It may have taken two blockbuster trades of the top two picks, but now Jared Goff of California and Carson Wentz of North Dakota State are all but guaranteed to be the first two picks in the draft. And for the second time in as many years, quarterbacks will be the first two picks in the NFL Draft. Until just over a week ago, that was not the case.
The paths Goff and Wentz took to the top of the NFL Draft couldn’t be any more different. One had the classic modern quarterback background and eventually thrived in the spotlight. The other was a late bloomer -- Wentz was 5'8, 120 pounds in high school -- who benefited from the process leading up to the draft.
Jared Goff, the classic quarterback
Goff was a blue chip recruit out of high school. He was a member of the Elite 11, the exclusive quarterback competition that honors the nation's top high school quarterbacks.
Goff went from the Elite 11 to starting as a true freshman at Cal. He was the first Golden Bears signal caller to start a season opener as a true freshman. He was tasked with turning around one of the worst Power 5 schools in the nation.
It was a rough start at Cal. In his first game, Goff had two passes deflected for interceptions that were turned into touchdowns. The Golden Bears went just 1-11 in Goff's first season, beating only Portland State. Despite the record, Goff still completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 3,508 yards and 18 touchdowns.
"We were 1-11. We were terrible," Goff said at the Combine. "We had to really start from the floor and build everything up."
That's just what Goff did. By his third season at Cal, he had the Golden Bears at 8-5 and winning a bowl game [despite a defense that remained terrible]. That success in his junior season came despite an early-season ankle sprain that bothered Goff most of the year. It came despite playing behind an offensive line that got him knocked around. It came despite not being surrounded by great talent on offense.
"He’s an incredibly physically tough kid that has taken brutal shots during his time as a quarterback at Cal, and he never flinches," Goff's former offensive coordinator Tony Franklin said recently.
With a slender frame at 6'4 and 215 pounds, some wondered if Goff can take the rigors of being an NFL quarterback.
"If all you’re worrying about is weight and strength on a quarterback coming out of college, there isn’t much to critique," ESPN’s Mel Kiper said in February. "If that’s the only criticism you have, you’ve got yourself a heck of a prospect."
Carson Wentz, the meteoric rise
Plenty of quarterback prospects from small schools have found success in the NFL, but they lean on the pre-draft process to prove themselves. The start of Wentz's meteoric rise in NFL Draft circles really happened at the Senior Bowl. In January, Wentz went down to Mobile, Ala. on a mission to prove he belonged despite playing in the FCS. He approached the week of practices at the Senior Bowl knowing he had the mental makeup to fit in. His size, 6’5, made him stand out even next to players from Alabama and Clemson who had just recently played for the FBS national title. The issue was whether the speed of the game would catch up and ultimately overtake Wentz.
He looked as comfortable as any quarterback there and quickly showed off his leadership. When the North team did warmups, it was often Wentz leading the way. He was the one directing players, and giving encouragement after a blown play. He was doing all the little things you see the best quarterbacks in the NFL doing.
"I think there are obviously a lot of doubts, coming from the FCS," Wentz said at the Senior Bowl. "I want to address that right away ... prove that I can play at a high level, play at a fast level and compete with these guys and really excel."
At the Senior Bowl, the Dallas Cowboys coached Wentz and the North side. While there, he met Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. How focused was Wentz? He didn’t even recognize the NFL’s most widely known owner (who at the time also happened to be in play for Wentz with the fourth pick in the draft). Wentz didn’t necessarily brush aside meeting the billionaire owner/general manager, but the North Dakota native wasn’t awestruck, merely saying "it was cool" to meet Jones.
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett came away impressed by Wentz at the Senior Bowl, and so did his staff.
"Well, he’s got the prototype size," Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said of Wentz at the Senior Bowl. "He’s an athlete – he’s got some sneaky, quick, fast body mechanics and movement to go along with a really nice arm."
Even on a North team that featured quarterbacks from Stanford and USC, everyone was there to see Wentz. After one practice, at least 30 reporters surrounded Wentz and he had to be pulled off the field to get away from the national spotlight.
It was on him again just a month later at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Now Wentz was well-known, and riding a wave of momentum all the way into the top 10 picks of the draft. While Goff was getting grilled for having small hands and a slender frame, the bigger and more athletic Wentz shined.
"I think about a month ago, Carson Wentz was an idle curiosity, a I-AA kid from North Dakota State," draft analyst Mike Mayock said on NFL Network. "He went to the Senior Bowl, confirmed his status as a top-tier quarterback, came to the Combine and I think had the cleanest workout of anybody in terms of arm strength, his feet looked good, he showed his athletic ability. For my money, he made some money."
Throughout the entire offseason process, from the Senior Bowl and the Combine to his pro day in March, Wentz made money at each turn raising his draft stock little by little.
"What matters to me is the team that picks me that believes in me," Wentz said at the Combine. "I want to go somewhere where they believe in myself to be that franchise quarterback whether right away or down the road."
By trading up to the No. 2 pick, the Eagles showed they believe in Wentz. Now it’s just a matter of time before he becomes their franchise quarterback. If it’s like the rest of his ascension, it won’t take long.