The 2011 quarterback draft class is led by Cam Newton, the Heisman Trophy-winning and national-championship QB. He has all the physical traits of a future star and deserves to be the top pick in the draft. I do worry about performance meeting expectations, which is a problem at the top of the draft. Sam Bradford's rookie season might add even more pressure to the issues that face Newton.
Blaine Gabbert appears to be the second quarterback on most lists and should also go early. He has the physical traits to play at a high level, but he will see tons of pressure from defenses even though he has escape skills. There are times on film when he just doesn't handle pressure well.
It looks like a number of teams are going to try and strike gold in the second round of this draft, and I expect four quarterbacks to come off the board early in Round 2. The safe second-round pick could be either Christian Ponder or Andy Dalton. Former NFL QB Don Strock took a real close look at these quarterbacks for me and he thinks Ponder is the guy with the skills to succeed.
Player with most upside
Locker is a terrific athlete and has similar skills to a young Steve Young. I have watched more film of him than any quarterback in the draft, and he has a chance to develop into a special player. He's raw and frustrating at times when he bails from the pocket, but most of his issues are mechanical. If he goes to a team that can sit him for a year and continue the coaching Steve Sarkisian started two years ago at Washington, he could be a steal.
Biggest boom-or-bust prospect
The NFL game is won through the air, and Ryan Mallett has the best arm in the draft. Mallett lacks escape skills and has to win with decision-making and a quick release. People are quick to point out Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and even Dan Marino all won that way, but many other "pocket" passers have failed. His off-the-field issues need to be resolved for his focus to remain strictly on football. I have interviewed him numerous times and believe there's a lot to work with, and he knows he has to win in the pocket. He's 6-foot-7 and others are quick to say that not many guys that tall have succeeded in the past. His coach at Arkansas, Bobby Petrino, put a lot on his shoulders with line calls, audibles and a tough coaching style. Mallett can attack the whole field with his arm, but defenses will aggressively go after him knowing he's a stationary target.
My favorite sleeper
A sleeper is hard to identify in a world where every player is on the Internet and every prospect is discussed for months. No one is talking about Tyrod Taylor from Virginia Tech as a QB candidate, but rather a wide receiver, running back and return man. I interviewed him after watching the Florida State game when he threw three touchdowns. He is much more focused on being a quarterback, and his 44 career touchdown passes is four more than Gabbert and 18 more than Newton. Someone is going to give this guy a chance to take a snap. By the way, he also rushed for 2,200 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Player with most to prove
The quarterback drafted first usually has the most to prove, and that puts the spotlight on Newton. I have spent some time with him, and he has the skill sets to be the face of an organization. His issue is the lack of experience, even though he led Auburn to a national title.
Newton has only thrown 292 passes in Division 1 college football. The average for quarterbacks in a draft is much closer to 1,000 throws. Quick decision-making comes from repetition, and as Archie Manning once said to me, "That extra year of throwing in college games really helped Peyton and Eli."
Small-school prospect with a chance
Keep an eye on Nathan Enderle from Idaho. He has prototypical size at 6-4 and 240 pounds. He's a classic pocket passer with more than 10,000 passing yards and 74 touchdown passes. He needs a year or two on the practice squad, but there is plenty to like for a coach running a pro-style system.
Debunking a myth
A "spread" QB will struggle in the NFL. Many teams are already using spread principles, and playing from the shotgun is more prevalent every year. There were more than 40 snaps out of the shotgun in the past two Super Bowls.
Teams with the greatest need
More teams need quarterbacks than there are answers in the draft. Probably seven of the teams selecting in the top 10 need to consider a quarterback in this draft: Carolina, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Arizona, San Francisco, Tennessee and Washington. A few will hope for a trade or a free-agent pickup at some point this spring, but for the rest of them, it's the draft. Minnesota, Miami and Seattle are also waiting for a QB to slip to them.