Andrew Luck’s decision not to declare for the 2011 NFL Draft has left the quarterback class one prospect lighter.
It’s time to take a status check on the market.
I’ll run through each of the four prospects I consider to be in first round contention.
Cam Newton (Auburn)
Status check: Newton will compete for the BCS Championship on Monday when Auburn take on Oregon in Arizona. Expect an announcement shortly after on the quarterback’s intentions to declare. Controversy based around his recruitment by Auburn and an unexpected winning season have eliminated any doubt that Newton will be part of the 2011 draft.
Draft stock: With Andrew Luck out of contention, Newton and Blaine Gabbert will gain greater focus. A lot of attention has been spent looking at Luck and talking about him as the #1 pick and nobody else has really been considered. Both Newton and Gabbert could be the first overall pick this year. Newton’s abilities on the field (rare athleticism given his size, sound throwing motion/arm strength, more capable as a passer than some believe) make him a prime candidate to go first overall.
His stock will be defined by team meetings during the combine and leading up to April’s draft. There are two main concerns in my opinion. Firstly – with everything proving so easy in college football due to his undoubted talent, how is he going to respond when life becomes more difficult in the pro’s? Is he going to be the ‘last out of the building’ type who can dedicate himself to tape? Will he struggle and lose interest and attempt to live off his athletic qualities?
Secondly, a story surfaced in November reporting that Newton was facing expulsion for academic cheating during his time with the Florida Gators. It needs to be distinguished whether this story is in fact true and whether it leads to any concerns about Newton’s ability to diagnose information. He’ll need to master a substantially larger playbook in the NFL than the one he’s used at Florida, Blinn and Auburn. Of course, the story may be true and justified in other ways – lack of academic interest for example (which may have since been rectified). It needs to be checked out though to justify the first overall selection.
It’s impossible to speculate whether any of this will affect Newton’s stock because unlike NFL teams – we have such little access to information and background checks. We won’t be able to meet with Newton regularly leading up to the draft like GM’s and coaches.
Talent wise he’s more than capable of being the first overall pick. If these issues prove enough of a concern to put teams off, you wonder if he will fall on draft day. I believe Newton has greater potential than Vince Young. In 2006, Young reportedly scored just six on the wonderlic but still went third overall. On-field talent can sometimes dwarf off-the-field concerns and that could also be the case for Newton.
Interested teams: With all four of the quarterbacks it’s still too early to accurately project who will be definitely interested. Teams will sign free agents, make trades or consider other needs that suggest they’ll avoid drafting a quarterback in round one. Even so – I would suggest seven of the teams in the top ten picks are very likely to consider the position early in the draft. Carolina (2-14) with the #1 pick have to consider Newton – who is a far superior talent to Jimmy Clausen. If he gets past the #1 pick then Buffalo or Cincinnati may keep him in the first round.
Even in a worst case scenario it’s hard to imagine Newton falling past Tennessee at #8, Minnesota at #12 or Miami at #15. He’s a top-15 lock who could easily go first overall.
Blaine Gabbert (Missouri)
Status check: Gabbert confirmed he would declare for the 2011 NFL draft earlier this week. The decision was made after a largely positive outing in the Insight Bowl against Iowa – although his interception return cost Missouri the game.
Draft stock: He lingered in the back of most minds throughout the 2010 college football season. Consensus opinion believed he would return to Missouri for another year, but it became increasingly clear over the last month that Gabbert was seriously considering the NFL. Despite losing the game with his pick-six, the Insight Bowl showed off his talents as a big-bodied, strong-armed quarterback capable of making NFL throws.
There’s a lot to like about his game – specifically how he understands when to take some velocity off the ball and make touch passes. Against Iowa he consistently flashed ability to thread the ball into a tight window with inch-perfect accuracy. NFL scouts will look at the arm, the size, the mobility and see major potential.
You’ll very rarely find a faultless prospect coming out of college – particularly at such a scrutinised position like quarterback. Gabbert is no different. The spread offense at Missouri had a lot of scripted or one-read passes which aren’t a great demand for a young passer as talented as this. Like Newton, he’ll have to learn the complexities of the pro-game to maximise his talent. The investment is in potential here that he could be the complete package. It’s whether he’s prepared to work – as Sam Bradford has done this year – to make the most of his physical talents.
All reports suggest Gabbert is a leader with good character and work ethic. There’s no reason to believe he won’t work on the things he needs to develop.
The other main issue is Gabbert’s occassional reckless decision making. He takes risks and sometimes needs to realise when a play is broken and it’s more important to live for another down. He isn’t the greatest throwing on the run – a similar issue to Ryan Mallett (see below) but these are coachable problems that don’t compare to the positives Gabbert will bring to a team.
With so many clubs needing a quarterback this year, it’s hard to imagine a guy like Gabbert making it out of the top-ten. There’s every chance he could be drafted first overall by Carolina. Right now his stock is firmly placed in the top-ten range and I see very little that can change that between now and April.
Interested teams:I look at the seven teams I’ve identified in the top-ten as likely to consider drafting a quarterback and it’s improbable to think none will take this guy. If he gets past the first wave of teams (Carolina, Buffalo, Cincinnati), there’s no way he’ll get past Arizona, San Francisco, Tennessee or Washington. If someone wants Gabbert bad enough they’ll have to trade up – but I can’t see him on the board when the 11th overall pick is called.
Ryan Mallett (Arkansas)
Status check: It was confirmed yesterday that Mallett will enter the 2011 NFL Draft. This was a forgone conclusion after coming close to declaring for the 2010 event. After transferring from Michigan to Arkansas, this was always expected to be the year he went pro.
Draft stock: Mallett made major strides this year – positives that are too often ignored to concentrate on the negatives. He’s improved his completion percentage from 56% to 65% this season. One of the biggest complaints about him was the poor record Arkansas had on the road in 2009 – something that improved in 2010 with key victories over Georgia, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Mississippi State. Overall he’s looked a much more polished prospect who always had incredible physical tools (amazing arm and size).
But aside from the physical qualities the biggest compliment you can give Mallett is his ability to dissect a defense, go through his progressions and open up the offense. He’s not just a big-arm who resorts to a series of long-bombs and some underneath stuff. He’ll go to a third or fourth option when he’s given time and in that sense, he might be more developed than any of the other prospects available in this class.
The problems really start and end with his footwork. This was no more emphasised during the Sugar Bowl – when Ohio State created constant pressure and didn’t allow Mallett to settle into the pocket. Although suggestions Mallett is a ‘statue’ are way off the mark (he’s more than capable of avoiding pressure when he needs to) he struggles to re-set his feet. Against the Buckeye’s he was constantly being asked to step into/out of the pocket and throw downfield. When he can’t re-adjust and needs to get the ball out – he loses the technique and mistakes happen.
Arkansas lost the game against Ohio State because of such an error – throwing straight to a defender when put under pressure. It was a similar story against Alabama earlier in the year – when he threw one pick trying to get the ball out of bounds (technique wobbled, ball thrown poorly) and another where he wasn’t able to plant his back foot and lobbed an awkward looking pass into double coverage.
What you’re left with is a weapon that could be capable of big numbers in the NFL. It’s hard not to think of a Jay Cutler/Ben Roethlisberger type QB when you see Mallett in terms of the potential for extreme quality but also erratic play and mistakes. The fades he threw against OSU were incredible, but he should’ve won the game for Arkansas at the end.
There are lingering concerns about his attitude, character and work ethic – as emphasised by this tweet from the NFP’s Wes Bunting. As with Newton, it’s something teams will have to do their homework on.
Interested teams: Mallett’s stock is the most debatable at this point. The need at quarterback and positives to his game could easily keep him amongst the top-15 picks. Tennessee at #8 have been prepared to ignore character time and time again (despite the recent decision to move on from Vince Young). It’s unlikely – in my opinion – that he would go as high as #5 to Arizona or be a Jim Harbaugh pick at #7, but his stock could fall between the Titans at #8 and Miami at #15. What about Jacksonville at #17? It really all depends on the character issues and if they’re addressed. I could see Mallett in the top-15 and I can see him falling into round two.
Jake Locker (Washington)
Status check: As the only senior in this quartet we already knew Locker would be part of the 2011 NFL Draft. Despite a limited performance statistically, Locker played his part in Washington’s upset victory over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.
Draft stock: Locker started the year amongst the top listed prospects for the 2011 draft. Some wondered whether he was a candidate to go first overall or even win the Heisman Trophy. It’s important to remember that the draft committee gave Locker a grade in the round two or three range last year. There was some speculation that he almost reversed his decision to return to Washington at the last minute.
It’s difficult to look at Locker’s 2010 season without some mixed feelings. The Huskies achieved a 6-6 record and made a Bowl game – before upsetting Nebraska in San Diego. For that reason it’s hard to question the decision to return – Locker achieved what he set out to do at the start of the year and his final game for Washington should be remembered fondly.
At the same time, he failed to improve on a 2009 campaign that put him on the national agenda. Scouts maintain concerns about his accuracy and decision making – he failed to become a more polished pocket passer. Disappointing performances against Nebraska (regular season), Stanford and Washington were of particular concern. Big games against USC and Oregon State were largely glossed over in comparison.
A lot of teams won’t regard Locker as a first round pick. I’ve read items that suggest teams don’t even consider him to be Washington’s best senior. That’s how negative some reviews have been – and clearly there are teams in the NFL who won’t be thinking Locker is worth the big investment.
However – there will be some that believe they are capable of turning him into a pro-level quarterback. Mike Shanahan is a fan of Locker’s and Washington own the 10th overall pick. I would be surprised if Seattle’s Pete Carroll didn’t share that enthusiasm. Although Locker’s stock will be defined by the team you’re speaking about – he will have admirers early in round one.
Interested teams: I would be very surprised if Locker lasts beyond the 10th overall pick and Washington. Shanahan will draft a quarterback and he’s a big Locker-fan. The question is for me – would someone take him earlier than that or trade up ahead of Washington? San Francisco are a possibility, what about Arizona and Tennessee? Would Minnesota or maybe even Seattle trade up above Washington? Even though I personally wouldn’t grade Locker that high – I think he will very likely be taken in the top 10-15.