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Luck's decision to stay opens doors for others

by | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst
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If it weren't for bad luck, Carolina would have no Luck at all.

The Panthers have been waiting for the announcement from the No. 1-rated prospect on NFLDraftScout.com's draft board -- and everyone else's for that matter. On the school's official website, Luck is quoted as saying he is "committed to earning my degree in architectural design from Stanford University and am on track to accomplish this at the completion of the spring quarter of 2012."

The Panthers, and any team hoping to pry the top pick of the draft from their grasp, cannot be happy about missing out on the most NFL-ready quarterback to come along in years. His ability to read defenses (both pre- and post-snap), athleticism, size, accuracy and intelligence make him the consensus No. 1 player who would have been available in this draft.

Luck has always maintained that graduating from Stanford was of utmost importance to him. Previous conversations with NFL general managers and scouting directors also made it clear that most in the NFL believed that Andrew's father, Oliver, who was a second-round pick and an NFL quarterback himself in the 1980s, would advise his son to remain in school for one more season.

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When people discuss this decision, the story of former Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford cannot be ignored. Bradford could have been the top pick in the 2009 draft because of his supreme accuracy, but an injury to his throwing shoulder cost him most of his redshirt junior season. The St. Louis Rams selected him first overall in the 2010 event, anyway, after proving he was healthy during pre-draft workouts.

Luck is still taking a major gamble with this decision. Other quarterbacks have seen their stock drop after returning to school for another year (Matt Leinart at Southern Cal a few years ago, Jake Locker at Washington this season.) Without head coach Jim Harbaugh on The Farm, as he's expected to take an NFL job very soon, Luck's team may not be quite as good, either -- a problem Locker to which can relate. His offensive line loses three starters to the NFL next year and seven starters overall. Bradford found out the hard way how difficult an offensive line transition can be.

Luck's pedigree, physical and mental abilities appear to be much closer to Bradford's than Leinart's or Locker's, so there's a strong chance he will be back in the mix for the top spot in the 2012 draft.

Plus, Luck would not have received the $55 million in guaranteed money that Bradford received in his rookie deal because the current Collective Bargaining Agreement will no longer be in effect. It is expected the new agreement will impose a rookie wage scale that reduces contracts to a more reasonable level, at least compared to contracts signed by veteran NFL players.

There is no doubt, however, the amount Luck would still have brought in would be in the millions of dollars -- exceedingly more than what he would earn with the architecture degree he is working toward.

The Panthers' second-round pick last April, Jimmy Clausen, appears to benefit the most from Luck's decision. Now he will probably get his chance to shine in 2011 instead of looking over his shoulder at the No. 1 pick.

But now Clausen's team, who is still looking for a new coach to confer with general manager Marty Hurney to make the first selection, must survey the landscape for the top overall pick. One of the players on their radar will be Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, who announced yesterday that he will forego his senior year to enter the draft. He ranked second this season in the nation with 26 tackles for loss and led the FBS with 15.5 sacks.

The 6-foot-4, 280-pound Bowers does not quite have the upside and athleticism of a Julius Peppers (who the Panthers haven't replaced since he left), but his strength and agility on the edge give him a chance to be a very productive pro in the Michael Strahan mold.

Chad Reuter has Auburn's Nick Fairley going fourth overall to the Bengals in his mock draft. (Getty Images)  
Chad Reuter has Auburn's Nick Fairley going fourth overall to the Bengals in his mock draft. (Getty Images)  
Other SEC juniors vying for the top selection include Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson and wide receiver A.J. Green, though none had declared for the draft as of Thursday afternoon. Fairley's play has been just short of Ndamukong Suh-like dominant inside, Peterson's size and speed are prototypical for one of the toughest positions to play at the next level, and Green's speed, hands and silky-smooth routes could make him the first receiver picked No. 1 overall since similarly-built prospect Keyshawn Johnson in 1997. All three will be in the mix for the top slot, if they decide to declare.

The dark horse in this race is Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert. One NFL scouting administrator responded to an e-mail message today saying he wouldn't draft "any of 'em" at No. 1, referring to underclassmen quarterbacks Gabbert, Ryan Mallett (Arkansas) and Cam Newton (Auburn). Another league source had a simple one-word answer to whether those players should be considered with the top pick: "No."

The Panthers aren't likely to rate Gabbert as a home run with the first overall pick. Their odds of trading the pick to a team that does view one of the available quarterbacks or another prospect as "can't miss" likely improved on Thursday. Consider teams with no settled QB situation -- Arizona, San Francisco, Minnesota, Tennessee and other teams, such as draft-pick resistant Washington -- options for the Panthers if they opt to deal the pick.

One personnel boss thought Gabbert could end up the first overall selection. Physically and as an athlete, he's very similar to Alex Smith (first overall, 2005). He will also have to transition from a spread system to a pro-style offense, like Smith. His arm strength and quick release are more similar to Joe Flacco, however, which may allow him to have more success than Smith has had with the 49ers over the past six seasons.

In fact, when I brought the Luck-Smith comparison up to that source, he said he liked Gabbert better than Smith because he can "throw it all around the park!"

Luck's decision to return to school to complete his degree may be viewed by some as the death of this year's draft class. But in terms of excitement, this news has made projecting the top of the 2011 draft much more compelling.

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