Much of the pre-draft scuttlebutt centered around quarterbacks is focused on Auburn's Cam Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert. They possess the talent, production and size to be considered for the first overall pick, and will likely be off the board in the first 10 picks.
What makes the 2011 crop of quarterbacks unique is the strong second-tier talent, prospects most have rated behind Newton and Gabbert.
Typically, if a quarterback is good enough to be drafted in the second round, it's likely he'll slide into the late first due to the extreme value of the position.
In this year's draft, the bounty of standout defensive line prospects could keep these quarterbacks in the second round -- but that doesn't mean they aren't viewed as future starters in the NFL. It does mean they aren't considered the ideal prototype for some reason. But being drafted into the right system has a way of hiding these blemishes.
So, which prospects make up the second tier of 2011 quarterback prospects?
Let's take a look.
Jake Locker, Washington
Locker's rise and fall has been documented and replayed in recent months. He entered the year as the favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick, but didn't make the improvement reading defenses or accurately placing passes evaluators anticipated he could in his second season in the pro-style system of former Southern Cal coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
In Locker's defense, before Sarkisian, Locker was essentially asked to play running back at the quarterback position under Tyrone Willingham and in high school. The stunted growth is cause for alarm for some scouts, but not all. The pro-Locker camp points to his toughness, work ethic and rare athleticism as reasons to believe Locker might still just be scratching the surface of his potential.
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Locker's mobility and strong throwing arm make him an ideal fit with a team already blessed with skill-position talent. The Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans and Washington Redskins are thought to be especially high on Locker.
Christian Ponder, Florida State
Locker entered the season with all of the hype. However, Ponder earned the same grade as the Washington passer by National Football Scouting, an evaluation service to which roughly half of NFL teams subscribe. That grade was rendered moot when nagging arm injuries -- including rehabilitation from two elbow surgeries -- robbed Ponder of arm strength and cut short his senior season. Healthy at the Senior Bowl and combine, Ponder starred, earning Offensive MVP honors during the all-star game and stealing the spotlight from Cam Newton and others during the throwing session at the combine. Ponder proved that, when healthy, his intelligence, mobility and accuracy to the short and intermediate levels make him a legitimate franchise quarterback prospect.
Ponder's skill set best fits the West Coast offense. This scheme -- relying on quick decisions and well-timed, precise passes -- helps make up for Ponder's lack of ideal size (6-2, 230) and average arm. Teams operating out of that offense that may rate Ponder higher than most include the Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins.
Ryan Mallett, Arkansas
In terms of pure passing ability, Mallett deserves to be at the top of this year's quarterback class, not squarely in the middle of the "second tier."
Mallett's 62 touchdown passes (only 19 interceptions) against SEC competition the past two seasons serve as a mighty testament to the strength and accuracy of the Howitzer he has for a right throwing arm. Much has been made about the intangibles, or lack thereof, he might bring to an NFL huddle. These concerns are valid, according to league sources, but are not the only worries scouts have about the 6-7, 253-pound passer. Due to his long legs, Mallett struggles to reset his feet when forced to step up or shuffle outside the pocket, making him a slower and significantly less accurate passer on the move. Mallett's slow, heavy feet were confirmed with a pedestrian-like 5.37-second 40-yard dash at his Pro Day.
Mallett's below-average athleticism means he doesn't fit in the West Coast offense and any other scheme that asks the quarterback to roll out. He fits in best in a traditional deep passing offense similar to the ones used by the Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers. He will need to be protected by a stout offensive line to be effective. Teams that have shown extra interest thus far in Mallett include the Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins.
Andy Dalton, TCU
Ultimately, the only statistic that matters when grading quarterbacks -- wins -- is the strong suit of Dalton. He snapped the records of former Horned Frog greats Davey O'Brien and Slingin' Sammy Baugh with 42 career wins. Dalton led TCU to bowl games in each of his four seasons, guiding the Horned Frogs to victories in three of those games (earning MVP in each), including a win over a strong Wisconsin team in the 2011 Rose Bowl.
Dalton lacks the elite physical tools of some of the other quarterbacks in this class and will be making the jump from a spread offense to the NFL. Proponents cite Dalton's poise and instincts for the position and believe that he has just enough of a combination of mobility, arm strength and accuracy to be a successful NFL starter.
Like Ponder, the 6-2, 215-pound Dalton's ideal fit is in a West Coast offense. He has the athleticism to roll out and the accuracy to attack the short to intermediate level of a defense. Dalton's maturity and innate leadership skills make him one of the more pro-ready quarterbacks in the class. Teams looking for immediate help might grade Dalton higher than other clubs with time to develop a more naturally gifted passer. The Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are considered to be quite high on Dalton.
Colin Kaepernick, Nevada
Lightly recruited out of high school, Kaepernick was at first chalked up as a product of Chris Ault's revolutionary Pistol offense system. A significant amount of Kaepernick's jaw-dropping production at Nevada has to be credited to Ault's offense, "Kap" answered any questions about his own talent with an impressive week of practice at the Senior Bowl and in subsequent workouts at the combine and his pro day. At 6-5, 233 pounds, Kaepernick has the ideal height and rare athleticism for the position. He isn't as agile escaping pressure as one might think for a quarterback who ran for over 4,000 yards and 59 touchdowns in college and timed at 4.53 seconds in the 40-yard dash, but can make defenses pay for not accounting for his ability to run.
Kaepernick has undeniable physical tools, but scouts have concerns about how well he'll translate to the NFL. A former pitcher, Kaepernick has an elongated throwing motion that gives defenders time to react. Despite the fact that he completed 64.9 percent of his passes as a senior, Kaepernick is a streaky passer whose accuracy diminishes as the passes get longer.
Quarterback coaches across the league will gladly work with Kaepernick, considering his unique skill set, but he's at least a year away from contributing, meaning that teams with other options like the Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins are likely destinations.
Rob Rang is Senior Analyst of NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.