In today's NFL, there is no position more important than quarterback. A good signal-caller can win games single-handedly. A great signal-caller can take otherwise below average teams to the playoffs. If you want to win, you need a guy that can make big throws.
Rookie quarterbacks have been thoroughly unimpressive historically in their first year, but that has been trending upwards recently with good seasons from Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Sam Bradford and more.
Will the top picks from this year's draft live up to the hype, or will the shortened offseason and high pressure prove their undoing?
Read on and find out.
Team: San Francisco 49ers
Pick: Round 2, Pick 4; 36th overall
Colin Kaepernick wasn't necessarily heralded as a starter at Nevada. He put up numbers both through the air and on the ground, joining college football's finest in totaling 10,000 passing yards and 4,000 rushing yards with little fanfare.
But he rose from relative obscurity to—if not a household name—a guy that people knew. He gained a reputation as an athletic guy with all the tools to succeed, and his upside was apparent.
The knock on him was that he was slightly unrefined, showing inconsistent accuracy and footwork. However, he has looked pretty good so far in camp, showcasing a strong arm to go along with his mobility.
The backup job is his. Considering how mediocre Alex Smith has been, Kaepernick has a shot at starting sometime this year. Call it unlikely, though, because he is the least polished of the rookie quarterback class.
Verdict: 2011 backup, 2012 starter
Team: Cincinnati Bengals
Pick: Round 2, Pick 3; 35th overall
Dalton is a guy who got a lot of love in college, helping turn TCU into a powerhouse and posting some gaudy numbers to go along with it. He is known as a winner, and many people were high on him going into the draft.
That said, he lucked—or unlucked, as it were—himself into a terrible situation. Carson Palmer is threatening retirement. Chad Ochocinco is gone. The Bengals starting back Cedric Benson is, by most statistical measures, the worst starting running back in football. And his top target is going to be fellow rookie A.J. Green, with wideouts notorious for having rough adjustment periods in the NFL.
That said, it looks like Dalton is the franchise guy in Cincinnati as he has won the starting job by default this year. Here's to hoping that four games a year against the Ravens and Steelers doesn't ruin him forever.
Verdict: 2011 starter, many growing pains ahead
Team: Minnesota Vikings
Pick: Round 1, Pick 12
Christian Ponder is another guy who fans were high on coming out of college. He was floated about as a probable second-rounder and a potential first-rounder, with several teams said to be eyeing him. It seemed that the Vikings were interested in Jake Locker, but this is the guy they ended up with.
Clearly they weren't sold on him as an immediate starter, as Minnesota went out and grabbed Donovan McNabb with a one year deal. The noise around Vikings training camp is that Ponder is looking very much like a rookie while McNabb has shown that he still has a bit left in the tank.
That said, Ponder is in a better situation than the guys before him on this list. He has the chance to learn behind an NFL quarterback who was actually good once upon a time (and still is decent). He has the best running back of the bunch with Adrian Peterson and a good defense to protect him. He lacks a true No. 1 receiver, but that might come next year.
All in all, the Vikings have set Ponder up for long-term success and are hoping he repays their faith. Still, I think McNabb plays well and earns himself another year in Minnesota.
Verdict: 2011 backup, 2012 backup, 2013 starter
Team: Jacksonville Jaguars
Pick: Round 1, Pick 10
Poor Blaine Gabbert. Like Kaepernick, he was drafted to be a backup. Like Dalton, he put up good numbers in college. Like Ponder, he has a stud running back to work with.
However, he has a whole host of other problems to deal with. Jacksonville is a struggling franchise that can best be described as a sinking ship. They struggle to maintain good attendance and are then subject to blackouts that do more harm than good. It seems like long ago, they were steamrolling the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs behind MJD.
Instead, they are a below-average team with a below-average coaching staff and little good news to speak of. Their receiving corps is thin at best, and their offensive line has been heavily invested in with less than ideal yield. MJD's knee is scaring people, and the Jaguars defense has holes pretty much everywhere except linebacker.
Still, there are positives here. Gabbert has no pressure to be good now, because the starting gig is clearly with Garrard. What's better, Jacksonville expects Garrard to do poorly, so Gabbert will always be the "better" option. Finally, the coaching staff is completely behind him and look set to give him every opportunity to shine.
Unless Garrard has a good season (unlikely), look to see the Missouri alum calling the shots next year.
Verdict: 2011 backup, 2012 starter
Team: Tennessee Titans
Pick: Round 1, Pick 8
Here we find perhaps the most polarizing of the 2011 rookie quarterbacks. Jake Locker was considered the best player in football just two short years ago, yet an apparent regression last year meant that he was a slight reach as the eighth pick in the draft, marking a big surprise to most fans.
But, like Ponder, Locker has ended up in a great situation. The Titans offensive line is above average and blocks for the most explosive player in football, Chris Johnson. Kenny Britt is a true No. 1 receiver who, if he can stay out of trouble, will terrorize defenses. Jared Cook is a burgeoning playmaker who has wowed observers the past two years in training camp—this is the year he finally puts it together.
Locker also has the luxury of starting behind Matt Hasselbeck. He is probably best remembered as the soup commercial guy or maybe as the guy who guaranteed a playoff win against the Packers only to throw a pick-6 in overtime. But he's also the guy who lit up the Saints last year in the playoffs and is experienced, having been an above average quarterback in the NFL for a long time.
Locker and Hasselbeck know each other already and look to have formed a neat little bond. Locker has been inconsistent to date in camp, but a year (or less) under Hasselbeck's wing—and with the force of the Titans front office behind him—should mean a marked improvement for the Washington alum.
Verdict: He will start off 2011 as the backup, but he will finish the season as the starter
Team: Carolina Panthers
Pick: Round 1, Pick 1
Take a good look at Cam Newton: he's the franchise in Carolina now. The first overall pick this year, this guy has stud written all over him. He's big, fast, strong-armed and reportedly was a true leader at Auburn last year. Say what you want about his off-the-field troubles, he is the best rookie prospect this year.
Many people will look at Newton and try to compare him to Vince Young. Don't. The only similarity in their game is size. Newton has a much more fluid throwing motion and, from what we've seen so far, is much better at handling adversity. Young came on last year to be a decent thrower, but Cam Newton's ceiling is much higher.
Like Ponder and Locker, Newton has some weapons to work with in Carolina. The Panthers O-line play has been dominating at times, with Jordan Gross possibly the best tackle in football. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart form a great running back tandem, and Steve Smith is still a good receiver. The acquisition of Greg Olsen helps, too.
So while the Panthers may have had the worst record in football, Newton is really in a good situation here. Expect him to continue the trend of successful rookie quarterbacks.
Verdict: Cam Newton will be the proud owner of 6 NFL wins after this year and will only get better