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Plenty of uncertainty surrounds this year's QB class

INDIANAPOLIS -- Quarterbacks usually dominate the conversation at the NFL Scouting Combine.

A year ago, the majority of the buzz was about JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn.

Go back to 1998, and virtually every media and NFL player-personnel type was fixated on Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf.

This year is different.

This year, no quarterback is being discussed in the same way that the eight who were selected No. 1 overall in the last 10 years -- Russell, Alex Smith, Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, David Carr, Michael Vick, Tim Couch, and Peyton Manning -- and other candidates for that distinction were talked about.

For now, the current college crop doesn't offer anyone at the position universally regarded as a likely top pick. For that matter, there isn't a true consensus on the best quarterback in the draft.

Some NFL talent-evaluators have even wondered exactly how high any of the quarterbacks would be selected. Top five? Top 10? Top 20?

Combine drills and individual on-campus workouts figure to play an important role in influencing how NFL teams will have the quarterbacks rated by the April 26-27 draft. Until then, many changes are anticipated.

"I think there could be a lot of lead changes throughout the group, so to speak," said Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak, who isn't afraid to be candid on the topic because his team isn't targeting a quarterback. "It all depends on the next two months and how these kids do, how they handle this weekend, how they handle their workouts. There are a lot of closely watched guys, who could separate themselves one way or another."

Matt Ryan, of Boston College, and Brian Brohm, of Louisville, come the closest to being widely viewed as having the potential to make an early separation. But there are questions about Ryan's athleticism and about the strength of Brohm's throwing arm.

After Ryan and Brohm, other quarterbacks worthy of at least first-day consideration are Chad Henne of Michigan, John David Booty of USC, Joe Flacco of Delaware, Colt Brennan of Hawaii, and Andre' Woodson of Kentucky. Questions abound with the other quarterbacks as well.

That isn't to say that one or more won't become a star in the league. Although the Manning brothers did the most to validate the use of a top overall pick on a quarterback by winning the last two Super Bowls, draft position is hardly a reliable indication of projected success at the position.

The Oakland Raiders are a long way from knowing what they have in Russell. The San Francisco 49ers still aren't sure if Smith, who is recovering from a shoulder injury, has what it takes to be their franchise quarterback.

Palmer has been a success story in Cincinnati, but the opposite is true with Carr, Vick, and Couch.

Every team would love to take a much lower financial risk yet still end up with the same incredible reward that the New England Patriots received after investing a sixth-round draft choice in Tom Brady.

However, if a team has a crying need at quarterback, it might not be able to resist selecting one in the upper tier of the first round, even if the player isn't necessarily rated that high.

Such could very well be the case for the Miami Dolphins, who own the No. 1 pick and are uncertain whether John Beck (a second-rounder in 2007) should be their starter. The Atlanta Falcons, who ended up with the third overall choice after a coin flip, also figure to be in the market for a quarterback. The same is true with the Kansas City Chiefs, who wound up with the fifth pick after the flip.

"It's exciting to be mentioned in that light," Ryan said of being a potential No. 1 choice. "But for me, I just hope somebody gives me an opportunity to go in and compete and help try to make an organization a winner. It doesn't really matter what number pick that is, as long as someone gives me a chance."

Legitimate cases can be made for the top choice to be a defensive lineman (Virginia's Chris Long or LSU's Glenn Dorsey) or a running back (Arkansas' Darren McFadden) or perhaps even an offensive tackle (Michigan's Jake Long or Boise State's Ryan Clady).

Henne, for one, doesn't buy any argument that this year's quarterback class is weak.

"I think this year's class is one of the best quarterback classes we've had in a long time," he said. "We all have experience at the college level. I think there are some stars out there."

But Henne also acknowledged the importance of how well he and the other quarterbacks perform here and on their own campuses in the coming weeks.

Most NFL coaches and general managers are anxious for those results.

"We have to sort them all out," Kubiak said. "To stand here today and say this guy is going to go here and that guy is going to go there, I don't know. I can't tell.

"I know there is still a lot of work to be done."

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