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After Gabbert, Newton QB draft class becomes murky

INDIANAPOLIS -- Auburn's Cam Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert are considered the top quarterbacks entering the 2011 NFL Draft, but, using the principle of supply and demand, that won't be enough inventory to satisfy the need.

There are at least eight NFL teams in pretty dire straits at quarterback, and the pickings in free agency (whenever that begins, depending upon a new CBA) and possible trades aren't deep or comforting. That leaves a group of other draft-eligible prospects -- Washington's Jake Locker, Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, TCU's Andrew Dalton, and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick, among others -- as possible solutions.

The key word being "possible."

"It's a really good year to be a quarterback," Locker said.

It is for the players, such as Locker, because there are plenty of teams looking to them for answers to their glaring weakness under center. Whether any of these players not named Newton or Gabbert can convince a team to take a chance on them will be one of the most intriguing storylines heading into the April 28 draft.

Carolina, Buffalo, San Francisco, Tennessee, Minnesota, Arizona, Washington, and Miami are in the quarterback market, and all pick in the top 15. Cincinnati, which holds the fourth overall selection, also could join that group, with starter Carson Palmer threatening to retire if he's not traded.

"I think there is a right time, and the right time is now, to be honest with you," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "You need to get a quarterback, and if you're ever afforded the opportunity, you need to jump on it. That's very important. That's the one position, even if you have somewhat of a need, you need to be very aggressive with a quarterback. You put him in a situation where schematically you're controlling his reps and exposure while still allowing him to learn on the fly.

"This is about learning now and not waiting four years, like back in the day."

Some of those teams likely will pursue veteran quarterbacks, and others will take Newton and Gabbert off the board relatively early -- at least based on current projections. After that, things could get very interesting, one general manager said.

With so much emphasis placed on finding a franchise quarterback and with so many recent top draft picks having immediate success (Mark Sanchez, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Josh Freeman, Sam Bradford), there could be teams that feel pressure to take a shot earlier at finding a jewel among the prospects, the general manager said.

After all, if a team hits, then its fortunes could turn right away. If it misses, well, look at the Titans (Vince Young), Cardinals (Matt Leinart) and 49ers (Alex Smith). They're back to quarterback shopping.

There is no telling how many teams will use a first-round pick on a quarterback -- Bradford and Tim Tebow were the only first-round quarterbacks last year; Matthew Stafford, Sanchez and Freeman went in 2009. So it wouldn't be out of the ordinary if just one or two are taken in the first round in late April, especially with most of the teams in need drafting so high.

However, if a team starts to trade back or moves from a lower round into the back half of the first round or early second round, a quarterback could be the lure.

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The majority of the prospects, except for Gabbert, plan to throw at the NFL Scouting Combine this weekend, something the top quarterbacks tend to avoid until they have their pro days, where they throw to receivers they're familiar with in a controlled setting. Gabbert said he doesn't feel he is harming himself by not throwing, adding that all the quarterbacks are competing to be the first one picked.

Mallett (6-foot-6, 253 pounds) is the prototype pocket passer who fits most of the NFL criteria. He's got the big arm, accuracy, size and ability to make all the throws. He threw 62 touchdowns and 19 interceptions the past two seasons and definitely looks the part.

There have been several scouts and talent evaluators here at the combine who have said Mallett gets a little flustered when he's under pressure, which is a concern because a player tends to revert to old habits under duress. However, he can be coached to make better decisions. The concern among some scouts and personnel folks at the combine has been deemed off-field, with nobody willing to disclose the alarms.

The red flags aren't coming from agents or people with agendas to diminish Mallett's draft appeal. So Mallett likely is going to have to spend a good amount of time dealing with character questions. He won't be the first player to be in that situation, and if he handles himself well, he could help improve his stock, especially because the reviews of him as a player are pretty positive. One scout said if not for the off-field concerns, Mallett would be considered a definite first rounder.

Locker (6-2½, 231) might be the most enigmatic of the lot. There was a lot of thought about him possibly challenging Bradford to be the top pick in 2010, had Locker left Washington after his junior season. Now he's in Brian Brohm territory, following the former Louisville standout whose stock dropped from a sure-fire top-10 pick after his junior season to a second-round choice after a so-so senior year.

Locker's athleticism, especially his ability to extend pass plays or take off for big yards, plays to his favor. More than one personnel guy said he could be a first-round pick. His drop-off in production and so-so accuracy are working against him. He also was outplayed by players of lesser stature at the Senior Bowl.

"I'm going to control what I can," Locker said. "I'm going to go out and be as prepared for every step of this process as I can, have fun with it, enjoy it, and show all the teams who I am on and off the field. Wherever that puts me, I'd be happy to go to any team that wants to draft me."

Kaepernick (6-6, 225) is rising among the prospects. His strong Senior Bowl showing sent NFL evaluators back to the video room to examine more film of his four seasons as starter at Nevada. He's the only player to pass for more than 10,000 yards and rush for more than 4,000 in a college career. And, along with Newton and Tebow, Kaepernick is the only player to rush and throw for 20 or more TDs in a single season.

Kaepernick is viewed as a developmental prospect, but, again, need could accelerate which round in which he is drafted. One personnel evaluator said Kaepernick is emerging as a "safe" pick, meaning he's someone who could evelove into a really good player.

Dalton is fifth on NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock's quarterback rankings. Dalton has shown over four years that he is consistent, and he's become more accurate each season, capping his senior year with 27 touchdowns and six interceptions. He has the arm strength and the leadership intangibles that coaches love, but at 6-1, his height and overall game have him pegged as more of a developmental player.

Other quarterbacks who will garner attention are Iowa's Ricky Stanzi, Delaware's Patrick Devlin and Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor.

Taylor is one of the more accomplished prospects, but his height (6-1) is a reason he's not considered among the top-tier QBs. Taylor said that he has spoken with several teams informally, that all of them view him as a quarterback, and that he has no plans to try another position.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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