A year ago, no one needed an NFL draft guide to learn about the top two quarterbacks.
Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota had the big wins, major talent and unquestionable pedigree befitting top prospects at the game’s most important position. In their trophy case, they also had a bronze, stiff-armed statue named after John Heisman.
When it comes to name recognition — or lack of it — the 2016 quarterback draft class is different. One top prospect hails from Cal, which hasn’t finished with a winning record in the Pac-12 since 2009. The other won national titles in his two seasons as North Dakota State’s starter, but beat Jacksonville State and Illinois State to do it.
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No, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz are not household names. They don’t demand national media attention like their counterparts a year ago. Don’t let that fool you. Goff and Wentz have enough potential to entice not one, but two teams to trade future first-round picks for the chance to move into the draft’s first two slots and draft them.
“There’s this perception out there that Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota were way, way above Carson Wentz and Jared Goff,” Senior Bowl president Phil Savage said. “I’m not sure I see it that way. I think if all four guys came out, Mariota and Winston might still go Nos. 1 and 2. But I think Goff and Wentz would still go top 10 — both of them. I think four quarterbacks would go top 10 if that was the case.”
Wentz, especially, is an enigma for personnel departments to unravel. He’s the most physically gifted quarterback in his class, measuring 6-foot-5 ¼ and 237 pounds with an impressive 4.77-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine. His arm strength — with passes released from big, 10-inch hands — appeals to any team.
While Goff was a junior last season, Savage saw Wentz up close at the Senior Bowl in January. He was impressed with Wentz’s ability to blend in — and even stand out — on a field with players from bigger programs.
“I thought he proved that he was a big-school prospect wrapped in a small-school uniform,” Savage said. “He had the size. He had a quick, circular arm motion. The ball comes out with some pop, especially short to intermediate. His athletic ability was really very efficient, with his footwork. But the thing that grabbed me the most was that on a roster full of players from Michigan State, Ohio State — everywhere else in the country — he really took a leadership role in a very positive, real way. It wasn’t fake, it wasn’t forced. He communicated well with the receivers.
“That part to me was the thing that seemed to say this guy has some good qualities as far as leadership and intangibles.”
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay believes Wentz’s size and strength are comparable to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It’s an adequate comparison not just for their physical tools, but also their shared history. Roethlisberger played college football at Miami University — the Mid-American Conference’s RedHawks, not the ACC powerhouse — before settling into an ideal situation with a Steelers team dedicated to running the football and playing sound defense.
It’s a situation Wentz could find with the Rams, a franchise with a promising defense and reigning offensive rookie of the year Todd Gurley. McShay said he gave Wentz and Goff “basically identical grades,” but Wentz’s higher upside would break the tie.
“I think both of these quarterbacks can be really good,” McShay said. “I really do. I think Wentz and Goff have a chance to be really good starters in the league. But they need time to develop, and they need the right situation around them. It’ll be interesting to see which one lands where, and what kind of situation they’re put in.”
Naturally, Wentz faces a steeper transition. North Dakota’s biggest football rivals are South Dakota State and the University of North Dakota. They’re a steep drop from the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys.
Any college quarterback has to handle a significant learning curve, but Goff could adjust quicker. He doesn’t have Wentz’s physical gifts, measuring 6-foot-4, 215 pounds and running a 4.82 dash in Indy. But the quarterback position is played with more than size and speed.
Accuracy may be the most important attribute for any quarterback. Goff’s pin-point touch is his biggest weapon, although his small, 9-inch hands trouble some teams. His pocket presence could also translate well to the NFL.
“I think Jared Goff has everything I’m looking for in the pocket,” said ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, a longtime NFL coach known for his ability to teach and evaluate young quarterbacks. “He has great feet. He keeps his feet alive at all times. He takes punishment. He’ll create new launching spots. He’s a very talented pocket passer. I would want him if I were still coaching.”
It’s an age-old debate hanging over the top of this year’s first round. Take the quarterback with more intangibles and a smoother transition to the league (Goff), or the quarterback with better physical tools and a higher upside. Each year, general managers weigh those two types of prospects.
Potential usually wins in the draft, though the Los Angeles Rams appear to be leaning toward Goff with the first overall selection. Maybe Wentz, with his big hands and strong arm, would be a better fit with the Philadelphia Eagles.
What’s clear is even in a year when the top quarterback prospects aren’t household names with legendary college careers, the position still dominates the draft.
“The reasons teams move up for the quarterback position and make moves like this,” McShay said, “you could call it desperation. It’s because that’s the only position really where you can make up for several other weaknesses on your roster, if you’re really good there. With the salary cap as it is now, it’s very, very difficult to build a complete team on both sides of the ball, and no position affects more positions — and can overcome other weaknesses — more than quarterback.
“So you can understand why teams get desperate and do things like this. The odds don’t point in their favor, though.”
Rising stock: North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz could be the rare FCS player drafted in the top five picks.
Falling stock: Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook looked like a lock to be drafted in the first round a year ago, but a forgettable senior season might push him to the second round.
Sleeper: Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch doesn’t get the same hype as the two quarterbacks rated ahead of him, but he could be the best player from his class in a couple years.