The Year Of No Quarterbacks: Why The 2011 Draft Class Is Underwhelming
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ESPN may have had poor timing in dubbing 2011 "Year of the Quarterback."
Sure, the NFL is currently filled with great passers. This may be the most talented the position has ever been at the top with the likes of Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. There is also a group of players right on the edge of being elite such as Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan and maybe even Michael Vick. And, let's not forget about all the young developing talents in Sam Bradford, Josh Freeman, Mark Sanchez, Matthew Stafford and Tim Tebow.
But, the incoming crop of quarterbacks that will headline the 2011 NFL Draft aren't nearly as impressive. Here are the reasons why I don't believe Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Ryan Mallett, Cameron Newton or Christian Ponder will be elite NFL signal-callers.
Pain Of The Spread
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The spread offense is a frequent discussion when evaluating a quarterback to the next level. To the few success stories (most of them just this year such as Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow), they are massively outweighed by the busts (Andre Ware, David Klinger, Tim Couch, Alex Smith and Vince Young).
Blaine Gabbert is coming from one of those ever-so-unwanted spread offenses when breaking down a prospect.
Gabbert is blessed with nice physical tools, checking in at 6'5" and 235 lbs. with a strong arm as well. Coming out of high school as a highly coveted blue chip prospect, Blaine ran forties in the 4.6 at 230 lbs. and also displayed an impressive 33-inch vertical jump. That athletic ability carries to the field, as Gabbert displays the ability to run, putting up 436 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns in the past two seasons.
But, Blaine comes with a lot of concerns. As previously referred to, Blaine comes from a spread offense at Missouri. They run a high number of screens, the highest amount I recall seeing over the past two seasons while watching Gabbert and the Mizzou offense. When asked to pass deep, Gabbert has displayed below average accuracy. I've found Gabbert's general accuracy and ball placement to only be average overall as well. Also, I find his pocket presence to be lacking.
Another problem with Gabbert is general production. Sure, 6,779 passing yards and 40 passing touchdowns over two seasons starting isn't bad, but he's displayed general inconsistency, such as completing only 58.9 percent of his passes as a sophomore, and only throwing 16 touchdowns as a junior. Also, coming from a spread offense, the numbers are expected to be higher than this, seeing as Chase Daniel posted 61 passing touchdowns over his junior and sophomore seasons, and that's without even mentioning his 39 passing touchdowns as a senior.
Finally, I feel like looking at how a quarterback performs on third down, what I call the "Money Down," is important. As a junior, Gabbert was average on third downs, not even placing in the Top 100 in quarterback rating on third down and finishing tied for 36th in first downs with the likes of Kyle Parker (amongst others), who got benched towards the end of the season at Clemson and is leaving football to play baseball. Not the greatest company to be in...
Blaine Gabbert possesses nice physical tools, but comes from a simple spread offense with relatively average production compared to other spreads. I'd only grade out Gabbert as a third- or fourth-rounder, and compare him to Josh McCown.
Still Needs Coaching
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Ever since the 2010 NFL Draft, Jake Locker has been talked about very much. Well, ever since high school, Jake Locker has been frequently discussed.
Another high profile recruit coming out of high school, Locker ran a wing-t offense that saw him rush for 1,338 yards and 24 touchdowns in his senior year, in which his school won a state championship. Despite limited passing opportunities, it was obvious Locker had a cannon arm.
When it comes to physical tools, there is nothing to complain about with Locker. At 6'3" and 230 lbs., Locker not only has a strong arm, but has rumored sub-4.5 speed to boot. Locker has also played through injuries and has displayed great intangibles, as well as a few clutch performances such as against USC and Oregon State his senior year, and Washington's memorable defeat of USC when Locker was a junior.
Jake, however, is inexperienced and raw as a passer. He is still developing, and he's only been in a pro-style offense the past two seasons, since Steve Sarkisian was hired as the head coach of the Huskies. Locker's development as a passer has been rough, completing only 57.1 percent of his passes the last two seasons. He's also had some embarrassing performances, such as four games as a senior in which he threw for less then 100 yards. That's a tough number to overlook.
Overall, Jake Locker has displayed fairly average accuracy and technique. He has sloppy footwork and seems to be much more accurate when he is out of the pocket, compared to when he has to stand in the pocket and deliver.
Locker has displayed plenty of bright signs, including being ranked in the Top 20 in the nation as a junior in third down quarterback rating and first down conversions. But his general inconsistencies leave a lot to be desired in my opinion. However, I do believe he has the best chance to produce amongst this quarterback group. If Locker can get a year to sit and develop, he could potentially be a solid starter at the NFL.
Currently, I grade Jake Locker as a early-mid second-rounder, but I might bump his grade into the late first if he has a solid Senior Bowl showing and displays his freakish athletic ability at the combine.
Feeling The Pressure
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Despite some freakish God-given talent, Ryan Mallett has been flying under the radar lately, hard to do for a man of his stature.
With Blaine Gabbert declaring, some have Blaine as Top 5 pick (which I disagree with). And, Cam Newton can never seem to escape the media spotlight and as highly debated as his career at Auburn has been, his NFL prospects will be another heated debate over the next few months.
So, where does this leave Ryan Mallett?
Mallett performed very well during his time at Arkansas. Under coach Bobby Petrino, Mallett threw for 62 touchdowns and 18 wins. He also displayed an appreciation for the deep ball, averaging over nine yards per attempt while at Arkansas.
And let's not forget, Mallett is blessed with a cannon and ideal size at 6'6" and 238 lbs.. But, that's not everything in being a quarterback.
Mallett's biggest weakness, in my opinion, is his pocket presence. I've said this multiple times before and will continue to say it, he is a statue in the pocket. Mallett doesn't move his feet and doesn't seem to understand where the pressure is coming from. That's a recipe for disaster. In the past two seasons, Mallett has been sacked 49 times. Amongst the five quarterbacks I'm talking about, that's the highest total. Arkansas' offensive line isn't the greatest, but it's not by any means terrible. Mallett simply holds onto the ball too long and like I stated early, just doesn't seem to understand where the pressure is coming from.
Another knock against Mallett is the offense he is coming from. Some want to list this as a strength and say he is coming from a pro-style system. But, Bobby Petrino has yet to produce a quality NFL signal-caller and runs a very simple offense. Sure, Mallett drops back from under center and lines up in a fair amount of traditional two back sets, but the routes just aren't very complex. They are generally simple and ask for the quarterback to read only one side of the field. Despite coming from a "pro-style offense," Mallett has a learning curve that he'll need to make up in order to find NFL success.
There are also concerns about Mallett's accuracy. He puts good touch on deep passes and displays good ball placement, but he is inconsistent when throwing short. Mallett has the arm to make all the throws, but doesn't consistently follow through his mechanics and needs to improve his short to intermediate accuracy.
The final knock on Mallett, and this is a potentially big one, is concerns about his character. There has been concerns about his body language as well as a few big games where he has failed to perform at the end. He also struggled in both his bowl games while at Arkansas. Mallett also was arrested as a red-shirt sophomore, after public intoxication. There has also been rumors that he shares some of the same "habits," a la drug use, as former Arkansas star Matt Jones, but I'm not in the business to decipher truth from rumors. But, it's a concern nonetheless that NFL teams will have to conduct their due diligence on.
It's to truly evaluate Mallett because he has a lot of things you crave in terms of arm strength and the ability to push the ball deep, but is lacking fundamental areas that make a great quarterback. He needs a lot of work, and I currently grade him as a mid-late second-rounder. He reminds me of Drew Bledsoe, but less polished coming out of school and a much more checkered past.
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Everybody and their mother now knows about Cam Newton.
A recruiting scandal after he left Florida where his world was a mess, a Heisman Trophy, and then a national championship to top things off, there is certainly enough reasons to talk about Cam.
But, none of those reasons is the main reason why I don't believe Cam Newton will find success in the NFL. I doubt Cam Newton will find NFL success because he simply lacks experience.
The only starting time Newton has is this past season, his junior year at Auburn. Sure, he did great and won a Heisman Trophy. But there is really only one name that I need to bring up to die-hard football fans for them to understand to importance of starting experience in college.
Akili dominated one season at Oregon, and then went third overall to the Cincinnati Bengals and was a colossal bust. However, just the sakes for further support, there are two more players who fit this mold.
Alex Smith and Jim Druckenmiller.
At least with these two, it wasn't just one season, but they both had less then 25 college starts. Ironically, both have busted in San Francisco.
Only one player who I can find had less then 25 college starts is finding success at the quarterback position, and that's Michael Vick. But granted, I wouldn't call what he did in Atlanta a display of how to play the quarterback position. He was generally average as a passer there, and has only really blossomed in terms of throwing the ball this season.
There are more reasons to question whether or not Cam will be able to transition to the next level as well. He is coming from Gus Malzahn's offense, a very simple spread offense. As the quarterback in this offense, you're asked to read only one side of the field. Though some critics to this will say relate to one of the many ESPN pregame segments for the BCS National Championship, which had Cam Newton talking about how he is able to look safeties off after he got comfortable with the offense, let me explain. Cam wasn't saying he was reading the defense in that. He was saying he was so comfortable with the offense, which basically dictates whom to throw the ball to, that was at least able to look around and try to throw safeties off before going to that option. There's a big difference between that, and actually scanning a defense.
Also, the only other offense Cam has learned, was Urban Meyer's at Florida, another gimmick spread offense that produced Alex Smith (bust) and Tim Tebow (solid at end of rookie season; still a lot of work to do).
Physically, Cam is a nice specimen who is similar to Daunte Culpepper. But, he has a lot to overcome in terms of the mental side of the game.
Currently, I view Newton as a third- or fourth-rounder.
It Is All In The Arm
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The NFL has seen it's share of quarterbacks whom overcome a lack of ideal physical tools to make an impact.
These quarterbacks are few and far between.
Many will want to look at a late career Chad Pennington after his numerous arm surgeries and give that as a reason that Christian Ponder could find success in the NFL. But the fact is, it is all in the arm.
Ponder is very sound mechanically. Smooth footwork, nice release and he sets up properly. In the NFL though, you need to have the arm strength to thread the ball through tight windows. Ponder's arm isn't only average relative to ball velocity and how far he can throw down field, but it's been prone to injury the past two seasons.
As a junior, Ponder separated his right shoulder and had to sit out the final four games. And this past season, Ponder had reoccurring problems in his elbow. For a quarterback with an already average arm, being prone to injury is a cause for concern.
Other than that, it is kind of tough to knock Ponder. He has nice athletic ability and is a solid decision-maker. Granted, he is fairly conservative and doesn't push the ball down field much. But, he has also been fantastic on third downs the past two seasons and has been a key contributor for the Seminoles.
Overall though, Ponder reminds me a lot of Brian Brohm. Despite flawless technique and mechanics and solid athletic ability, I don't see enough to believe that Ponder can consistently make all the throws at the next level.
Ponder receives a fourth-round grade in my book. I do believe he can be a nice clipboard holder at the next level, as I think he can do a good job of managing a game if a starter goes down.
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Without Andrew Luck, the 2011 draft lacks a surefire franchise quarterback.
I think Locker and Mallett have a chance to be decent starters if given time to develop, but I don't see Gabbert, Newton or Ponder standing much of a chance.
A first-round pick is a valuable thing and a tough thing to risk on such questionable quarterbacks. Whoever does swallow the pill of trying to turn one of these five into a franchise quarterback better have a cup of water on their side.
Remember NFL GM's, you can always try to hold onto hope that you will get a shot at Andrew Luck next season...