INDIANAPOLIS – Welcome to the great QB quandary.
The quarterbacks in this year’s draft class have generated so much attention at the NFL scouting combine this week because so many teams are in the market for one.
It starts with the Carolina Panthers, who hold the first pick in April’s draft. It continues with the Buffalo Bills (No. 3), Cincinnati Bengals (No. 4), Arizona Cardinals (No. 5), San Francisco 49ers (No. 7), Tennessee Titans (No. 8), Washington Redskins (No. 10) and Minnesota Vikings (No. 12). It doesn’t stop until you get to the Miami Dolphins (No. 15), Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 17) and even the Seahawks (No. 25).
Each of these 11 teams has a varying degree of need at the most pivotal position in the game, and only four quarterbacks entered the combine with what NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock labeled “first-round talent.” Making matters more muddled is that Mayock quickly adds that “first-round talent” does not necessarily translate into Auburn’s Cam Newton, Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert, Washington’s Jake Locker and Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett earning first-round grades.
“To me, there is a distinction,” Mayock said.
That’s what the combine is all about. And the Pro Day workouts for these passers. And the individual sessions they will be put through by any – and all – teams that are considering spending a first-round draft choice on one of them. This is the beginning of the process where they can distinguish themselves.
“The quarterback is the most important position on the team, and if you’re strong at that position you can overcome weaknesses at other positions,” Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said.
St. Louis Rams coach Steve Sagnuolo took an even stronger stance, offering, “If there is a franchise quarterback available when you draft, you take him. It trumps every other need. It’s take simple.”
That’s exactly what the Rams did last season, when they selected Sam Bradford with the first pick overall. The rookie QB from Oklahoma was instrumental in the Rams winning six more games in 2010 (7-9) than they did in 2009 (1-15).
And that’s exactly the predicament facing clubs that would like to mimic the Rams this year: Are any of the quarterbacks available in this draft can’t-miss franchise quarterbacks?
“It’s a different quarterback group,” Bills coach Chan Gailey said. “These guys have been in a lot of different types of offenses. It’s not just your cut and dry pro-style type of quarterbacks that are in this draft. So you’re projecting a little bit more maybe on this group than we have in years past.”
Mayock adds this disheartening disclaimer about the process: “If you look at the last three years, NFL teams have done a really good job with their first-round quarterbacks. It’s been like six hits in a row, with no busts. Which probably means we’re due for a couple of busts this year.”
Those six “hits” include Bradford last year, Matthew Stafford (Lions at No. 1), Mark Sanchez (New York Jets at No. 5) and Josh Freeman (Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 17) in 2009; and Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons at No. 3) and Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens at No. 18) in 2008). The jury is still out on Tim Tebow, who went to the Denver Broncos at No. 25 in a somewhat surprising move last year.
That brings us to … JaMarcus Russell, the first pick overall by the Raiders in 2007 who is now out of the league. So there is merit to the case Mayock makes.
Here are why draft them/why not evaluations on each of the top four quarterbacks:
- Why: “His throwing mechanics are excellent. He’s a big, strong guy. We all know he can run,” Mayock said.
- Why not: “There are two basic questions to Cam Newton. He comes out of a very simple pass offense at Auburn. Can he process, from an IQ perspective, a complicated NFL pass offense? That is No. 1. And No. 2, there’s some baggage to the kid. We’ve got to figure that out,” Mayock said.
- Why: “I like Gabbert a lot. On tape, I see a better athlete than I expected. I see a tough kid. I see a kid that can make all the throws. Those things are important,” Mayock said.
- Why not: “When you chart every throw he makes over a six- or seven-game period, he’s a spread offense guy. Completely different than what he’s going to do in the NFL. So I’m talking about the transition from a college spread guy to an NFL guy, which is harder than people understand. The footwork is completely different. The reads are completely different,” Mayock said.
- Why: “The intangibles. The upside. And he has the physical tools you’re looking for. We’re seeing more and more often that the teams that win have quarterbacks that are the best player and hardest worker in the building. With his work ethic, Jake would be that,” said Rob Rang, senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com.
- Why not: “Depending on your scheme, certain schemes require accuracy. And Jake has been a generally inaccurate quarterback throughout his career. So with that fact, there are some people who believe that if you are not accurate then no amount of fine-tuning in terms of your technique is going to change that,” Rang said.
- Why: “Ryan Mallett has unbelievable, God-given talent to throw the football. And when he has a clear pocket and clear vision, there is nobody in the game better,” Mayock said.
- Why not: “Every time I get excited, he does something from a decision-making or an accuracy perspective that bothers me. I would be very concerned about taking him in the first round,” Mayock said.
If not Newton, Gabbert, Locker or Mallet, then who? Mayock offers four more quarterbacks who can possibly scratch that itch in a later round, if given time to develop: TCU’s Andy Dalton, Florida State’s Christian Ponder, Iowa’s Ricky Stanzi and Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick.
But what about that franchise QB? That takes us back to the quandary teams will have to deal with until it’s time to make those picks in April’s draft.