It's the most important position on the field, making palatable the high-risk investment teams consistently make to secure a franchise-caliber starting quarterback.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, Sam Bradford, elevated the Rams from 1-15 to one win shy of the postseason. The cost of contending was only the richest rookie contract in NFL history, one that could be worth a maximum of $86 million over six years with $50 million guaranteed. It's a check every owner willingly would sign to place a star at the controls and make the playoffs a reality.
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Collective bargaining might curb the preposterous contract structure for rookies, but it won't halt the need to have an elite passer, which means evaluators are just as willing to do anything it takes in the search for their own franchise savior.
It's highly debatable whether there's a future Pro Bowl passer in the Class of 2011. The one sure thing was redshirt sophomore Andrew Luck, and he stunned general managers league-wide on Jan. 6 when he said he would bypass the millions of guaranteed dollars to spend at least another year at Stanford to attain his degree.
Washington senior Jake Locker, in a similar situation to Luck's in January 2010, returned to school and lost significant traction with scouts because of erratic passing performances. He has the rocket arm and elite athleticism, but he's off-target enough that teams aren't convinced he can be trusted in a league where pinpoint accuracy wins.
Locker remains a first-round projection because of his upside. But two juniors with so-called higher ceilings -- Auburn's Cam Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert -- are widely considered top-10 picks on most draft boards. The dearth of talent at the position could even make the pair top-five selections.
Starting at the top with the Panthers, who draft No. 1 overall, Denver, Buffalo, Cincinnati and Arizona could all kick the tires on one of the top quarterbacks.
"There is nobody that really stands out like Sam Bradford did last year," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said on a radio interview with WTAR in March. "There are a lot of guys that are intriguing athletically like Blaine Gabbert, like Cam Newton, because of the skill set, some of the things they can do. But I don't think they have shown the ability to do some of the things that you have seen in the past by some of these guys like a Matt Ryan or, obviously, like a Sam Bradford."
Across the league, evaluators seem united in the opinion that the 2011 passers considered first-round picks wouldn't be so in most years. They'll also agree on this -- not every gamble at the top works out.
In 2009, Matthew Stafford was the No. 1 pick of the Lions. He received $41.7 million guaranteed on his six-year, $72 million contract and has 19 touchdowns and 21 interceptions over 13 games in a career dogged by injuries. In 2007, JaMarcus Russell went first to the Raiders and is out of the league after making $39 million in three disastrous seasons in Oakland before he was released last year.
There's no charge for tire-kicking, and the teams at the top might opt instead to wait for one of the second-tier options. Florida State's Christian Ponder suits teams using the West Coast offense; Ryan Mallett (Arkansas) has the rifle arm to be a pocket passer behind a good pass-blocking line and others view Colin Kaepernick (Nevada), TCU's Andy Dalton and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi as developmental-type options with known limitations.
A closer look at the top quarterbacks and specialists in the 2011 draft:
Player, position, college, height, weight, projected round
1. *Blaine Gabbert, Missouri, 6-feet-4, 234, 1
Bound for Nebraska to play in Bill Callahan's West Coast offense, Gabbert was hindered by foot and shoulder injuries as a high school senior. When the Cornhuskers replaced Callahan, Gabbert went shopping for a new home and landed in Columbia. He was 18-8 in two seasons as a starter but didn't log the explosive plays or elite production that made predecessor Chase Daniel a Heisman finalist. Gabbert isn't a tested game manager and requires a year or two of development in a pro offense where he must make every read, call and adjustment, and scouts doubt he can will an offense to success without having stars around him. He's an excellent athlete for his size but overall is green for a player being considered for the top overall pick.
2. *Cam Newton, Auburn, 6-5, 248, 1
A two-time national champion -- at Blinn Junior College and last season at Auburn -- and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Newton has as much upside as any player in the draft. He has 4.56 speed and arm strength comparable to that of 2007 No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell. Comparisons from pro evaluators range from Ben Roethlisberger to Daunte Culpepper to Jason Campbell. And the red flags raised by off-field issues at Florida (theft) and in his secondary recruitment (an NCAA investigation uncovered pay-for-play scheme for which blame was solely placed on his father, Cecil) has the teams at the top of draft doing as much homework on his character and personality as his ability to shift from a highly QB-friendly offense in which he was more of a threat to run to a dramatically new world in the NFL. Newton's prolific production, wow-worthy arm strength and record as a winner aren't easily dismissed. Making him the first pick or even a top-10 choice requires a canyon-wide leap of faith. Only if Newton's natural skills are molded into the framework of a pro offense, where he grows so comfortable with what at first will be an arcane system that his mental and professional acumen help him outsmart All-Pro defensive players and veteran coordinators, can he ever be rated as a value pick.
3. Jake Locker, Washington, 6-3, 231, 1
If Locker finds future greatness, it'll be in the ideal system for his ability. He rushed once for every 1.7 passing attempts as a sophomore under coach Tyrone Willingham and then, assimilating in fits and starts to Steve Sarkisian's pro-style system the past two seasons, led the Huskies to final-minute, game-winning drives over Southern California. If he had shown consistent accuracy, Locker would be a cinch as a top-10 pick. But he's too often off-target, leaving scouts to hope his elite athletic ability -- rare size, speed and arm strength -- carries him until the work in progress develops to the point that he can hit receivers in stride and not be easily duped by defenses. If Locker doesn't pan out and comparisons to former Cal quarterback Kyle Boller hold true, he has a chance to be a pro baseball player. His baseball rights are owned by the Los Angeles Angels.
4. Christian Ponder, Florida State, 6-2, 229, 1-2
The pre-draft workout circuit has been better for Ponder than the 2010 college football season, which was marred by arm problems that resulted in two elbow surgeries. He's the ideal West Coast offense quarterback, a brainiac who moves well within the pocket and ran a 4.63-second 40. Ponder entered 2010 with a grade equal to Locker's. His accuracy with a quick, compact delivery and mobility stood out at the Senior Bowl and scouts rated highly Ponder's passing workout at the scouting combine. Durability might force some teams to scratch him off their list of top-40 prospects. A team convinced his arm problems are in the past could he handsomely rewarded.
5. *Ryan Mallett, Arkansas, 6-7, 253, 2
Most teams seem to believe there is more risk than reward with Mallett. Questions about his maturity, leadership, football character and rumored drug use led to polarizing evaluations. On ability alone, he's the most gifted pure passer in the draft -- elite size, very good arm strength and the tools to be a Drew Bledsoe-type pocket passer in a vertical passing offense. One general manager said of Mallett, "There's no throw he cannot make." Mallett transferred from Michigan, where he wasn't a fit for Rich Rodriguez's offense, and excelled in the wide-open Razorbacks system implemented by Bobby Petrino. His natural tools might not outweigh perceived personality flaws or the key on-field knock that he reacts adversely to defensive pressure and his concrete feet don't allow him to reset and throw with any modicum of accuracy. His delivery isn't trigger-quick like Peyton Manning or Dan Marino, which means his margin for error in reading the rush and back-end coverage must be flawless.
6. Andy Dalton, TCU, 6-2, 215, 2
Still a wild card with the draft drawing nearer, Dalton has risen into conversation as a potential top-40 pick. But it's not just teams desperate to fill a need clamoring for Dalton -- several have told NFLDraftScout.com's Rob Rang they view Dalton as a future starter and for that reason won't be surprised if he's drafted in the late first round or early second round. He's an intelligent passer ready to take the reins of a pro offense with four years of starting experience -- and unbridled success -- at TCU, including MVP honors in three of the four bowl games in which he played and a 42-7 record as a starter. He's mobile enough to make plays out of the pocket, has accuracy moving to his right and can fire short to intermediate passes into tightly covered receivers. His physical tools aren't exceptional and his arm strength only fair as his success came in the Horned Frogs' spread offense. Durability, natural leadership skills and rapid improvement at TCU are inviting projections from head coaches and general managers that Dalton will just keep winning at the NFL level.
7. Colin Kaepernick, Nevada, 6-5, 233, 2
Born in Milwaukee and a lifelong Packers fan, Kaepernick was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 2009 MLB draft as a pitching prospect. His windup and baseball-throwing motion need to be ironed out by a pro quarterbacks coach, and initial changes haven't affected his accuracy in pre-draft workouts. Size, arm strength and athleticism are readily evident traits Kaepernick showed at the Senior Bowl, combine and pro day after three successful seasons shredding WAC defenses out of the spread-style "Pistol" offense with the Wolf Pack. His development could be more rapid than many expect and he's more than a running quarterback who can throw, a misnomer that developed from his three consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. If he can take some heat off of his fastball and drop precision passes with touch against pressure, Kaepernick should be ready to start by the second or third year of his career.
8. Ricky Stanzi, Iowa, 6-4, 223, 3
Not often mentioned among the elite in this quarterback class, Stanzi might prove to be the most pro-ready. He played in an NFL-style offense, has excellent footwork in a five-step drop system and doesn't bail with defenders bearing down on him in the pocket. His arm strength leaves something to be desired and he's the prototypical backup based on his practiced tools. General managers fret that the untimely risks and woeful decision-making he displayed in critical situations at Iowa won't be overcome. But with ideal size and steady improvement in Iowa City, there's some value to be found here. If a coach believes he can steer Stanzi away from challenging double- and triple-coverage and builds his confidence by surrounding him with a strong line and steadily productive skill talent, he could surprise.
9. Pat Devlin, Delaware, 6-3, 225, 4
An impressive senior season put Devlin on the radar of scouts -- 22 touchdowns, three interceptions and a completion percentage of 68 -- who are now asking: Next Joe Flacco or another long-shot FCS quarterback? Devlin transferred from Penn State as a sophomore -- much like Flacco did from Pitt to Delaware -- for the opportunity to start. Devlin also had great success, leading the team to the FCS title game, as Flacco had, and the Blue Hens lost. Reared in a spread offense, he's accurate in the horizontal passing game but has modest arm strength despite a quick release and the occasional downfield throw with zip. Scouts haven't seen him put the ball on the mark against tight coverage or top-level athletes and his ability to anticipate must improve.
10. Greg McElroy, Alabama, 6-2, 220, 4
If there's a prospect who can still be anything he wants to be, it's McElroy. He's a highly intelligent, personable and successful leader on and off the field encountering a persistent knock that he's a weak-armed game manager made a winner by Alabama's run-reliant offense. Here's what scouts know: They have a tinge of concern over McElroy's throwing motion, he's slow in-line and not mobile or agile and had a tendency to be wild making throws against oncoming pressure. He's also a coach-on-the-field type -- accurate, assignment-sure and wise to most any coverage a defensive coordinator might devise. His limitations push his value to the middle to late rounds, but McElroy can make most throws and has good touch on deep throws. His father, Greg Sr., played football at Hawaii.
11. Tyrod Taylor, Virginia Tech, 6-1, 217, 5
Taylor's athleticism leads to misplaced assumptions that he'll be asked to move to running back or wide receiver. His skill set, downfield accuracy and underrated anticipation in the pocket make him a coveted developmental prospect. His natural athleticism, competitiveness and quick feet give a quarterbacks coach a solid foundation to work with, but his elongated delivery needs significant refinement because of a wrist turn of almost 180 degrees before he brings his elbow forward. At the least, Taylor could be used as a fine multi-dimensional role player in the mold of Jets WR-KR-QB Brad Smith.
1. K-P Alex Henery, Nebraska, 6-2, 177, 4-5
Known as Mr. Clutch in Lincoln -- he never missed a postseason field goal (14 of 14) and had just one miss last season, a block -- Henery, a first-team All American, excelled in a dual role for the Cornhuskers. He'll be drafted as a placekicker with the potential to punt in a pinch or possibly full-time for a team that values roster flexibility. The new NFL kickoff rules shield his average kickoff length. He's smooth through the ball and the right-footed boot can push the ball through from 50-plus without over-swinging. He has the height and arm length to capture errant snaps and creates good forward momentum and lift on kickoffs.
2. K Kai Forbath, UCLA, 5-11, 197, 6
After kicking a game-winner against Oregon State last season, coach Rick Neuheisel said "Death, taxes and Forbath ... those are the three things in life you can count on." Forbath, who also nailed a game-winner against Tennessee in 2008, was second in career field-goal accuracy at UCLA (.842) and has the NCAA record with 31 games with multiple field goals. The 2009 Lou Groza Award winner was the No. 1 ranked kicker nationally out of Santa Monica, Calif. He was 10 of 13 from 50-plus yards in his career with the Bruins with a career long of 54 yards in 2007 against Utah. The right-footed kicker is very good with max range in the 52- to 55-yard area.
3. P Chas Henry, Florida, 6-3, 219, 6
Honored as the nation's top punter in 2010 with the Ray Guy Award, Henry was recruited by coach Urban Meyer as the No. 1 punter in the prep ranks four years ago. He can serve as a holder on kicks and also has experience as a kickoff specialist and placekicker. He led the country with a 45.1-yard average as a senior and never had a punt blocked at Florida, where only 10 percent of his career punts went for touchbacks and 40 percent were downed inside the 20. While he never had a kick blocked, special teams coaches might tweak his approach to eliminate third step.
4. P Ryan Donahue, Iowa, 6-2, 193, 7
Right-footed kicker who has NFL leg strength and should be the latest in a string of solid specialists produced by the Hawkeyes -- Reggie Roby, Jason Baker, Nate Kaeding. He placed 22 punts inside the 20 in 2010 and had a career-best 44.6 yard average. He leans back through the kick and consistently has hang time of 4.5 seconds and can approach 5.0 as a directional or angle kicker. He'll need to improve as a pooch punter and has mishit several directional attempts. Had punts blocked in 2008 and '10.
1. Danny Aiken, Virginia, 6-5, 244, 6
The adage that long-snappers aren't noticed until they screw up isn't far off, and Aiken's name was rarely mentioned with the Cavaliers. But Aiken, a four-year snapper at Virginia, was very popular at the school's recent pro day. Teams know he's not overpowering but could improve. His overall testing numbers weren't of great interest -- he ran the 40 in 5.0 seconds and had a 32-inch vertical -- but his consistent velocity and accuracy on tight snaps and appearance on more than 300 special-teams plays with the Cavaliers are enough to get him drafted in the sixth round.
Jeff Reynolds is Senior Editor of NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.