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Unheralded Carson Wentz could turn into best QB of 2016 NFL Draft

North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz warms

North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz warms up before the Senior Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, at Ladd Peebles Stadium, in Mobile, Ala. Credit: AP / Brynn Anderson

INDIANAPOLIS

Sometimes the big-time quarterbacks ticketed for the high end of the first round are obvious. Cam Newton. Andrew Luck. Eli and Peyton Manning. Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.

Sometimes they are more obscure. Or, in the case of this year’s NFL Draft, completely from out of nowhere.

Say hello to Carson Wentz.

Haven’t heard of him?

You’re not alone.

Until the draft possibilities began to come into focus late in the 2015 college season — and especially in recent weeks, when teams have ratcheted up the evaluation process — North Dakota State’s Wentz was a fairly obscure quarterback for a Missouri Valley Conference team competing at the lightly regarded FCS level. He missed seven games as a senior last year and finished with 17 touchdown passes and four interceptions.

But here he is, two months away from the NFL Draft, and Wentz is being mentioned as the top quarterback prospect.

With the Browns picking second overall and looking for a franchise quarterback — a recurrent theme since their restart in Cleveland in 1999 — the little-known Wentz soon could be the face of the franchise.

If not Cleveland, another quarterback-needy team will take a chance on Wentz. If he falls far enough, maybe it will be the Jets at No. 20.

Again, the name is Carson Wentz. Last name rhymes with fence.

From barely known quarterback in North Dakota to hoped-for-NFL savior and future household name, that’s quite a leap for the 23-year-old Wentz.

“A little bit,” he said of whether this whirlwind of excitement and possibility has been a bit overwhelming. “But it’s always been a dream. I view every day as an opportunity, and I’m excited as heck to be playing ball, that’s for sure.”

Wentz has drawn the attention of NFL scouts and longtime draft observers. ESPN’s Mel Kiper suggested the Browns could go with Wentz or the more highly publicized and better-known Jared Goff of Cal. NFL Network draft maven Mike Mayock suggested Wentz’s athletic ceiling is similar to that of Luck, the former No. 1 pick of the Colts.

That’s rarefied air in the pre-draft conversation, and Wentz surely will be one of the most intriguing prospects when the first round unfolds April 28 in Chicago. But Wentz’s upside is tough to resist, especially after he played so well in the Senior Bowl, where the quality of competition is more like what he’ll face in the NFL.

“For me, I think it’s kind of what I expected going in, and to a lot of people, it showed I could handle that game speed,” he said. “That was the big question. I think I went in and proved I could handle it. I never questioned it. I’m a confident player. I know what I’m capable of, and I was excited to go prove that.”

Some scouts liken the 6-5, 237-pound Wentz to another former FCS star, Joe Flacco, who played for Delaware before being drafted in the first round by the Ravens in 2008. Flacco quickly developed into one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks and led Baltimore to the Super Bowl after the 2012 season, winning Super Bowl MVP honors.

“I’m just trying to showcase who I am and what I’m doing,” Wentz said. “I’m not big on speculating. I don’t pay attention to other guys. I believe in myself, and I’m confident. I believe in myself to be a franchise quarterback.”

And what’s his definition of a franchise quarterback?

“First and foremost, you have to win,” he said. “Being a winner in the NFL will take you places. For me, coming out of North Dakota State, the track record speaks for itself. Not only do I think of the physical ability, but it’s being a winner, taking command, being a leader. All those things come to mind.”

The biggest adjustment: the speed of the NFL game.

“Receivers are going to get faster, and my timing has to speed up,” he said. “There’s only one way to prove that, and that’s to do it. My preparation is going to be the same no matter where I go. You have to go in and prove yourself. If you go into a situation with a Hall of Famer in front of you or where the job is given to you, you have to earn it.”

Take it from the man who had the conviction to make Flacco his franchise quarterback: Wentz will succeed if he has the right stuff.

“You just cannot sit there and say a guy cannot play in the National Football League if he played at a smaller division,” Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. “You just look at the body of work of the player. You watch. 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 just what his maturity level is.”

For any team considering Wentz, the process now is in high gear. The weeks ahead will determine where he ends up. Wentz has no idea where that will be, but he’s confident that he’ll succeed once he finds his NFL home.

“I believe in myself,” he said. “What matters to me is that the team that picks me believes in me.”

Carson Wentz in 2015

130/208

comp/attemps

235.9

passing yards/game

17

touchdowns

152.3

QB rating

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