wentz is his play speed. As previously indicated, on many plays he was able to throw to his first read, who was either open or loosely covered. In these instances, Wentz could often lock on to his first target and make a throw into tighter coverage, rather than having to work to his next read and wait to pull the trigger on an open receiver. This approach also led to him missing what could have been some big plays in the passing game. This play is one example:
This is a four verticals concept and Wentz will start his progressions working from right to left. The defense runs Cover 3 on this play and, in the offense, the receiver has the freedom to adjust this route to a comeback if he cannot beat the coverage deep. This is exactly what happens to Wentz’s first read: the route gets adjusted. In a vacuum, the comeback route against Cover 3 is a good play because the cornerback needs to respect the deep threat and is susceptible to a quick break back to the ball. So Wentz waits on this, knowing it will come open. But in the full context of the play, waiting for a route he knows will come open is a mistake, because his second and third reads are bracketing the free safety and his second read is wide open. This is one example of the play speed issue. In the NFL, that first route might not break open, so he needs to move to that second option – and quickly.
Deep accuracy is another issue with Wentz, as previously discussed. This was an issue in 2014, and he worked with his coaches during the offseason and at the start of 2015 to try to improve on these throws. He missed a few deep shots in the opener against Montana but, as the season went on, he was able to make some impressive throws in the vertical passing game, against both North Dakota and UNI. This seems to be a work in-progress for Wentz and, with more time and repetitions, he should be able to refine his game here.
Another aspect on which Wentz needs to improve – and knows he needs to improve – is his footwork. He has the athletic ability to slide around in the pocket and extend plays, but there are times when Wentz is downright statuesque in the pocket. He is skilled at working from under center as well as from the pistol and shotgun formations, and he can execute all the drops asked of him from any starting point. Wentz is also good at the boot action game and, when throwing on the move, he displays accuracy, velocity, and proper footwork. But when operating in the pocket, he needs to be lighter on and more nimble with his feet – and certainly not so statutory.
Right now, Wentz is more of a “see it, throw it” type of passer. There do exist examples of his throwing a receiver open with anticipation, such as this post route against Coastal Carolina, but he will need to do more of this in the NFL.
Back in the preseason, when the idea of Wentz being one of the first players selected in the draft was an unheard of proposition, I opined that he might fit well with Gary Kubiak’s offense given his proficiency operating under center and in the boot action game. He could also function within a West Coast system, but, looking at it now, I think with his arm strength, ability, and aggression to challenge narrow windows, and the placement and accuracy he has displayed at times in the short- and intermediate-areas of the field, Wentz projects best to a Erhardt-Perkins system, similar to what New England runs right now with Tom Brady.
I really like this example of how Wentz processes information before and after the snap and how he exploits a defense for a touchdown. This play comes from the 2014 FCS National Championship game between North Dakota State and Illinois State. The Bison trail 7-3 with 8:46 left in the second quarter and face a 3rd and goal at the Redbirds’ six yard line. They line up in 12 offensive personnel, with Wentz in the shotgun and a two-tight end wing to the left and slot formation on the right. Illinois State has their 4-2-5 defense in the game showing, Cover 1 in the secondary:
Here is the route concept that North Dakota State uses: From the slot side of the field, the inside receiver releases on a skinny post, while the outside WR comes underneath on a slant route; the two tight ends run a compressed version of the Mills concept, with the inside TE cutting under on a very short dig route, while the wing TE runs a post route:
Let’s look at the information available to Wentz before the snap.
On the slot side of the field, he has a post / slant combination. But in this coverage, the Redbirds slide the free safety over to the hashmark, just inside of the slot receiver. This puts the FS in position to help on some of the standard goal-line routes, such as a smash concept with the slot WR breaking to the back corner of the end zone, or a goal-line fade from one or both WRs. So, before the play, the quarterback knows he has a 2-on-3 disadvantage to that side of the field. But on the two TE side, there are four potential defenders to be concerned with: the two linebackers, the safety, and cornerback Mike Banks (#24). Note the positioning of Banks on the line of scrimmage, well outside of the two tight ends. Perhaps he’s trying to get a better angle on a potential flat route to the outside from the running back. Or perhaps he is blitzing. Should the CB blitz on this play, Wentz still has a 2-on-3 disadvantage on this side of the field as well. However, remember where the free safety is: shaded to the other side of the field standing just inside the hashmark. This means the middle of the field is open and, with the route concept from the two tight ends, the inside short dig should occupy both linebackers underneath, leaving room in the middle of the field for the post route from Luke Albers (#88).
That is exactly what happens:
Wentz takes the shotgun snap, immediately opens to his left, and sees Banks blitzing off the edge. He also sees the underneath dig route occupy the two linebackers as expected and, with the free safety on the opposite hashmark, Albers is free to find space in the middle of the field. Wentz drops in a perfectly placed throw, and the Bison regain the lead.
Here’s another view of this route coming together:
This play is a perfect example of a quarterback taking the information available to him before the snap, including a deep understanding of the play structure, the coverage scheme, the positioning of each defender on the field, and pre-snap blitz indicators, while making the right read and decision. In the box score it goes down as a short touchdown pass, but, if you dive deeper, it highlights the understanding of the game and decision-making abilities on display.
Mid First Round (15-25)
One- to Three-Year Projection
Back in October, in the wake of the victory over UNI, the folks at ESPN Fargo were kind enough to invite me on to talk about Wentz and that last minute drive. When I was asked about his draft stock, I mentioned then that if everything broke right for him, including another strong year and a national title, Wentz, “might be an early second, maybe late first round selection.” His season got a bit of a derailment with the injury, but clearly that did not hamper his draft stock in the least, since it seems he may well be one of the first two players to come off the board. But expectations need to remain reasonable for him, and he will need some time to acclimate to the professional game and refine the aspects of his playing style that need improvement. Ideally, the coaching staff that selects him will have a transition plan in place with a date in mind later in his rookie year for his first start. If thrown to the fire too quickly (as is often the case with many a rookie QB) he could stumble. If indeed he is selected by the Philadelphia Eagles with the second pick, my hope is that he sits until mid-season. If that happens, I think he can develop into a mid- to upper-level NFL QB. The Eagles have enough talent around the QB position, as well as a coaching staff with a good history of developing quarterbacks, such the potential exists for that selection to pay off in a big way for Philadelphia.