Pelissero: Immediate-impact QBs tough to find in this year's draft
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It's been more than a decade since the NFL Draft's first three picks passed without a quarterback selected.
That was in 2000, when the New York Jets took Marshall's Chad Pennington with the No. 18 pick and no other quarterbacks came off the board until San Francisco took Hofstra's Giovanni Carmazzi at No. 65.
Eleven years later, the Quarterback Class of 2011 isn't nearly that thin on top-end talent at the most important position. But there was a familiar question in NFL personnel rooms the past two weeks as area scouts gathered and teams set their initial draft boards heading into the combine that begins on Wednesday in Indianapolis.
"Where is that one impact, immediate starter?" an executive in personnel for an AFC team said recently. "That's what NFL teams are trying to figure out. There may not be right now a walk-in-the-door, first-day starting quarterback that's in the draft."
Missouri's Blaine Gabbert has the combination of talent and makeup. Auburn's Cam Newton has the exceptional physical tools.
But both of this draft's top quarterback prospects thrived in shotgun-heavy spread offenses at the college level, leaving teams in need -- the Minnesota Vikings are just one of many -- to heavily scrutinize how their skills can translate to a pro-style scheme, as well as how quickly they can be ready to compete.
"You have to have a master plan in place when you select these guys," the AFC executive said. "There's going to have to be things that they have not done from a mechanical standpoint, from a process standpoint coming from that offense to the pro style. You have to do a ton of due diligence between the months of January to April."
To be sure, any good offensive coordinator plays to his quarterback's strengths and plenty of spread elements are being incorporated into NFL playbooks. As one high-ranking scout recently pointed out, personnel departments "are going to have to continue evolving in terms of how you evaluate these players, because it's going to be something that's going to grow more and more."
That doesn't mean teams are confident a quarterback such as Newton -- who operated a no-huddle spread-option at Auburn that deferred many pre-snap reads to the sideline -- can not only play under center and make NFL throws, but handle the multitude of line checks and progressions required to function against pro defenses.
Gabbert operated Missouri's jailbreak spread-passing attack, which operates mainly out of empty-backfield sets. The draft's best pure passer, Ryan Mallett, played in Bobby Petrino's more traditional attack at Arkansas but is hounded by concerns about leadership and off-field behavior. The only senior considered to be in the first tier, Washington's Jake Locker, did nothing at last month's Senior Bowl to quiet existing concerns about his accuracy and mechanics.
"We will probably emphasize, from whether we go to set up private workouts with these guys to everything else that we normally do (in the evaluation process), you want to make sure you do everything you possibly can to make the right decision," said Rick Spielman, the Vikings' vice president of player personnel.
"If that's going out and meeting with a kid's family, if that's going out there and working with a kid individually, if that's spending a day with a kid on the board, doing a lot of things. And I think when we do go out this spring and work these guys out -- because you're not going to be able to get all those questions answered in a 15-minute interview at the combine -- you're going to have to do a lot more than that."
Eight of the past 10 top overall picks (Michael Vick, David Carr, Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, Alex Smith, Jamarcus Russell, Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford) have been quarterbacks. In the other two drafts, quarterbacks (Vince Young and Matt Ryan) went No. 3. The only member of that group to come out of a true spread scheme is Smith, who has been an unqualified bust through six NFL seasons.
Even without a consensus top prospect, much less a consensus top-three lock, supply and demand suggests the top-three streak will continue this year -- particularly with the possibility a work stoppage will push back free agency and reverse the roster-population process.
Nine teams set to draft within the first 15 picks -- Carolina (first overall), Buffalo (third), Arizona (fifth), Cleveland (sixth), San Francisco (seventh), Tennessee (eighth), Washington (10th), the Vikings (12th) and Miami (15th) -- lack clear answers at the position, and the Cincinnati Bengals could be interested if they change their mind on Palmer's trade request.
"If you're just talking about the top 15 teams," the executive said, "and you just rattle off 10 or 11 teams that from priority standpoint may be looking for a quarterback -- not a 'B'-level priority but potentially an 'A'-level priority -- I would say that's a pretty good number."
Scouts like to see players, and particularly quarterbacks, participate at the combine because it's a competitive environment. Joe Flacco, drafted 18th overall by the Baltimore Ravens in 2008, is perhaps the best recent example of a player helping himself by attacking that opportunity.
Newton, Mallett and Locker plan to throw this year. So will Nevada's Colin Kaepernick, a Senior Bowl standout who is among the most intriguing prospects in the second tier. That leaves only Gabbert, who will follow the lead of Bradford -- a shotgun quarterback at Oklahoma who transitioned relatively smoothly to Pat Shurmur's West Coast system as a St. Louis Rams rookie last season -- and throw solely at his campus workout.
For quarterback-needy teams, the stakes are high. And even in a projection-based business, trying to avoid overbuying on the next Alex Smith is a daunting challenge requiring not only accurate evaluation, but a little luck, too.
After all, the same 2000 draft that saw Carmazzi -- a run-and-shoot quarterback at Hofstra who never played in an NFL regular-season game -- come off the board second also saw future Pro Bowl picks Marc Bulger and Tom Brady taken in Round 6.
"Do you feel very strongly about any of these kids in the draft where you want to take on at (number) 12 if you're still there at 12?" Spielman said. "Or is the draft that deep where you maybe go into the second and third rounds and just go with the best available player at 12 and then maybe feeling very strongly about a guy you can get later in the draft?
"I think this is a lot deeper draft class than it has been the past couple years. There's so many different avenues you can go in and, as we put those pieces together, we'll kind of slowly bring that in."