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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

No easy bets when it comes to evaluating spread quarterbacks


INDIANAPOLIS -- Back 35 years ago, the wishbone, the veer and other college offenses that have gone the way of the Nehru jacket made it tough on NFL scouts and general managers to evaluate players.

What goes around comes around -- only now, instead of a ground-heavy offense like those two above, it's the spread offenses run by colleges that are making it more challenging to evaluate players, especially quarterbacks.

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As more and more and college teams move to spread offenses, it puts more pressure on NFL personnel to try and figure out just how players will fit into a league with more conventional offenses.

How does a spread quarterback who hasn't taken snaps under center handle taking drops from center?

How do offensive linemen who have rarely put their hand down in a three-point stance change to the NFL style?

On and on it goes.

"For the most part, the NFL offenses aren't spread-type offenses," said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers director of football operations. "But that's our problem to do those types of evaluations. The colleges have to do what they feel they have to do for their teams to win. It's our jobs to take the evaluations from them and try to project. Sure, if we could line up everybody in standard NFL offenses and defenses in college, it would be great."

Good luck. If anything, it's going way to the other direction. It's hard to find teams that play pro-style offenses in college anymore. There's maybe a handful as the spread is, well, spreading.

"It's difficult because we're not used to running that here," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "In the end, what you really have to do, it has to come down to movement, athleticism, power. You have to take the parts of the evaluation and take away the idea they're in a spread and try to glean information from the movement and the contact points."

The toughest part is evaluating the quarterbacks. They take snaps from the shotgun in the spread, rarely stepping under center. In this year's draft, several of the top quarterbacks, including the top two -- Auburn's Cam Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert -- played in spread offenses.

Cam Newton says he wants to be an icon, but he first needs to prove that he can play quarterback in the NFL. (Getty Images)  
Cam Newton says he wants to be an icon, but he first needs to prove that he can play quarterback in the NFL. (Getty Images)  
The footwork, the reading of the field, the comfort in taking drops are all a big challenge for spread quarterbacks going to the next level. That's why Newton and Gabbert and several other quarterbacks in this year's draft have spent the past two months working on taking drops, which was once considered an elementary part of the position.

Newton didn't meet with the media Friday, but Gabbert did and addressed the spread questions.

"Of course, the footwork is different," Gabbert said. "We're in the shotgun 98 percent of the time. So that's what I've been working on at Athletes Performance in Arizona. I really don't see the problem with being a spread quarterback in college, because if you're good, you're good. And you're going to play wherever."

Alex Smith, who was the top pick in the 2005 draft, came to the 49ers after playing in the spread offense at Utah. He showed he could make the transition to taking snaps under center, even if he hasn't lived up to the expectations.

Tim Tebow faced the same scrutiny last season, and he went on to start three games. But the verdict is still out as to whether he can become a pocket passer, especially since he ran so much in his three starts.

Now Newton and Gabbert face those same issues.

So how to you evaluate them best?

"I think you have to get them up on the boards and see where he is from a football intelligence standpoint," Dimitroff said. "You have to move them around to so many different scenarios. Taking snaps from center, that's going to be a major transition. Work on it with the player and see how comfortable he is and understand that there is still going to be a definite transition."

The spread doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon. In fact, you're seeing some of those same principles showing up on NFL fields; the four-receiver, one-back sets, the shotgun snaps on plays other than second- and third-and-long downs.

Even so, that doesn't make the evaluation any easier for the men that do it.

"It has made it tougher," said Rick Smith, the general manager of the Houston Texans. "You have to try and figure out where they fit in, rather than have a better idea of how they will fit in. It's more speculative because they don't do the things that we do."

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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