Other Positions: Quarterbacks | Running Backs | Wide Receivers | Tight Ends | Offensive Linemen
Last year 14 quarterbacks heard their name called on draft day; by the time the 2010 season had ended, half of them—plus undrafted rookie Max Hall—had started at least one game, including all four quarterbacks taken on the first two days of the draft. While none of them cracked the top 25 in fantasy scoring (Sam Bradford was 26th), at least three will enter 2011 as their team’s likely starter. This year’s quarterback class has plenty of talent, but the all need varying degrees of polish; of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be in the lineup at some point this year, so you’ll need to know more than just everything Newton.
THE UPPER ECHELON
The story of the 2011 draft is Cam Newton, who left Auburn after one amazing season that saw him win a Heisman Trophy while leading Auburn to the national title. He accounted for 50 touchdowns (30 throwing, 20 rushing), completed two-thirds of his passes while throwing for 2,854 yards, and in general dominated college football. His measurables are off the chart, and while he struggled with footwork and accuracy at the Combine he demonstrated improvement in both areas at his pro day. He’s addressed concerns about his off-the-field issues head on, but coming from a run-oriented spread offense there are still all kinds of questions about how he’ll transition to the NFL. Is he Ben Roethlisberger or Michael Vick? Josh Freeman or Vince Young? Some hybrid of all of the above? There are plenty of teams who would love the chance to work with a 6-5, 248-pound Adonis with a cannon arm and teach him to be an NFL quarterback; the question is, which team wants him the most?
Those who haven’t been steamrolled by the Cam Newton hype train have Blaine Gabbert atop their quarterback rankings. While he may not be quite as sculpted as Newton, he has prototypical NFL quarterback size (6-4 and change, 234 pounds), a big arm, and underrated athleticism. Missouri’s version of the spread offense was more pass-oriented than Auburn’s, so Gabbert may be a bit more pro-ready in that regard; Sam Bradford’s success coming out of a similar type of system certainly weighs in Gabbert’s favor. But while Gabbert’s numbers are nice (two 3,000-yard campaigns, 40 touchdowns and a 61% completion percentage in two seasons as a starter), they’re no more special than those put up by Saints backup Chase Daniel during his Tiger tenure—leading scouts to wonder if Gabbert’s success is system-driven. Gabbert is expected to dazzle at his pro day, possibly earning him the first overall pick. Like Newton, there’s bound to be a team early on convinced that Gabbert’s size and arm will allow him to make the transition; whether they like him more than Newton, however, remains to be seen.
A year ago at this time, scouts were positing that had he opted to come out after his junior season Jake Locker might have usurped Sam Bradford as the first overall pick in the 2010 draft. So... what happened that Locker is now not even a sure bet to go in the first round? Locker didn’t take to Washington’s new offensive system as anticipated, and while he led back to a bowl game his numbers dropped across the board. Locker’s accuracy, which had improved as a junior, took a step backwards during his final college season and he still looked to run rather than find second and third receivers. Locker has the athleticism and mobility of a Roethlisberger or Donovan McNabb, it will take a coach who is convinced that 54% accuracy rate can be improved—quickly—to make him a first-round pick.
If you’re looking for pure arm strength (Al Davis) look no further than Ryan Mallett, who shattered Arkansas passing records after transferring from Michigan when Rich Rodriguez brought an ill-fitting offense to Ann Arbor. Mallett put up 7,493 yards and 62 touchdowns in two seasons as the Razorbacks’ starter, completing 60% of his passes—and more importantly, improving his accuracy significantly from his junior to his senior campaign. Good size (6-6, 253), great arm, that kind of production in the SEC... those are first-round traits. However, Mallett’s lack of mobility is almost Bernie Kosar-esque, and while pre-Combine rumors swirled about drug use Mallett’s leadership skills were compared to Jimmy Clausen’s. Mallett’s subsequent team interviews seemed to have cleared the air regarding off-field concerns, but he still has enough other question marks to potentially drop him out of first-round consideration.
Teams willing to wait until Day Two of the draft for their potential “quarterback of the future” have some quality options. Christian Ponder was productive when healthy at Florida State, and strong Senior Bowl and Combine performances may have teams willing to overlook a long injury history. His accuracy and athleticism would work best in a West Coast offense, though he does have the arm strength to make all the throws. Arm strength isn’t a concern for Colin Kaepernick, who started 47 games at Nevada and improved as a passer each season, finishing with 3,022 yards, 21 touchdowns, and a 65% completion percentage as a senior. He’s very mobile, has good size (6-4, 233), and a big arm; the obvious concern will be how he transitions from a “Pistol” offense that didn’t require much reading of defenses to playing under center in the NFL.
BE VERY AFRAID
There isn’t a “sure thing” quarterback in this draft, so there are compelling reasons for concern surrounding every rookie prospect. So it’s not a personal rip on Tyrod Taylor to list him here. Taylor had decent productivity at Virginia Tech (7,017 yards and 44 touchdowns in three and a half years as the starter), and teams love his athleticism. That, however, could end up being his downfall as a pro quarterback: while Taylor insisted he work out as a quarterback at the Combine, his lack of prototypical size (6-0, 217) and accuracy (57% career completion percentage) and that aforementioned athleticism could spell an NFL career as a Brad Smith type. Not that it’s a bad gig, but it’s tough to project Taylor as a starting quarterback in the NFL—especially when the kindest comparison scouts are making is ex-Raven and ex-49er Troy Smith.
TAKE A CHANCE ON...
With so many rookie quarterbacks getting a shot last season, and so many teams in a position where they might have to throw one into the fire this year, it’s worth knowing something about some of the better options in the latter half of the draft. Iowa’s Ricky Stanzi is flying under the radar despite a solid senior season in which he threw for 3,004 yards and 25 touchdowns while completing 64% of his passes. He has good size (6-4, 223) and has played in a pro-style offense, with three years as a starter. His reading of defenses could use some work, but the same could be said of every quarterback in the draft; at least Stanzi’s learning curve starts with experience in an NFL-type scheme.
Under the category of “game manager” you can file TCU’s Andy Dalton and Alabama’s Greg McElroy. Dalton’s numbers weren’t eye-popping and he’s not nearly the athlete the likes of Newton and Locker are, but as a four-year starter who completed 59% of his passes each year—including 66% as a senior—you can put him on the field and feel reasonably comfortable. The same can be said for McElroy, who completed 66% of his passes as a two-year starter for the Crimson Tide—winning 24 of 27 games and a national championship while racking up 37 touchdown passes and 5,495 yards. McElroy’s intelligence (43 on the Wonderlic) and intangibles overshadow his limited arm strength; like Dalton, if you’re forced to play him you at least know he’s not likely to do anything to hurt you.
WHO NEEDS ONE?
Who needs one? Who doesn’t? Six of the first eight teams on the draft board—Carolina, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Arizona, San Francisco, and Tennessee—have to seriously consider taking a quarterback, followed in no short order by the Redskins (10), Vikings (12), Dolphins (15), and Jaguars (16). Ten teams in the first half of the draft alone could be eyeing a quarterback in the first two rounds. In the back end of the draft, only the Seahawks have question marks at the position—and this assumes they’re ready to write off Charlie Whitehurst already. The Raiders, who don’t own a first-round pick, also enter into the equation. Of course, if/when a new CBA is reached many teams could scratch their quarterback itch by trading for Kevin Kolb, Carson Palmer, Kyle Orton, Josh Johnson, etc. And even those teams who appear set at the position need to plan for the future; everybody will be looking for Tom Brady in the sixth round again.