|Syracuse's Nassib is drawing comparisons to Andy Dalton from some scouts. (US Presswire)|
The NFL has been dazzled by the play of rookie quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. The natural inclination is to look toward the Class of 2013 and expect similar immediate success.
Scouts are cautioning that isn't looking like a winning bet.
"I'd hate to picking early this year and need a quarterback," one general manager succinctly put it. "It just isn't a great year for the position; and the fact that it is coming after a couple of years with obvious stars at the top, just makes it seem that much weaker."
A year after NFLDraftScout.com ranked Luck and Griffin as the two elite prospects regardless of position, we have West Virginia's Geno Smith ranked just 10th overall -- the lowest NFLDraftScout.com has had the top-rated passer since 2000.
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While this isn't considered a strong year for quarterbacks, need often trumps talent when it comes to the NFL Draft. And several teams likely to be picking in the top 10 -- including the 2-11 Kansas City Chiefs, 4-9 Arizona Cardinals and 5-8 Buffalo Bills among them -- need help at the position.
Furthermore, with the rookie wage scale limiting the financial risk of high draft picks, teams are more likely than ever to gamble on a potential franchise-changing quarterback rather than the relative safety of player at a different position.
As such, the smart money remains on a quarterback "earning" the first pick of the 2013 draft -- just as they have the past four years and 12 of the past 15.
Conventional wisdom says Smith will be that quarterback.
At 6-3, 220, he has the size that scouts covet. He also possesses a strong, accurate arm and the athleticism to extend plays. Smith certainly boasts the eye-popping statistics to excite a fan base. The three-year starter has seen his completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio improve each year, culminating in a 2012 campaign in which he completed 71.4 percent of his passes and a sparkling 40 touchdowns against just six interceptions.
While Smith is generally regarded as the early favorite to be the first quarterback selected, he is not without his warts.
Much of Smith's production is based on West Virginia's spread offense and the presence of Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, two dynamic playmakers whose specialty is running after the catch. Smith didn't face a pass defense ranked among the top 20 all season long. He completed "just" 55 percent of his passes and threw for five touchdowns (against two interceptions) against the two highest-rated pass defenses he faced this year (No. 23 Texas Tech, No. 26 Oklahoma), losing both contests as part of a five-game losing streak throughout October and November.
With a Syracuse pass defense ranked 62nd in the country looming in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 29, scouts are hopeful Smith will be eager to prove his mettle by participating in the Senior Bowl.
If he doesn't, the quarterbacks who do play in Mobile (or other prominent senior all-star games) could put themselves in position to overtake him.
Based on conversations with veteran talent evaluators ranging from general managers to scouting directors, here are five quarterbacks quietly already building momentum to leap up draft boards as April approaches.
Players are listed alphabetically:
Matt Barkley, 6-2, 230, Southern Cal
Having thrown more interceptions as a senior than during any of his previous three seasons as USC's starting quarterback, the perception is that Barkley's stock has slid significantly. That isn't necessarily fact. Scouts question whether Barkley having thrown multiple interceptions in six games in 2012 was a byproduct of trying to do too much, especially considering the loss of left tackle Matt Kalil. There was also the need to compensate for a surprisingly leaky defense. Barkley, listed by NFLDraftScout.com as the No. 18 overall prospect in the 2013 draft, plays with good anticipation and possesses NFL-caliber accuracy, touch and better velocity than many given him credit for. Not insignificant is the fact that he's also among the more accurate passers on the move.
Scout's Take: "Sure, he has some physical limitations but so much of playing quarterback in the NFL is about toughness and leadership. He's been through the wars at USC and knows how to handle himself. Coaches are going to fall in love with his presence. They're going to think, 'Hey, this guy can handle himself if thrown into the fire as a rookie.' I'm not sure you can say that about many of the other quarterbacks in this draft class, including Smith."
Mike Glennon, 6-5, 232, North Carolina State
With the prototypical frame, arm and experience in a pro-style offense to contribute early in the NFL, many are pointing to Glennon as the quarterback likely to give Smith his greatest competition. Stuck behind Russell Wilson for the first three years of his career, Glennon emerged as a junior to complete 62 percent of his passes with 31 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions in his first season as the starter. Like Barkley, Glennon's production dipped slightly in 2012 (58 percent, 30-14). He doesn't possess top-notch athleticism and has struggled when pressured but has improved in this area and could continue to do so with more time. In a league willing to gamble on upside -- especially at quarterback -- it is easy to see how a team could fall in love with Glennon's potential.
Scout's Take: "Glennon looks the part and in this class, that could be enough. There are a lot of people out there who see some Matt Schaub in him."
EJ Manuel, 6-4, 240, Florida State
Talent evaluators find it difficult not to be enamored with Manuel's physical gifts. He possesses a frame and natural running skills that remind scouts of Cam Newton. And with 32 career starts to his credit, he's an experienced passer from a pro-style offense who has completed 66.7 percent of his passes over his career with 56 total touchdowns against 28 interceptions. He has a bit of a wind-up but can toss the ball 60 yards with the flick of a wrist. While it is easy to fall in love with Manuel's upside, scouts worry that he remains largely a one-read-and-run quarterback.
Scout's Take: "I wouldn't be surprised at all to see Manuel really turn some heads in Mobile [at the Senior Bowl]. He's a big, impressive athlete with a strong arm who should fare well in drills."
Ryan Nassib, 6-2, 228, Syracuse
You can forgive fans if they scoff at the notion of the Orange offering a legitimate NFL passer; none have been drafted out of Syracuse since the Philadelphia Eagles made Donovan McNabb as the second overall pick in 1999. Nassib, a three-year starter with a career touchdown to interception ratio of 68-27, played well down the stretch this season, guiding Syracuse to a 5-1 finish, tossing just one interception (against 13 touchdowns) over that span. A natural leader with the confidence to fire passes through tight windows, Nassib may lack the height, athleticism and name-recognition of his peers but he has been a favorite of NFLDraftScout.com's all year long, currently ranking as our No. 43 overall prospect.
Scout's Take: "He's just tall enough and has a rocket for an arm. And, unlike some of the other quarterbacks in this class, he just seems like he's wired right for the position. He's a little rough around the edges but he could prove a better value in the second or third round than one of the quarterbacks who gets selected much higher."
Matt Scott, 6-2, 198, Arizona
With just one season as the fulltime starter, Scott is significantly behind in his development relative to his peers in this group. Furthermore, his one season at the helm came in Rich Rodriguez's spread-option attack that only occasionally asks the quarterback to make the types of reads and throws he'll need to make in the NFL. Scouts are intrigued with Scott's arm and movement skills. Scott completed 60.3 percent of his passes this season and threw for 24 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. He isn't afraid to thread the needle when he has to and throws with touch. Scott does not have the size of San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick nor has he experienced anything close to the former Nevada star's collegiate success after having operated behind Nick Foles for most of his career. Scouts see a similar blend of playmaking skills from Scott, however -- a dual-threat combination who helped the Wildcats come back to stun Nevada 49-48 on Saturday in the New Mexico Bowl to kick off the bowl season in dramatic fashion. Scott hit his final eight passes of the game, including the game-winner on quick slant to Terrance Miller with just 18 seconds remaining. Scott wasn't brilliant in this game, but he did demonstrate poise late. That, coupled with his exciting dual-threat capabilities, gives him plenty of upside. Don't be surprised if Scott winds up among the top 100 picks.
Scout's Take: "Look at the rookie quarterbacks playing so well this year -- they all have the ability to extend plays due to their mobility. That's where the NFL is going now at the quarterback position. Scott has that ability, too. He's the guy lying in the weeds that I could see jumping up and surprising some people with how high he goes."