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In the past five drafts, 14 quarterbacks have been selected with a first-round pick. Eight are still either starting or have a chance to start in 2014. Six have, for all intents and purposes, flamed out, having been cast aside or demoted by the team that drafted them.
It is, obviously, very difficult to find a good quarterback, as these players illustrate. With Weeden and Gabbert recently getting the boot and with Sanchez perhaps about to, I thought I'd take a look at the recent first-rounders on the signal-caller trash heap. All were deemed worthy, at one point, of being selected with a very valuable draft pick. All -- with one notable exception -- had a chance to prove they could make a difference as recently as last season. What went wrong? And is there any life left in their careers?
Here, arranged according to the year in which they were drafted, is my breakdown of these quarterbacks.
Note: Because I wanted to concentrate on quarterbacks who might conceivably still be viable NFL players, I did not focus on Tim Tebow. But more on him in a bit ...
What went wrong: I think the Browns took Weeden, who had a relatively limited football background, too high; I had him going somewhere in the third or fourth round. Through two seasons in Cleveland, he struggled to handle and escape pressure, showing less than ideal mobility. It looked as if he didn't like to be hit; Weeden had problems against the blitz, relying too much on his arm rather than footwork. He does have outstanding arm strength and can throw the back-shoulder fade pretty well, but he's not accurate when going long.
He didn't have much football experience when he came into the league. After spending several years playing minor-league baseball, Weeden red-shirted at Oklahoma State in 2007 and was limited to backup duty in 2008 and 2009 before putting together two decent seasons. Of course, Weeden had the luxury of working with Justin Blackmon, who was a very good receiver, and operated in a simple spread offense that did not require him to make a lot of reads. He was sacked a ton with the Browns (55 times in two years), compiling a record of 0-5 last season and throwing nine picks in eight games despite working with the likes of Jordan Cameron and Josh Gordon.
Is there hope? After being outperformed by Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer in Cleveland in an injury-interrupted 2013 season, Weeden was released, then landed with the Dallas Cowboys, who must have been tempted by his arm and athletic body build. Ultimately, I think his lack of experience and his age (he'll turn 31 in October), will keep him from ever rising above backup status. It's tough to adjust to the pros without going through the traditional progression from high school to college. The learning curve is steep enough as it is for the young guys who have been groomed to play quarterback from Day 1; it must only get more difficult as one gets older. I think it'll be tough for him to improve on his deficiencies at this point. I would say Weeden's future in the NFL is somewhat limited.
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What went wrong: At Missouri, Gabbert didn't get to start as much as one might've liked, played mostly out of the shotgun and he probably was forced to come in for the Jaguars before he was really ready. He showed flashes of brilliance in college -- he'd do things that would make you say, 'He's going to be a star,' -- and continued to do so occasionally in the NFL, but he was ultimately far too inconsistent and seemed to lack the mental toughness needed to succeed. Gabbert has very good athletic ability and a strong arm, but he did not play with poise in Jacksonville. He'd often set up deep in the pocket and then flick the ball away or take off running at the earliest hint of pressure. Between that and the fact that he had a very average supporting cast -- at best -- throughout his tenure with the Jaguars, it's not a mystery as to why he's no longer with the team.
Is there hope? If there's a setting that will enable a guy like Gabbert to redeem his career, it's in San Francisco with Jim Harbaugh. Gabbert has outstanding talent, especially as an athlete, which likely explains why the Niners would be willing to trade a sixth-round pick to the Jags to see what they can do with him. If he can improve his work habits and learn to stand in there and deliver the ball, he's got a chance to do something.
What went wrong: Basically, I think he was overdrafted. After watching Cam Newton, Jake Locker and Gabbert all come off the board within the first 10 picks, the Vikings might have panicked a bit, leading them to pull the trigger on Ponder, which was a surprise to me. I'm not sure exactly what they saw in him; perhaps he blew them away in the interview room, but when it came time to show off his arm, the ball couldn't have gone very far. Of course, it only takes one team to fall in love with a guy for him to be drafted too high. He's a good person and intelligent, and sometimes you find yourself wishing for things that you know can't happen.
Ponder is a mentally tough guy, very smart, and has terrific intangibles; he has a lot of determination to be good. But as smart as he is, he's an average decision-maker, not very quick. He also puts a lot of arc on the ball and often underthrows receivers. He doesn't seem to have the physical ability -- namely, arm strength -- needed to compete in the NFL as a starter. Even when he was helping to lead the Vikings to a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance in 2012, he was averaging just 6.08 yards per attempt, ranking near the very bottom of qualifying quarterbacks. I think people looked at him on tape and realized he couldn't throw the ball downfield.
Is there hope? Ponder is athletic and has good leadership qualities, but he's not a franchise quarterback. Ponder struggled as part of the Vikings' troubled quarterback rotation last season, compiling a 2-6-1 record. Whatever happens in Minnesota in 2014, I think Ponder's lack of arm strength will ultimately keep him from ever being more than a backup.
What went wrong: Sanchez is, perhaps, the most accomplished quarterback on this list, having led the Jets to back-to-back appearances in the AFC title game in 2009 and 2010. But then the wheels seemed to fall off. After two uninspiring seasons, the Jets felt compelled to pick up a young quarterback in Geno Smith in last year's draft. Sanchez then suffered a preseason injury that kept him out for the entirety of the 2013 campaign, and Smith seemed to take the starting job for good.
Ultimately, I think he wasn't quite ready for the pros. In three years at USC, Sanchez started just 16 games, and I think a quarterback generally needs a minimum of 30 to truly be NFL-ready. I think his former college coach, Pete Carroll, was right to urge him to stay in school for one more season. The fifth-year pro doesn't seem to have a strong build, and there are questions about his durability.
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Is there hope? Sanchez does have ability, as his 400-yard game against Penn State in the 2009 Rose Bowl shows. You see some things in this guy. But I just don't think he'll be a starter at this point; I think he's a backup at best. I don't know if you can change a guy who's been around as long as Sanchez has, but if someone can get him to really dedicate himself to getting better, they'd be able to get something out of him.
What went wrong: Freeman led the Bucs to a 10-6 record in 2010, throwing 25 touchdown passes against just six interceptions -- and never got back to those heights again. After struggling to an 0-3 record to start the 2013 season -- completing just 45.7 percent of his passes for 571 yards and connecting for just two scores -- he was released by the Buccaneers. Freeman signed with the Vikings but never amounted to much in Minnesota, making just one start shortly after joining the team: a dreadful 190-yard outing in a loss to the New York Giants.
Freeman is big, strong and athletic; he has a good arm and can scramble. That said, he does not have good mechanics or accuracy. When the Vikings came to Dallas in November, I talked to Freeman -- who was in street clothes -- for about 30 minutes, and it didn't look like his mind was on football. I think Minnesota made a huge mistake in starting Freeman against the Giants so quickly; I don't think he was prepared.
Is there hope? When Freeman was jettisoned by the Bucs, ending a rocky relationship, I thought he still had a chance to do something in the NFL, because he did have some talent. But I think I was wrong about him. I'm not sure if he has the desire to get better. At this point, I think Vince Young, who is out of football altogether, is better than him. I'm not sure if Freeman will get another chance in the league, though I could see someone bringing him into camp on a minimum salary.
What about Tim Tebow?
Tebow (picked 25th overall by the Denver Broncos in 2010) is almost certainly the most famous of the first-round flame-outs of the past five years, but while the guys discussed above all had roster spots in 2013, Tebow has been out of football for a year. His career has also been parsed and discussed to absurd lengths at this point.
Still, for what it's worth, here's what I think happened with him: Between his hot streak to end 2011 and his shocking playoff victory for the Broncos, Tebow set expectations impossibly high. The play to lift the Broncos over the Steelers in that playoff game -- a slant that Demaryius Thomas took 80 yards to the house in overtime -- was one of those once-in-a-season type plays, but it was nationally televised and seen by a lot of people who maybe started to view Tebow as a better quarterback talent than he actually was. I think he really tried to work at it, but ultimately, he didn't have the ability to adjust to the demands of playing the position at the highest level.