As the 2011 NFL draft approaches, even with all the concerns over a potential work stoppage and all the things that go along with it, the draft is happening and with the added dynamics we could see some real changes in how teams approach the draft philosophically.
As I see it, at worst there are 3 quarterbacks that will be taken in the first round. I personally have 4 quarterbacks with first round grades. But in a year where there could be a hard rookie salary cap the financial risk of drafting a player who may not pan out is diminished and that could mean teams will go ahead and draft a quarterback in the first round thatin past years they would wait until the 2nd or 3rd round. So in a best case scenario, I can see 8 or 9 quarterbacks go, if not in the first 32 picks, in the first two rounds for sure.
But for this exercise I want to do a little comparison of the 4 players I have given a first round grade. It's ironic that at the start of the season all the talk centered around the Ryan Mallett and Jake Locker. They were meant to be the first and second quarterbacks off the board, but the emergence of two underclassmen, Blaine Gabbert of Missouri and Cam Newton of Auburn have pushed Locker and Mallett back in the first round, and possibly even out of it completely.
There is still much debate over whether or not Gabbert or Newton will be the first QB off the board and whether either guy is worthy of the No. 1 overall pick being held by the Carolina Panthers. In a typical draft, where the No. 1 overall pick gets close to an $80 million contract with over $50 million guaranteed. In the 2011 draft, those numbers while not set yet, will almost certainly be slashed. And that means the risk/reward equation for Carolina is greatly diminished. Which is why even thought Stanford's Andrew Luck returned to school, don't be shocked if there is still a quarterback taken No. 1 overall.
But who to take? It really depends on what type of player you want. On one hand you have Cam Newton, who took the college football world by storm as he came from Blinn(TX) Community college fresh off winning them a national championship. He went on to the Auburn Tigers and just picked up where he left off, winning them one as well. On the plus side with Newton you have a guy who's a physical marvel. Auburn gave us Bo Jackson, and many Auburn faithful say Newton is a better athlete than Jackson. While I disagree, it can't be denied that he is far and away the most athletic of the 4 and that's really saying something. And his arm is tremendous. He's got explosive power in his throws and if you are critiquing his accuracy, it's at it's best when he's chucking it deep. But he is coming out of a system that used the passing game as a break from the run game. He's never had to read defenses, rarely ever had to do a pre-snap read, hasn't really had to do much in the way of checkdowns in the passing game, and has been coached in essence to check your route (which is often times a RB out of the backfield), and if it's not there tuck and go. This is a formula that has never worked in the NFL.
By contrast the Missouri Tigers' Blaine Gabbert is also a remarkable physical specimen and much more athletic than anyone who hasn't seen him play would realize. He's also experienced with twice the career DI starts as Newton. And while some people mistakenly lump Newton and Gabbert together as "Spread" quarterbacks, Gabbert played in an offense that was much more pass heavy in terms of plays, reads, and complexity of scheme. This doesn't show up in the stat line, but NFL teams will realize this. For the sake of full disclosure, Gabbert does play almost exclusively out of the shotgun, so his ability to play under center, pick up his reads and defenses after turning his back to them will be something to watch. But one thing that really stands out to me that will matter in the NFL is what they do when the pocket breaks down. Gabbert keeps his head up, sets his feet and makes nice throws on the move. Newton on the other hand appears to think as run first, and when he does throw, does not look comfortable.
The third of this group is the Arkansas Razorbacks' Ryan Mallett. Mallett has a ton going for him. Huge NFL body, pro style offense, lots of experience, and shown that he can run a much more complex system. The downside is, he doesn't handle pressure very well. Last year I criticized Mallett for being immobile. This is no longer the case as he's improved his lateral movement a lot. But when he's forced to step up into the pocket, where a QB should be their most comfortable, Mallett struggles. He gets rattled, forces throws, throws low, and gets himself in trouble. I said last year he should have come out, and I think another year of scrutiny hasn't helped his draft status at all.
Lastly, I will mention the Washington Huskies' Jake Locker. Locker is a guy, if you believe what people Tweet, was a lock to be a first round pick, and a high one at that. Some even said he'd go number one overall ahead of Sam Bradford. I never believed that, and when it came out that the NFL Advisory Board gave Locker a 2nd round grade, prompting his return to school, I felt better about it. That season had been his first in a pro style offense and it showed in a big way. I thought another year in that system, same weapons around him to help with chemistry and we'd see a lot of improvement. We didn't. Instead we saw a lot of questionable decision making, and lapses in mechanics. I question whether or not he loves football as much as he should to make it his career. I have seen no real improvement in him, but you just have to think that some team is going to see him as a low salary project and take a shot on his potential.
So how do I break them down, looking ahead?
Immediate Impact: Blaine Gabbert. I can see him ending up on a team that needs him right away, and coming in and making some big plays while he learns the subtleties of the NFL game. Probably not a ten year starter but will show flashes and hang around because he's so smart, and works so hard.
Most bust potential: Cam Newton. With the track record of these dual threat guys coming out of run heavy spread being so bad(see Vince Young) and such limited DI experience, Newton seems to be the boom/bust guy in this group. His football IQ will be tested.
The Lukewarm award: Jake Locker. I've never been high on Locker and nothing he's done in the last year has changed that. I can see him being a guy who struggles to hold a starting job and always being part of a tenuous QB situation.
Best Pro 5 years from now: Ryan Mallett. What Mallett needs to know to be great, he can learn, and you just can't underestimate a kid who's coming into the league with experience in a Pro-style offense, one that plays against top flight defenses too. I don't think he's going to be winning Super Bowls right away, but 5 years in, Mallett is the guy I expect to be having the best career even though he'll likely be the third or possibly 4th quarterback taken in this draft.
Cam Newton - Auburn
Blaine Gabbert - Missouri
Ryan Mallett - Arkansas
Jake Locker - Washington