Evaluating the 'Next Great QB' can be a risky proposition

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, in the midst of his team's surprising surge to the playoffs last season, admitted he didn't sleep well one night because he envisioned draft day: April 26, 2008.

"With the third pick, the Atlanta Falcons select LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey."

It wasn't the image of drafting Dorsey, which was a legitimate option for Atlanta, that prompted the uneasiness. Dimitroff really likes Dorsey and believes he'll be a dominating force for the Kansas City Chiefs, who chose Dorsey fifth overall. It was the thought of passing on quarterback Matt Ryan, who earned Rookie of the Year honors, helped the Falcons win 11 games and, in one season, laid a foundation to walk in the footsteps of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady.

Dimitroff, in his first season as a general manager, was awarded Executive of the Year honors, in part because he selected the quarterback who could be the pillar to the team's success for years. That one decision, to select the most important player on a football field, has put pressure on this year's general managers to do the same.

This year's top quarterback prospects -- Georgia's Matthew Stafford, USC's Mark Sanchez and Kansas State's Josh Freeman -- are being viewed differently than Ryan and Joe Flacco, who was selected 18th overall in 2008 and helped the Baltimore Ravens nearly reach the Super Bowl.

Ryan and Flacco were polished, having played through their senior years in college, gaining not only an additional year of on-field experience but some real-time maturity.

Stafford, Sanchez and Freeman left school after their junior seasons -- Sanchez with just 16 starts on his resume. All are physically gifted and have been pegged for stardom since high school. They all project to be solid pros, but there is more guesswork involved than there was last season. That guesswork includes concerns about them becoming the next David Klingler or Tim Couch, or each developing into Philip Rivers, Donovan McNabb or Ben Roethlisberger.

Compounding the evaluation process, there are arguably 10 or more teams that need to find a starting quarterback or need to begin grooming one, beginning with the Detroit Lions, who have the first overall pick in April's draft.

"When you look at the film, it's important for the quarterback to have accuracy and to make all the throws," said San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary, whose team's quarterback situation isn't overly stable. "You've got to have talent. You've got to be smart.

"What it comes down to for me is ... looking at the film and seeing what happens after he makes a bad play. What happens when he doesn't make the right read? How does he respond? What happens after he gets sacked? Is he afraid to stand in there and take a hit? What are the intangibles out of what his talent brings? Is he a leader?"

Questions, questions, questions.

Drafting a quarterback in the first round always is a risk, because a guy who has all the tools, plays in a pro system while in college and puts up big numbers against defensive players who also make it to the NFL doesn't always measure up. The list is lengthy. Then again, some of the best quarterbacks in NFL history answered the questions -- and then some.

"I'm paraphrasing Paul Brown, but the two most important positions in the game are pass rushers and quarterbacks," said Indianapolis Colts GM Bill Polian, who in 1998 drafted Peyton Manning, a perennial Pro Bowl selection, over Ryan Leaf, who flamed out after four underwhelming seasons. "If you have one, and you've identified one that you think can win for you, you have to pull the trigger.

"The big difficulty is trying to identify one that can win for you. That's a hard job. In our case, it was not as hard as it might be in other cases because Peyton was such a stick-out. If either of those two commodities do became available, you should take them because they're hard to come by and they do change the game, and you can't win big without either one of them."

So much of a quarterback's success has to do with the things that can't be known until he puts together that signature series under pressure. But the situation in which the quarterback enters the league could make the most difference. Consider Ryan's and Flacco's situations last season.

» The plan: To ease the burden on the rookie quarterback, the Falcons signed free-agent tailback Michael Turner to a six-year, $34.5 million contract and devised a running game to limit the times Ryan had to make plays with his arm. A deft blocking scheme was installed to make a unit that was among the worst in the NFL in 2007 one of the more efficient offensive lines in 2008.

Some of the teams that could draft a quarterback high, like the Lions or Jacksonville Jaguars, could opt to let Stafford or Sanchez sit and learn for a season behind veterans Daunte Culpepper and David Garrard, respectively. That also can allow a new front office and coaching staff to stockpile talent in other areas to make the transition to the pro game easier.

» The supporting cast: Flacco wasn't supposed to start for the Ravens, but health issues forced him into action in Week 1. The Ravens minimized the pressure on him by relying on their stonewall defense to establish field position. Baltimore's opportunistic defense allowed Flacco to make mistakes but not feel the negative effect of having opponents score after a turnover.

In this scenario, veteran teams such as the Jaguars or Chicago Bears could opt for a quarterback, and if forced to play one, they have the defense to keep them in games while the rookies figure out things.

» The coaching staff: Arguably the best scenario for a rookie to enter the league is with a new head coach. That coach typically will have at least three years to get his players and program in order. During that time, he could groom his system around the quarterback -- or vice versa. A more established coach usually doesn't need a highly drafted quarterback if things are going well.

If the coach's job is in jeopardy, and whether he stays or goes depends on the play of a young quarterback, there is immediate pressure for the player to perform at a high level. If he doesn't, all kinds of problems surface. The coach could be gone, a new staff could be hired and a new scheme that doesn't necessarily fit the quarterback's skill set could be implemented.

The Lions, St. Louis Rams, Kansas City Chiefs and 49ers all have new coaches, unsettled quarterback situations and top-10 draft picks.

Having started 33 games over three seasons in the talent-laden Southeastern Conference, Stafford said he is ready to deal with the challenges that lie ahead in the NFL. Having been the latest standout in USC's quarterback-rich program helped Sanchez decide to come out early, even though his coach, Pete Carroll, publicly said the quarterback could have used another year with the Trojans. Freeman is raw, but he is viewed as a better athlete than Stafford and Sanchez and could be a better pro in the long term.

All have been interviewed by several teams. Stafford and Sanchez have dined with the Lions' top brass. Dozens of coaches and scouts perked up in their seats at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday when the quarterbacks worked out at the combine (Stafford did not throw, but he will at his Pro Day next month).

The scrutiny is always intense, especially when it comes to using a first-round pick on a quarterback. Making the wrong choice could set a team back years on the field and with the salary cap. Bypassing the "Next Great One," though, is a proposition that has kept plenty of NFL general managers from sleeping well.

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