EAGLES: There’s a lot of Joe Flacco in Carson Wentz – Cherry Hill Courier Post

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Philadelphia is in position to take one of the draft’s top QBs — Cal’s Jared Goff or North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz.

PHILADELPHIA — The scrutiny will begin a matter of minutes into the NFL Draft on Thursday, when the Eagles are expected to take North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz with the second overall pick.

The critics will say that Wentz played against inferior competition and that he’ll never be able to make the jump from playing in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-AA) to the NFL.

Even if Wentz proves those critics wrong, there are others who’ll say he’ll never develop into a franchise quarterback and therefore won’t justify the Eagles trading five draft picks to the Cleveland Browns last Wednesday in order to move up from No. 8 to No. 2.

It is believed that the Los Angeles Rams, who traded up to the top pick recently, will take California quarterback Jared Goff, although the Rams have yet to acknowledge that publicly.

Former University of Delaware coach K.C. Keeler is among those who believe Wentz has exactly what it takes to succeed, and that the Eagles would be an ideal spot for Wentz to develop over the next year or so instead of being forced to play right away.

Keeler should know. He dealt with the same doubts and questions when Audubon High School graduate Joe Flacco, his quarterback at Delaware, another FCS program, was preparing for the 2008 draft. That season, the Baltimore Ravens traded up to No. 18 to draft Flacco, who became the starting quarterback in training camp. Flacco led the Ravens to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons, including a Super Bowl championship in 2013.

“The situation you go to is everything if you’re a quarterback,” Keeler said. “You look at history and it’s the Archie Manning thing – a great quarterback on a terrible team. Archie never had a chance. Joe was blessed when he went to Baltimore. They had a great defense and a great leader in (linebacker) Ray Lewis. Joe didn’t have to do it all.

“And if Wentz goes to the Eagles, they’ve got Sam Bradford at quarterback, so he won’t have to play right away.”

Keeler, now the head coach at Sam Houston State, another FCS program, is also familiar with Wentz. His team faced Wentz and the Bison in the 2014 FCS semifinals, which North Dakota State won 35-3.

A few weeks later, the Bison won their fourth straight national championship. This season, NDSU made it five straight. Wentz missed eight games with a broken wrist, but returned for the national championship game against Jacksonville State, a 37-10 win.

Keeler said that pedigree is similar to Flacco’s, who led the Blue Hens to the national championship game his senior year. UD lost that game to Appalachian State. Keeler would beg to differ that Flacco faced inferior competition that season.

For one, Appalachian State beat Michigan that year. Secondly, UD beat Football Bowl Subdivision team (former Division I-A) Navy 59-52 behind 434 yards and four touchdown passes from Flacco.

“Everyone noticed Joe in the Navy game because it was against a I-A school,” Keeler said. “But we faced tougher teams in our conference. (The Colonial Athletic Association) was a beast back then.”

Wentz, too, has faced the best competition at the FCS level by winning the two national championships.

Keeler sees other similarities, beginning with size – Flacco is 6-foot-6, 245 pounds and Wentz is 6-5, 237 pounds – and arm strength.

“They’re both more athletic than you would think,” Keeler said. “Both are very locked in, focused, their football IQs are off the charts. They’re great leaders and they can make all the throws. But Carson isn’t as accurate on the long throws as Joe. Joe is just a different animal than anyone I’ve seen. Joe has probably one of the top two or three arms in the NFL. But Wentz definitely has a strong enough arm for the NFL.”

•Poise counts: There have been four quarterbacks from the FCS level drafted in the first round, and all have had successful NFL careers. In addition to Flacco, there was Doug Williams from Grambling State in 1978, Phil Simms from Morehead State in 1979 and Steve McNair from Alcorn State in 1995.

But Flacco and Wentz are the most relevant comparisons because of how the NFL game is played today.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson, a former backup NFL quarterback, raved about Wentz’s poise and maturity, which he noticed when he, team owner Jeffrey Lurie and executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman met with Wentz in Fargo, North Dakota recently. The Eagles also had Wentz come to the NovaCare Complex for one of their allotted 30 visits.

“If you haven’t spent time with a guy like Carson Wentz – it’s hard from the outside looking in – him going to North Dakota State might be an issue,” Pederson said the day before the trade was made. “But when you get him into your building, get your hands on him, have chance to visit with him, talk to him, just break it down, this kid is pretty impressive.”

Other NFL experts have had similar reviews.

Former NFL coach Jon Gruden, ESPN’s Monday Night Football analyst, holds a “QB Camp” each spring leading up to the draft where he breaks down video with the top quarterbacks in the draft and critiques their strengths and weaknesses.

Gruden, on a conference call last week, was asked about the pressure Wentz might face in Philadelphia as the No. 2 pick who’s expected to become the face of the franchise.

“Oh, that’s the million dollar question,” Gruden said. “But the one thing that stands out about Wentz is his off-the-field intangibles. He’s a two-time captain. He’s a 4.0 GPA. He’s a fifth-year finishing senior, valedictorian in high school, very faith-oriented.

“If anybody can stand the mental pressure that comes with playing in Philadelphia and withstand the physical pressure that it takes to play at a high level, it’s Carson Wentz.”

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said on a conference call Friday that he wasn’t that familiar with Wentz until he started watching video of him last October. Then he started comparing him favorably to Goff.

“Right away, I knew that we had a first-round quarterback on our hands and you needed to figure the kid out,” Mayock said. “Senior Bowl, best quarterback there. Combine, outstanding. The Pro Day really sold me on the kid just because of the way he was with his coaches and teammates and the respect he earned.

“So he’s always been my No. 1 quarterback since back in the fall. He crossed off every checkmark since.”

•A special quarterback: Keeler said it was difficult preparing for Wentz and the Bison offense for that semifinal game because the Bison have such a well-balanced offense.

But Keeler said what struck him the most was the patience that Wentz displayed. If a play didn’t work, Wentz didn’t panic. He just tried it again later. That was the case on a particular fake bootleg, where Wentz would hand it off to a running back up the middle while faking that he was keeping the ball and running around the edge.

Twice, the Bearkats stopped the play for short gains. Wentz tried it for a third time in the second half.

“Our safety got caught up in the bootleg fake and the (running back) got a 30-yard gain,” Keeler said. “We thought we were in the game, and that play blew it open. It just shows you the confidence the kid has. They make you get impatient. You can’t cheat on them. If you overplay anything, they’ll take advantage, and that starts with the quarterback. Those sorts of things translate to the NFL.”

Wentz only threw the ball 19 times that day, completing 13 for 179 yards and a touchdown.

But the Eagles, no doubt, have to be impressed that Wentz thrived in North Dakota State’s pro-style offense. Those offenses are rarities in college, which often feature a spread attack. Gruden said that should help Wentz’s adjustment to the NFL.

“First of all, they get in a huddle. Can you imagine that?” Gruden said. “(The quarterback) gets underneath the center. They use numerous personnel groupings … They use every formation, every shift in motion that you can use. (The quarterback) gets up there and audibles, changes plays, changes protections. He doesn’t have to look to the sideline to get all the answers, and that’s huge. So I see a lot of elements and concepts at North Dakota State that I see in the NFL.”

Keeler, of course, was known for using a spread, no-huddle offense at Delaware. But Keeler said he changed things up in Flacco’s senior season and had Flacco line up under center from time to time, letting him change plays at the line of scrimmage.

Keeler said he did it in part to make Flacco a well-rounded prospect in the eyes of NFL scouts, and because he knew Flacco could handle it.

“I remember early in the season, people were talking about Joe being a fifth- or sixth-round pick,” Keeler said. “But as time went on, I was like, ‘Who do you think is better?’ A scout would tell me he was on the west coast and didn’t see anyone. Another would say he was down south and didn’t see anyone … Then it was just down to two guys – Joe and (Atlanta Falcons quarterback) Matt Ryan.

“It could be the same thing with Wentz. Who do you think is better? Maybe it’s just him and Goff.”

That’s why to some NFL teams, the level of play in college doesn’t matter as much as just playing.

Flacco, for example, started his collegiate career at Pittsburgh but transferred to Delaware after he realized he was going to be a backup. At UD, Flacco was a two-year starter and set several school passing records.

Wentz was only recruited by one FBS program, Central Michigan. He was a backup for two seasons at NDSU, watching as the Bison won two national championships. Then he led them to two more.

“It’s overrated with big-school quarterbacks coming out,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said last month at the NFL owners’ meetings. “I don’t know what the exact analytics are, but it’s more important to play a lot in college than to play in a certain place … We kind of ruled that out with Joe. He had played a lot at Delaware. And Carson has obviously played a lot. I don’t think it’s a factor.”

In those two seasons, Wentz started just 23 games in college and threw 612 passes, while Flacco started 26 games and threw 938 passes.

But both took their teams to championship games. Keeler said that has to count for something, even if it was at a lower level of competition than most of the elite prospects.

“All I know was I walked off the field against North Dakota State and I felt like I had just seen a special quarterback,” Keeler said. “It was the same feeling I had with Joe.”

Contact Martin Frank at mfrank@delawareonline.com. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.

EAGLES: There’s a lot of Joe Flacco in Carson Wentz – Cherry Hill Courier Post

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