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Carson Wentz? Missouri Valley Conference? History could be made

So we're really doing this, huh? Some kid from the Missouri Valley Conference could be the first quarterback chosen in the 2016 NFL draft?

Apparently so. The Carson Wentz hype train formally rolled out of the station last week when ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. mocked him to the Cleveland Browns with the No. 2 overall pick. If that happens for real, Wentz -- the pride of North Dakota State -- would be the highest-drafted non-FBS quarterback in NFL history.

The combine begins Tuesday, perhaps the last roadblock to Wentz's blue-chip candidacy. NFL teams are starting to lock in the scouting and film evaluations they made this winter. Now is the time to decide. Does this guy simply look the part? Or has the NFL been gifted a unique prospect in a year when there is no obvious franchise quarterback available?

"[W]hen you're 6-5 1/4 and 235 pounds and can move around like he can, and you have great character and the ability to assimilate information quickly, you're going to go very high," Kiper said.

Let's start there. An outside observer might cringe to hear media analysis about the height and weight of a quarterback. It can be code for a dangerous assumption, namely that big and strong quarterbacks can play because they're big and strong and (presumably) can rifle the ball all over the field. It seems especially dangerous when considering an FCS prospect. (As the chart shows, NFL teams have drafted only four non-FBS quarterbacks in the first round in the past 37 years.)

We'll need to dig deeper than that, just as Kiper and NFL teams have been doing for months. What exactly has excited football people about Wentz?

To be clear, Wentz wasn't a national prospect who transferred to a smaller school so he could play right away, as Joe Flacco did in moving from Pittsburgh to Delaware. Wentz is a native of Bismarck, North Dakota, who received exactly zero FBS scholarship offers and spent three seasons on the sidelines before taking over the starting role in 2014.

He made only 23 college starts because of a broken wrist suffered in 2015, and yet here we are considering him favorably in a comparison with Cal's more polished Jared Goff. (Kiper has Goff rated ahead of Wentz on his Big Board, but said he put Wentz at No. 2 in his mock draft because he's a better fit with the Browns' spot in the AFC North.)

In talking to a few people around the league, it appears Wentz has ascended largely due to a process of elimination. No one has found a reason to doubt the initial impression.

His film shows him to be mobile, both in the pocket and on read-option plays. He has a strong enough arm to make every throw, and has been credited with making good decisions with accuracy in an offense with more pro aspects than you might imagine. Wentz led the Bison to a pair of national FCS championships, part of the school's streak of five consecutive titles, and hardly appeared overwhelmed last month at the Senior Bowl.

But are we ready to accept that those credentials, derived largely against Missouri Valley Conference competition, can be compared to what Goff faced with Cal in the Pac-12? Or even Paxton Lynch with Memphis in the American Athletic Conference?

"I definitely understand that argument," said Steve Muench, an ESPN draft analyst who spends the year scouting college prospects. "What you're really saying is that there is no comparison to the speed of the game and the athletes you face in a major conference versus the Missouri Valley. It's a valid point. But all I can say is that when you throw on the tape of him, you see a guy that can run a pro-style offense.

"There are things he'll need to improve on, no doubt. He has a tendency to try to do too much. That's why he had 10 fumbles in 23 starts. Sometimes he'll lock on to a primary receiver. But that's all college guys. What you see is a guy who can move in the pocket, sense pressure and find an open man. He'll face the jump that any college quarterback would to the NFL, and for him it will be a little bigger. But when you see a guy play the way he does, and read defenses the way he did and usually make the right decision -- regardless of the athletic ability of the defenses he's facing -- that makes you feel confident he can make that jump."

If there are any concerns beyond that, Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said, teams will have ample opportunity to address them during private workouts.

"I would imagine he will get his share of workouts and visits coming up through this process," Spielman said.

The most important part of the combine for quarterbacks, of course, is personal interviews. Some coaches and executives try to rattle prospects to test their confidence and mental toughness. Many ask quarterbacks to diagram and explain plays extemporaneously. By all accounts, Wentz will ace those interactions.

"He comes across as someone that takes football very seriously," Muench said. "Coaches will love that. Football is very important to him."

And so, there you have it. A quarterback who looks the part and has played the part, albeit on a smaller stage, is as close as he can be to making history. Much of it will depend on the Browns, whose new-age front office has made their upcoming decision even less predictable than normal. But up to this point, nothing about Wentz has suggested he isn't ready for this. We'll see if the combine brings any detours.