INDIANAPOLIS -- This NFL Draft doesn’t have Sam Bradford. It doesn’t have Matthew Stafford. It doesn’t have JaMarcus Russell.
In three of the last four drafts, a quarterback went No. 1 overall. That almost certainly won’t be the case this year. While this is a deep class of quarterbacks, there is no consensus on who’s the best, no overwhelming talent and no ready-made professionals.
“It’s debatable whether there are any ‘franchise-type quarterbacks,’” FoxSports.com NFL insider Adam Caplan said. “There are a lot of developmental quarterbacks who probably will not be able to play in their first year.”
Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert and Auburn’s Cam Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner and national champion, are the consensus top quarterbacks in this class, though there’s no consensus on where those two rank on teams’ draft boards. Washington’s Jake Locker and, perhaps, Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett will garner first-round consideration.
The problem is, none of these quarterbacks are ready for prime time. Gabbert, Newton and Mallett operated out of spread offenses that have almost nothing in common with the offenses they’ll be expected to run in the NFL. Locker ran a pro-style offense but was wildly inconsistent because of mechanics that need a lot of fine-tuning.
The aforementioned Bradford and Stafford – and other recent early picks like Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez – entered the NFL with a solid base, both mechanically and in reading defenses. In a spread offense, quarterbacks generally have easy reads and almost no experience taking snaps from center. That makes the grading process incredibly difficult because there’s so little film of the quarterback doing things he’ll be asked to do in the NFL.
“I think you really have to do your homework at the quarterback position based on the way they play offense in college and the way we present our offense with the Dolphins,” said Miami general manager Jeff Ireland, who probably is in the market for a quarterback with only disappointing Chad Henne in the equation. “I think it’s really a tough position to evaluate. Obviously, the more similar the offense to yours that the college player plays, it presents an advantage. There are so many spread offenses out there and so many variables of the spread offense that you really, again, have to do your homework at the quarterback position.”
Gabbert, who entered the draft after his junior season, has the experience edge over Newton with two years as a starter. He completed 63.4 percent of his passes last season, an accuracy rate boosted by throwing so many three-step passes no more than 10 yards downfield. But he has an NFL-quality arm, quick release, throws well on the move and attempted more NFL-style passes.
Newton, also a junior entry, was a one-year starter – but what a season it was. He accounted for 50 touchdowns – 30 passing and 20 rushing – and threw just seven interceptions. Newton has the edge in terms of arm strength and athletic ability. He’s proven he can deliver in big games – an invaluable asset -- but his lack of experience in a pro-style offense and his lack of experience overall are issues that bother some teams.
“Experience always helps,” Bills coach Chan Gailey said. “I don’t care if you’re in your position, in my position, experience helps. The more times you’ve played in big situations in big crowds in big games, it helps you. I don’t think developing the one-year guy is as big as developing the guy who’s not been in a typical pro-style offense.”
Something else bothered former NFL MVP quarterback Rich Gannon.
“Here’s a guy who comes out last week and says, ‘I want to be an entertainer and an icon,’” said Gannon, a commentator for CBS and co-host on Sirius NFL Radio, citing Newton’s comments to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King last week. “Now, that’s not the kind of guy that I want to be coaching at that position, you know what I mean? To me, that’s a little brash. That’s not really what I’m looking for in terms of a leader of my football team. I want a guy that wants to come in and do the dirty work and be the hardest-working guy on the football team and come early and stay late. When you talk about being an entertainer and an icon, I get the sense it’s a guy that doesn’t want to come to work on a Tuesday, which is the players’ day off, and would rather be filming a commercial or out signing autographs. That to me is not what you want from that position.”
Locker reminds some scouts of Donovan McNabb in that he’s extremely athletic and talented but has scattershot accuracy at times. Locker, a pitching phenom who was drafted in the first round by the Angels, completed merely 56.6 percent of his passes last year in his fourth season as the starter, but at least an NFL-style offense won’t be totally foreign.
“That's kind of an advantage for those kind of guys,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of quarterbacks, like his Flacco, who enter the NFL having run a pro-style offense. “You can kind of see what you're getting.”
At 6-foot-6 with a rocket of a right arm, Mallett is the prototypical pocket passer – though that’s not necessarily a compliment anymore in this age of attacking defenses. If ex-Vikings coach Brad Childress were talking about Mallett, he’d probably call him an “iron deer on the lawn.”
Solid Day 2 prospects include Florida State’s Christian Ponder, Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick, TCU’s Andy Dalton, Delaware’s Pat Devlin and Iowa’s Ricky Stanzi. Ponder and Stanzi are seniors who faced strong competition and ran pro-style offenses. Kaepernick has a ton of upside but operated a spread offense against subpar competition. Dalton also played in a spread offense but is a heady player who makes the most of his ability. Caplan thought Dalton could be a starter by Year 2. Devlin, a former five-star recruit who transferred from Penn State, hopes to follow the same path as Flacco, who arrived at Delaware from Pittsburgh.
Their workouts on Sunday – and interviews with teams throughout the week – will dictate their draft fates.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.