For the second straight season a rookie quarterback led his team into the conference championship game, which would seem to suggest that rookie quarterbacks can be counted on to contribute immediately. So even though the title game berths for both Joe Flacco last year and Mark Sanchez this time around came more on the strength of great defense and a strong running game, that won’t lower expectations on the incoming quarterback class.
And in an otherwise deep draft, the quarterbacks this year are relatively thin. Look no further for an explanation than the proliferation of the spread offense in college football; coaches at the Senior Bowl had to essentially teach remedial snap-taking to five of the six signal-callers in attendance. But don’t forget Flacco came to the NFL with limited under-center experience and he’s worked out just fine; there’s enough talent and potential here to warrant first-day attention for at least a couple quarterbacks, along with a handful of developmental candidates as well.
The Upper Echelon
It’s possible that the decision by 2008 Heisman winner Sam Bradford to return to Oklahoma last season cost him some money, as he injured his shoulder and didn’t come close to the numbers he posted the previous year. However, if that shoulder gets a clean bill of health he could go first overall to the Rams. Despite the injury-riddled 2009 campaign, Bradford’s arm and accuracy plant him atop this class of quarterbacks. He’ll need work reading defenses coming out from under center, and there are concerns about how he’ll respond to NFL-level pass rushing, but his intangibles suggest the necessary intelligence and work ethic to develop a complete pro game.
If there’s a contender to Bradford’s head-of-class status it’s Jimmy Clausen, who left Notre Dame a year early when Charlie Weis was shown the door. While Clausen may not have the pure passing skills of Bradford, he’s spent the past three seasons working in a pro-style offense under a former NFL coordinator—making him as NFL-ready as any quarterback in this draft. Like Bradford, Clausen has a medical issue—he played through a broken foot during his final season with the Irish and interested teams will need to clear him following January surgery—but it’s highly unlikely he slides out of the first round. On-field comparisons to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers might also come into play given his draft position: he could go to a quarterback-needy team in the first nine picks, or he might fall to the end of the first round where a playoff team makes him their quarterback of the near future.
Colt McCoy wrapped up his University of Texas career as college football’s winningest quarterback, but it’s unlikely that will be enough to punch his ticket into the first round. At 6-2 McCoy is a little smaller than the prototypical NFL quarterback, and his arm strength is considered merely adequate. He’ll also need to demonstrate to NFL teams that the pinched nerve which knocked him out of the national championship game won’t present any lingering issues. And, of course, McCoy will need to step up from the spread offense to the pro game. NFL teams looking past those supposed limitations will get a proven winner with the intangibles to make a second-round investment pay big dividends down the road.
Talk about your intangibles; if there’s one area of Tim Tebow’s game the pro scouts don’t question, it’s his intangibles. A Heisman winner and two-time national champion at Florida, Tebow rekindled debate regarding his pro prospects by breaking Vince Young’s bowl game record for all-purpose yardage in his Gator finale. He has the size, he has the arm, but problems with his footwork and release have some scouts convinced Tebow can’t play quarterback in the NFL. A shaky showing in the Senior Bowl cost him any shot of going in the first round, but there is enough to work with that he’s unlikely to slide into the final day of the restructured draft weekend.
Cincinnati’s Tony Pike is the only other quarterback who might crash the early-round draft party; he’s even crept into the bottom of the first round in some mocks. While he compiled most of his gaudy stats working out of the shotgun, Pike also has some under-center experience which might help teams address any spread offense concerns. Pike has good arm strength and at 6-6 creates great sight lines, but he weighed in at a slim 212 pounds at the Senior Bowl; that won’t help answer durability questions, which cropped up again after Pike missed four games as a senior when a protective plate—put in to stabilize a broken left (non-throwing) arm suffered the previous season—was damaged.
Be Very Afraid
Scouts were surprised that Jevan Snead opted to leave Mississippi for the NFL after a subpar junior season, so he’s not exactly entering the league on a high note. Teams will question whether this is to be expected behavior from Snead, who left Texas for Ole Miss after losing a competition with Colt McCoy in 2006. Snead definitely has an NFL-ready arm, but he struggled with just about every other aspect of his game last year; it didn’t help that he lost his left tackle (Michael Oher) and top receiver (Mike Wallace) to the pros following the 2008 season. Snead will need to land with a team that has the patience to refine his technique and footwork and develop his ability to read defenses; if he gets rushed into the mix, the results aren’t likely to be pretty.
Take A Chance On…
Central Michigan’s Dan LeFevour is the latest in an increasing line of MAC quarterbacks who have captured the NFL’s attention. In addition to the usual big fish/small pond concerns, LeFevour also has to make the jump from a spread offense to taking snaps under center and reading defenses while dropping back. There are also concerns about his arm strength, but a strong showing in the Senior Bowl (two touchdowns, named the North’s Most Outstanding Player) might convince scouts to take another look—and a good Combine/Pro Day performance could set LeFevour up to follow in the footsteps of Byron Leftwich and Ben Roethlisberger.
Who Needs One?
At minimum four of the first 10 teams picking in this draft have a quarterback issue to address—and that doesn’t even include the Raiders. The Rams are rumored to be looking at Michael Vick to fill their void, but the Redskins (fourth), Seahawks (sixth), and Bills (ninth) all have new coaches—and new coaches like to insert their own quarterback into the lineup rather than work with a guy who cost the previous coach his job. The Browns (seventh) have Mike Holmgren in charge, and he’s made a habit of finding underappreciated quarterbacks on other rosters to make his own—but if he decides Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson isn’t the answer, the draft may be his feeder program of choice.
Further down the draft order, the Broncos and 49ers are hardly set at the position and could either jump on Clausen if he slides or pursue a developmental quarterback in the second or third round. And among the playoff teams, Arizona has already had a veteran quarterback retire and isn’t completely sold on its remaining options; the Vikings could find themselves in a similar situation, with Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels no better a backup plan than Matt Leinart.