FARGO — Easton Stick received an invitation to the NFL Combine, a coveted prize for the former North Dakota State quarterback who is hoping to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor and mentor Carson Wentz. Stick wants to be drafted and have a career as an NFL quarterback.
Wentz was the Bison starting quarterback in 2014-15, winning two Division I Football Championship Subdivision national titles. His NFL Draft stock skyrocketed after he returned from an injury his senior year to lead NDSU over Jacksonville State in the championship game in January 2016. Wentz was selected second overall by the Philadelphia Eagles in April of that year and quickly became one of the NFL's rising stars.
Stick filled in for the injured Wentz in 2015, winning eight straight games before yielding the starting job in Frisco, Texas. He started the next three seasons and won two national championships on his own. Stick's college resume is actually more impressive than Wentz's — the two titles, an FCS record 49-3 mark as a starter, NDSU records for career passing yards and touchdowns.
But that doesn't mean Stick is a better quarterback or pro prospect than Wentz. At 6-foot-2, 221 pounds he is not the huge specimen the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Wentz is. Nor does Stick have the physical tools like the otherworldly arm strength of Wentz.
So Stick will not be going in the first round of the draft like Wentz. Nor will he be drafted in the second round.
But there is a good chance, according to those who follow the NFL Draft closely, that Stick will be chosen in the later rounds.
"The top levels of the draft are reserved for quarterbacks with elite physical tools like Carson Wentz, Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes," Stick's agent, Chase Callahan of Rep1 Sports, said. "Easton maybe isn't there. But in the areas that Easton lacks, he makes up for it with other things."
- Click here to subscribe to The McFeely Fix, an e-newsletter collecting the latest columns from Mike McFeely
So the ticket to the NFL Combine on Feb. 26-March 4 in Indianapolis is huge. The combine is several days of draft-eligible college players working out, getting tested and being interviewed by NFL teams. It is an opportunity for athletes to make their mark in hopes of hearing their names called during the draft, scheduled April 25-27 in Nashville, Tenn.
Stick could be picked anywhere from the third round to the seventh and final round, according to projections. The possibility remains, too, he could go undrafted and sign as a free agent.
"Our agency sees Easton as a developmental starter," Callahan said, "and generally those types of quarterbacks go in the third to the fifth round."
A developmental starter, Callahan said, is a player who begins his career as a backup and eventually works his way into a starting position.
Others are not so bullish. Respected draft analyst Dane Brugler of The Athletic has Stick pegged as the 10th-best quarterback available and said his league sources view Stick as a fifth- to seventh-round draft choice.
"There's a lot to like about the intangibles and his competitiveness. I think he has the requisite skills as far as arm strength, accuracy and anticipation. I don't think he's elite in any one of those areas. I'm not even sure he's above average," Brugler said. "But he's good enough to stick at the next level and be the type of guy you want in your quarterback room."
ESPN's Mel Kiper, longtime guru of the NFL Draft, does not have Stick listed among his top 10 quarterbacks, but grades Stick as a player good enough to be drafted. Stick is the 12th-best quarterback on the website NFLdraftscout.com, which says an average of 12 quarterbacks are drafted each year.
Brugler gives Stick a slightly higher grade because of the quarterback's toughness, intelligence and leadership skills. When NFL coaches begin talking with Stick, Brugler said, they'll be impressed.
"He's a tough guy. He might be one of the toughest players overall in this draft class, regardless of position," Brugler said. "You see him get hit, and he takes some licks, but he gets right back up even before the defender does."
Stick's road to the draft began in earnest this week in St. Petersburg, Fla., in practices for today's East-West Shrine Game at Tropicana Field. Stick was one of six quarterbacks selected for the all-star game, considered a notch below the prestigious Senior Bowl. The Shrine Game will be played at 2 p.m. Saturday. It will be televised by the NFL Network.
But the game is somewhat anti-climactic for the players and talent evaluators. The real substance was in the early-week practices where coaches could control situations to let the athletes show their talents.
Some reports had Stick struggling mightily in practice, but Brugler and Callahan said to treat those evaluations with a grain of salt. Their NFL sources said while it was true Stick missed some throws, the situation wasn't as dire as some made it out to be.
"The people I've talked with who are there said Easton is the best quarterback down there," Callahan said.
As Stick's agent there is, of course, incentive for Callahan to say that. Brugler said his sources gave Stick mixed reports.
"He's hasn't been the best at these practices, but I don't think that's the be-all, end-all in terms of his evaluation," Brugler said. "He has four years of tape to go on. You'd hope he'd do a little better this week, but that said I don't think it's going to be an anchor that takes him off draft boards."
For those who watched Stick unexpectedly get thrown into the mix as a redshirt freshman when Wentz injured his wrist midway through the 2015 season, his growth and durability stood out. Stick never sat out a play because of injury, much less missed a game, in his 52 starts. He went from a youngster with training wheels in his first start at Indiana State to a veteran Bison coaches fully trusted in calling plays by the end of his career, a victory over Eastern Washington in the FCS title game.
"Year-over-year development and improvement is the mark of Easton Stick's career," said draft analyst Dion Caputi of the web site National Football Post, who believes Stick could be drafted in the fourth round. "To have that much polish on his resume is something that is going to impress NFL coaches."
Former Bison head coach Chris Klieman, who recently left NDSU to be the new head coach at Kansas State, said last spring to keep an eye on Stick once his NDSU career was finished. He said NFL teams were impressed with the quarterback during Stick's junior season. That didn't change as the Bison progressed through his senior year.
"When he gets some of those individual workouts, when they bring him to the facility, when he gets some of those visits I think people will see what a special mind he has for the game," Klieman said. "There's a place for him. It's no different than when we talked about Carson. You just have to be liked by somebody, have somebody take a chance on you. I'm confident he has a bright future in the NFL."