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A Postseason Glance at Some of the Best Quarterback Prospects in the 2011 NFL Draft

RALEIGH, NC - OCTOBER 28: Christian Ponder  of the Florida State Seminoles drops back to throw a pass in pressure with Terrell Manning  of the North Carolina State Wolfpack giving chase during their game at Carter-Finley Stadium on October 28, 2010 in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

This is a pretty fascinating QB draft class.  I’ll give you three reasons why — even though I’m sure that I’ve said that every year — this time, I’m right:

  1. The NFL-NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement (or lack thereof) means that while the draft will progress as normal, there will be signing complications regarding the drafted players.
  2. The senior class is very week in terms of well rounded prospects.
  3. The young QB development in the NFL has been horrendous going back to 2006.

NFL teams aren’t developing their good, young quarterbacks anymore, not to mention that they aren’t even trying to find players playing in other leagues anymore.  With NFL Europe a thing of the past, and the UFL turning to re-treads to lead their teams, it’s on current franchises to make sure practice reps are had by promising players.  Instead, Derek Anderson, Bruce Gradkowski, and Charlie Whitehurst ended up starting for NFL teams who have or had legitimate playoff aspirations this year.  Those spots would have previously been used to discover QB talent like Jake Delhomme, Kurt Warner, Jeff Garcia etc.  Now, not only are franchise QBs not “found” by front offices, but even NFL first rounders are struggling to get a fair shake at development.

Three years ago, QB demand was at an all-time low.  Players like Jeff Garcia (Tampa Bay), Daunte Culpepper (Oakland), and Cleo Lemon (Miami) were fighting with prospective rookies such as Kevin Kolb, Troy Smith, Josh Johnson, Nate Davis, and Dennis Dixon for a roster opportunity.  Three years later, we know very little about those young players as NFL-level quarterbacks, while a retirement crunch of the old guard has created voids across the league at the QB position.  Once again, NFL passers are in great demand.

Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Jake Delhomme, Marc Bulger, Garcia, Culpepper, Kerry Collins, Jon Kitna, Mark Brunell, Kyle Boller, David Carr, Patrick Ramsey, Chad Pennington, Chris Simms, Todd Collins, and Matt Hasselbeck will all be leaving the game within a year, making this a mass retirement crunch at the position.  While I propose that the pool of young QBs to choose from has never been deeper than it is currently, the lack of development at the position means that the draft value of a young quarterback is going to be driven up this coming April.

And right on cue, we have a Senior class of college quarterbacks that is…nothing to write home about.  There are two players at the top of the senior class, Delaware’s Pat Devlin and Florida State’s Christian Ponder, who could get first round grades from me.  Both, however, are too flawed to take in the top ten, and would probably be viewed as “system” players by NFL coaches.  What this class features in spades is an endless supply of intriguing prospects who badly need development that the NFL refuses to offer.  There are potential franchise players in Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick, Iowa’s Ricky Stanzi, Wisconsin’s Scott Tolzien, Alabama’s Greg McElroy, TCU’s Andy Dalton, and Virginia Tech’s Tyrod Taylor.  I’d also throw in much maligned college players Jerrod Johnson (Texas A&M), and T.J. Yates (North Carolina) to the same group.  Then there’s small school players such as Northwest Missouri State’s Blake Bolles, Hillsdale’s Troy Weatherhead, and Alex Tanney from Monmouth (IL).  It’s a banner year for small school QBs.  Adding in Washington’s Jake Locker, that’s 14 players from the senior class who deserve draft consideration, but only two who I’d feel comfortable recommending in the first round.

That’s because the strength of this group comes from the underclassmen, where up to FIVE guys can come out with first round grades.  The problem is, it’s likely you’ll get just two of them to come out, in my opinion.  The guy who every NFL GM is salivating over being able to choose is Stanford’s Andrew Luck, who may be as close to a sure thing as I’ve ever seen in all my years of draft preparation (no, I wasn’t around for the Peyton Manning draft).  Luck, as Adam Schefter has pointed out on Twitter, is unlikely to leave Stanford before his fourth year, and nothing he’s said or done indicates that either head coach Jim Harbaugh or Luck is going to leave Stanford prior to 2011.  Sorry, personnel guys.

It’s very likely that two underclassmen will go draft eligible this year: Auburn’s Cameron Newton and Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett.  I’ll throw in Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert and Arizona’s Nick Foles as two guys who might go pro on a whim, but likely will be sticking around one more year in college.  If Terrelle Pryor (Ohio State) took it to the next level after the Sugar Bowl, that would be a stunner.  He’s eligible to do so.

Newton and Mallett can be safely put into the draft class, I believe, but at this poing what we are really dealing with is a big supply-demand logic puzzle.  Mallett is a solid first rounder, likely to be the first quarterback off the board.  Newton could go anywhere between the first overall pick and the fourth round.  I have no feel for how he’s perceived in NFL circles.  Either way, we’re looking at a max of four players (more likely three) who are capable of fulfilling first round draft promise on a reasonable time table.

Newton is a statistically similar college quarterback to Mark Sanchez, an observation first made by Football Outsiders’ Bill Barnwell.  Sanchez rocketed up draft boards all the way to no. 5 overall.  It would have helped Newton had former college teammate Tim Tebow enjoyed some success as a rookie.  As far as Gus Malzahn quarterbacks go, we have no meaningful record to fall back on.  Maybe our best indication to date of his impact on passers is how spectacularly disappointing they’ve been at the next level without him: Mitch Mustain (Springdale (AR) HS) at Arkansas then USC, and then the failure of either Paul Smith or David Johnson (Tulsa) to make an NFL roster, even as a third quarterback with spectacular passing numbers.  Malzahn may simply be one more in the line of elite college coaches that can shred defenses with unspectacular talent.  Malzahn’s offense added 2.2 yards per attempt to Chris Todd’s college numbers before he could have even made a dent in terms of recruiting.

Along with the college starts, none of that really shapes out in Newton’s favor at the pro level.  Mark Sanchez played most of his college snaps with Steve Sarkisian bringing in the plays.  One criticism that absolutely will not hold up about Newton at the next level is that he’s just a runner.  This guy, from his community college days on, was a passing oriented player.  His running this year on his Heisman trophy campaign was likely out of necessity, which is also what made it a lethal weapon.  I project success for Cam Newton at the next level, but only relative success.  He’s not the next Eli Manning or Matt Ryan, and with that in mind, I think that there is a part of the draft where it will be too high to take Newton.

Complications of Quarterbacking

The NFC West race is going to have a significant outcome on who is positioned to land a quarterback in the upcoming draft.  Division winners, even bad ones, are playoff teams.  And playoff teams, even ones with poor records, don’t pick in the top half of the draft.  If St. Louis wins the NFC West, both San Francisco and Seattle will be in position to take a quarterback, and then it’s the team that has the higher draft selection that can get all the spoils, leaving scraps for the other.  But if St. Louis doesn’t win it, we’re looking at one of the two other contenders, San Francisco and Seattle, one of them being completely out of position in the draft to land the player that they want (although if the player they want is Pat Devlin or Christian Ponder, they might get lucky).  The other one is going to be likely up drafting inside the top ten picks, and could be in position to target the passer they want.

There are simply too many teams who will be drafting in the top ten this year who are going to go for a quarterback for teams who have 7 or more wins to be in position.  One of the reasons that I feel, ultimately, that Foles or Gabbert might declare for the draft leaving an excellent opportunity at a conference championship as a senior on the table is that both of those guys might go in the first ten picks if they come out this year.  Right now, the top ten picks in the NFL draft are as follows:

  1. Carolina
  2. Cincinnati
  3. Denver
  4. Buffalo
  5. Detroit
  6. Arizona
  7. Dallas
  8. San Francisco
  9. Minnesota
  10. Tennessee

All of that is subject to change.  Carolina could choose to stick with Jimmy Clausen for his second year, but the timing is bad: how often do you actually get to pick first overall.  Heck, the last time Carolina finished with one win they got to pick second because Houston was an expansion team.  Cincinnati is bound to start over if the guy they want is available at quarterback (for that offense, seems like that would be Mallett).  Denver is fine one way or another at the position.  Buffalo is the other team likely to take a guy they like if he’s there, but they are not a danger to reach for one of the seniors with Ryan Fitzpatrick playing more than adequately.  Detroit isn’t taking a quarterback in this draft, not to mention that they are likely to get to 4 or 5 wins.  Arizona’s need at the position probably trumps everything else, and at no. 6 (more likely no. 4 or 5), they become a likely candidate to trade up to no. 1 especially if Carolina is willing to stick with Clausen.  Dallas is fine, obviously.

San Francisco has a great need, but now at this point, may not have a choice.  No players who are graded as top five players are going to slide out of the top five, so either San Francisco would have to avoid the position until the second round, reach for the next best guy, or make someone like Buffalo an offer they can’t refuse to trade up (read: 2012 first rounder).  And if Andrew Luck really does stay in school, every team without legitimate playoff aspirations wants to closely clutch that 2012 lottery ticket.  Carolina wins that lottery this year if he comes out, but in 2012, he becomes that much more valuable.

There may be nothing but scraps left for the Titans when they pick: a re-tread like Carson Palmer, Byron Leftwich, or Brady Quinn could be the best option there if they cannot mend fences with Vince Young.  Which is one of the many reasons that firing Jeff Fisher and handing the team back to Young could be a far superior option to letting Fisher win his standoff with the franchise’s quarterback.

I think ultimately, this quarterback class will be defined by how the late rounders do, and the strength at the top defined by whether Luck, Gabbert, and Foles commit.  If none of them commit, we’re looking at 2012 being an all-time great quarterback draft class.  Here’s the problem (and for Jake Locker, the thing that justifies waiting a year): those teams need those quarterbacks right now.  Patience may be the greatest virtue, but in the NFL, it can get you fired.

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