|Jaguars fans have already taken a liking to rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert. (US Presswire)|
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Let me start this column by saying it is not another shot at David Garrard. I mean it. Really.
It's praise for Blaine Gabbert.
What I saw on the Jacksonville Jaguars' practice field Thursday night from Gabbert, the team's top pick in the April draft, is like nothing I've witnessed on any of the Jaguars' practice fields in the 16 years they've been in existence.
Not from Mark Brunell. Not from Byron Leftwich, and not from Garrard.
What I saw on that practice field Thursday was a rookie quarterback who stood tall in the pocket, scanned the field, and made throws down the field with a big, strong arm.
He's also a guy who can improvise, seeing him several times get flushed out of the pocket, only to keep his eyes up for a chance to make a throw, which he did twice.
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As one Jaguars source said, "He does some of the things that Ben Roethlisberger does. He's a playmaker. He makes plays."
At 6-foot-5, Gabbert looks the part. He walks with a swagger. He seems to take over the huddle. In his short time here, he has already won over the hearts of the female fans in town, who seem to swoon over his shaggy, blonde hair and red cheeks.
The Jaguars have not had a face of the franchise ever at the quarterback position. Brunell won them over with his ability to improvise, but he wasn't their draft pick, coming over in trade, and his tenure was only seven good years.
Byron Leftwich, the team's first-round pick in 2003, was considered a bust, his long wind-up and easy-going manner making him an easy target for the fans in Jacksonville. There was talk that he wasn't embraced because he was black, which some in the organization didn't dispute.
Garrard is a run-around quarterback who plays hard, is certainly tough, but he is limited in what he does down the field. He can win if everything around him is right, but he's not going to carry a team. He can be fun to watch and maddening at the same time. Garrard is a quarterback ranked in the late teens to low 20s in the league rankings.
Gabbert can be a top-10 guy.
I watched his tape in college, and Gabbert did some things that were unsettling. He felt phantom pressure at times. But you could always see the arm and the athletic ability. I liked Florida State's Christian Ponder more -- still do -- but Gabbert looked much better than I expected Thursday.
I know it's only one practice, and it's not live contact, but he does things that you want from a quarterback. The coaches aren't publicly saying all that much about him, but they know. The scouts know. And you better believe general manager Gene Smith knows. He's the one who made the bold move to trade up and draft Gabbert.
When Smith did that, it ended the drought of not drafting a quarterback for the Jaguars, who hadn't done so since Leftwich was drafted eight years ago.
Gabbert throws ropes. There were three consecutive passes he threw for touchdowns in a red zone drill Thursday that buzzed by the heads of the defensive backs, barley getting above helmet level. He made two seam throws that Garrard doesn't make -- or won't make.
Sure, there were times where Gabbert has run out of the pocket too quickly during the first week of camp, but that will lesson as he understands the offense more. The coaches raved about the way he played in his first practice, even without an offseason to grasp the offense.
Before that practice, one of the coaches said, "It's one thing to know it on the board, but to do it on the field is another."
A week later, he's doing it on the field. The staff has raved about the way he has picked up the offense. He's still running with the second team, but he will get reps with the first team in the preseason. Garrard hurt his back Thursday and had to leave practice, and Gabbert stepped in as if it were his team.
The coaches want to make it a fair fight, which is why he will work with the ones during the preseason. If Gabbert continues to progress at the same rate, and plays well in the preseason, the team will have an interesting decision to make. Garrard has some supporters in the locker room, including running back Maurice Jones-Drew, so there has to be some concern about fracturing the team.
That happened in 2007 when coach Jack Del Rio made the decision the week before the regular season to jettison Leftwich and make Garrard the starter. The Jaguars made the playoffs that year, but there was some splintering in the locker room.
This is a younger team, so that might not be the case if it were to happen again.
"There's no rush," one team source said. "Let's see it play out."
Garrard is due to make $9 million this season. The Jaguars have cap room, so they can carry that number no matter what happens. But if Gabbert continues to ascend, that could change.
There are some scouts around the league who wonder about Gabbert's toughness. They say he will look good when there is no real pressure. The Jaguars don't buy it.
One team source said he's as tough a quarterback as he's seen on tape. But Garrard is tough, too. There's no denying that. For all his faults in the passing game, he shows up and competes. He takes shots.
He just doesn't have the same look or feel of the great quarterbacks. You know the look. It's hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. It's the size. The arm. The way they carry themselves. The ability to make plays when things aren't always going right.
As Gabbert walked off the field Thursday night, giving up his helmet in exchange for a pen to sign autographs for the adoring fans lining the rails just to get near him, you could see he had the "it."
He looked like a franchise quarterback.
If he plays like one in the preseason, there is little doubt that Del Rio would hesitate to pull the trigger and make him the starter. Some say Del Rio's job is on the line, so he won't do it. I say this: Del Rio will always play the best guy. He's said as much.
If it's Garrard, then it's Garrard. If it's Gabbert, it will be Gabbert.
And don't even talk about it being too soon for the rookie. I've heard the talk that playing a rookie quarterback can impact their psyche for the future.
"That's the dumbest thing I've heard," one general manager said. "If it does, then you picked the wrong guy."
No, the Jaguars look like they picked the right guy. The face of the franchise has been Maurice Jones-Drew the past five seasons. It's been a while since it was a quarterback.
That time might be coming sooner than you think.
Even Garrard has to know that.