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How many QBs will be drafted early? Opinions vary

by | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst
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Have you ever tried to get a consensus with three or four friends on where you should head for dinner? Unanimity is almost never easy to achieve.

Imagine trying to get a clear view of how this year's quarterback class shakes out by talking to NFL executives.

Over the last two weeks, I've contacted several league personnel men to see if they could map out what I can't seem to get my head around: How many quarterbacks will be picked in the first two rounds of the 2011 draft?

Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert is at the top of most NFL team draft boards. (Getty Images)  
Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert is at the top of most NFL team draft boards. (Getty Images)  
Four quarterbacks on average are selected in the first 64 picks. There has been enough talk of six or even seven signal-callers being picked in the top two rounds this year that I wanted to find out if NFL scouts believed that number is legitimate or a creation of the fast-churning rumor mill.

Not surprisingly, no consensus was reached. Half of the NFL decision-makers believed five signal-callers would be picked in the top 64 picks. One quick retort to an email asking about the possibility of six or seven quarterbacks taken before Round 3: "I'll take the under -- I expect there to be a run in the third."

The responses from others hinted that this class could go against the grain.

"There's lots of need out there" was one obvious observation made on the subject.

"Just count the number of teams needing guys to play this year or in a couple of years," said another.

It's true; you could make an argument for 12 teams to pick a quarterback in the first three rounds.

In the poll, teams with an obvious need at quarterback were more likely to view six or more passers as possible picks in the draft's first two rounds. Needs and value blend together in draft rooms; it is human nature to value something you need more than something you do not, as well as assume everyone else values those players as much as you do.

The convenient line of demarcation between "best player available" and "drafting by need" is often blurred and sometimes non-existent.

As for which quarterbacks are expected to go when, it seemed clear Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton and similarly intriguing prospect Blaine Gabbert are at the top of most NFL team draft boards. Scouts sounded assumptive when saying "after Newton and Gabbert" before talking about the next tier of passers.

My sources were not split, however, on their feeling that three quarterbacks will be picked in round one. A couple of my contacts, without provocation, stated explicitly they expected a team to pick or possibly even trade up from the early second round to select Florida State's Christian Ponder or Washington's Jake Locker in the late first round -- but there wasn't consensus on which passer would be the one to be called on Thursday night.

"I've been hearing more about Ponder now," one source stated.

Another said: "Locker's just too talented to fall out of the first."

The health of Ponder's throwing arm and shoulder and inconsistent accuracy from Locker on passes in the pocket have prevented one prospect from clearly standing above the other.

As a side note, there does not seem to be fear that the labor uncertainty would affect teams' trading of future picks. The two contacts with which I discussed this topic agreed with my postulation that trade terms would be adjusted so a future pick of some sort would be guaranteed to be moved in the very unlikely scenario that there is no 2012 draft.

Two other names floating through the media as potential first-round picks, Andy Dalton (TCU) and Colin Kaepernick (Nevada), were not getting that sort of love from the NFL decision-makers I spoke with.

Dalton has the intangibles and just enough physical tools to succeed at the next level, but his lack of zip on throws downfield and outside the hashes make comparisons to second-tier passers like Charlie Frye, Kellen Clemens and John Beck more applicable than those to Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers starter Aaron Rodgers.

As for Kaepernick, one high-level official said "he's raw ... talented, but raw." Another source stated "I hear all about Locker's [lack of] accuracy, but Kaepernick doesn't have great accuracy, either."

Comparisons of Kaepernick to Tampa Bay's emerging starter Josh Freeman carry weight with some scouts, however. They have similar size, arm strength and athleticism, but reviewing Freeman's tape shows more consistent footwork, a smooth and more efficient delivery and much better downfield touch.

Even going back to after the Senior Bowl, a longtime NFL scout found all of the talk about Kaepernick's great week in Mobile a bit perplexing: "that delivery got worse every day."

The former pitcher -- he was drafted in the 2009 MLB draft by the Chicago Cubs -- has a bit of a windup, throws further away from his ear than teams prefer and stands flat-footed too often when making throws.

The prospects of Arkansas' Ryan Mallett -- a potential modern-day record seventh QB taken in the two first rounds -- were summed up quite well by one league decision-maker: "he's the wild card."

Much has been made about Mallett's off-field issues, but he is still the third or fourth-rated quarterback on some boards because of his superior arm strength and a belief by some that he is the most NFL-ready passer in the draft -- the same "pro-ready" argument was made about Bobby Petrino's last quarterback prospect, Brian Brohm, three years ago.

Mallett will "rub some people the wrong way", as one source put it, and his lack of mobility, erratic accuracy under pressure, elongated delivery, and poor decision-making in crucial situations are also considered strikes against him by some teams.

No one doubts the seven quarterbacks mentioned here all have enough talent to deservedly be picked in the top 100.

Combining the deep need for passers with a strong class is the recipe for historical results in the draft's top two rounds. It's also a breeding ground for trades into the late first and throughout the early-to-mid second and third rounds.

When enough teams believe there will be at least three quarterbacks taken in the first round, and likely six in the top two rounds, it's difficult not to project a high draft yield.

But not every team who needs a quarterback will pick one early. Arizona, Buffalo and Washington were teams cited to me by sources as examples of teams who could wait to fill their quarterback needs until the later rounds or bypass the rookie route all together, hoping their chase leads them to a veteran when free agency commences.

Coaches and general managers picking late in the first round or early in the second must also pass over highly rated players at other positions to take a chance on a quarterback whose development might only bear fruit for the next coach or GM if things don't go well over the next season or two.

For example, Miami selected Beck with the 40th pick of the 2007 draft, and Detroit selected Drew Stanton at 43. The Dolphins passed on receivers Sidney Rice (Vikings) and Steve Smith (Giants) to take Beck, while the Lions passed on a player they eventually ended up trading for years later, cornerback Chris Houston, as well as a solid middle linebacker in Michigan's David Harris. You'll note that Miami and Detroit have changed coaches/GMs since those picks occurred.

History says first-round picks have only a coin flip's chance to become a strong starter, and only about 20 percent of second-round quarterbacks reach that plateau. Drew Brees and Brett Favre, the two second-round quarterbacks that have starred over the past 20 years, were the second and third quarterbacks taken in their respective drafts. When second-round quarterbacks are the third, fourth or fifth signal-callers selected in a given draft, their likelihood of success has been about 10 percent.

So despite the manifold attractions of this year's quarterback prospects, NFL general managers must ask themselves if they are significantly better than similar prospects in recent drafts that did not turn out as expected before selecting them with a valuable top 50 pick that could be spent on a player ready to instantly contribute at another position.

Chad Reuter is Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.

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