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Rookie QBs will face pressure to play sans benefit of offseason

NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci, former coach of the 49ers and Lions, recently answered questions on a variety of topics.

In April, there were six quarterbacks taken in the first 36 picks and another went in the third round. Sam Bradford didn't waste any time making an impact as a rookie in 2010. There are also young guys like Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan, Mark Sanchez and Joe Flacco having early success. What do you make of the youth movement at the position? Is this cyclical or does it speak to a larger trend?

Mariucci: I think we hit it with a couple talented years here. I don't think every quarterback class will be as successful as we've seen. There is something to be said for the training that goes on, from the junior high stuff, to summer camps, to high school, to 7-on-7 passing leagues, to the elite 11 camps and into college. That is helping the development of quarterbacks before they get to the NFL. What might slow it all down is a trend to go to the spread offense and not having the familiarity with pro-style offenses.

There is a learning curve there. Blaine Gabbert ran an offense that wasn't conducive to the pro game (at Missouri), as did Cam Newton (at Auburn). And Andy Dalton (at TCU). They haven't run systems in college like Mark Sanchez did or Matthew Stafford or Matt Ryan. These kids ran pro-style offenses, they were under center, they did everything that we'll ask them to do. So when you watch them on film, all the training they've done shines through. But when you're back there in shotgun, running option and running the ball, those don't equate to what they'll be doing (in the NFL). There's very little similarity.

They will be even less patient if the CBA cuts rookie deals to four years instead of six. You will have to play the guy. You can't wait three years, like Aaron Rodgers, and then come in. You better play him and find out what you got. There will be a faster learning curve once they're drafted now.

One of your former teams, the 49ers, has a new coach, Jim Harbaugh. In your first year in San Francisco, the 49ers went 13-3 and reached the NFC title game. What are the things Harbaugh's going to need to do to have a successful first season?

Mariucci: See if Steve Young can play for him like he did for me. The division is not all that competitive. This is a division that is very winnable. You saw that last year with seven wins (being enough to win the NFC West), which is absurd. I think Jim can win the division this year. He's a little behind, having new coaches, new systems, etc. But the good news is nine wins can win this division.

I think they'll sign Alex Smith. They can't rely on Colin Kaepernick to win the division this year as a rookie … (he) just had surgery. They need a veteran to be functional enough, to have a young guy learn under him, win enough games to make the playoffs. And I believe that could be Alex Smith. He was in the system once before with Mike McCarthy, similar terminology. I think Jim will teach him quickly and he will be a very functional West Coast quarterback if he stays healthy. ...

Your other former team, the Lions, appear to be headed in the right direction and are getting a lot of buzz as a potential playoff team, even though they are in a tough division. Keeping Matthew Stafford healthy, obviously, is key, but what else does Detroit need to do to keep its momentum going?

Mariucci: They have to play better pass defense. That's a tough division. The Packers should win the division again, but remember that the Lions beat the Packers last year in a slow, boring game. You have got to be good at something in the NFL, and the Lions are getting away from being poor at many things to being closer to average at some of the statistical categories. But they have got to get better at pass defense. Now, they have a hell of a defensive line, maybe one of the best in the NFL. You got Ndamukong Suh, who proved his worth already; you've got Kyle Vanden Bosch, who is a terrific leader and still has some juice left; and now you have Nick Fairley to add to the mix. Their defensive front is good enough to control the game, but their back end needs some help. They have been getting sliced up in the secondary, which is a concern when Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler are in the division.

It's all about the division. If the Lions are playing in the NFC West, they might win that division. But they're not. The Packers are there, the Bears are for real, the Vikings are talented, too. The Lions are hoping for a wild-card spot, that'd be their ticket in. They are making some progress. The players they drafted the past couple years are contributing, playing, starting. They look like they're keepers.

Bart Scott said not having two-a-day practices is "wimping out." Are two-a-days even valuable, or is that time better spent in the classroom, coaching up the players?

Mariucci: The second practice can be valuable. There's a lot of time in a day to have meetings and still have two practices. Now consecutive two-a-days may not make a lot of sense. I've been around three practices a day and four practices a day. I think (the labor deal is) headed (toward) restricting two-a-days. The old school double-days for two or three weeks straight will go away, and it really already has. The more padded up practices you have, the more injuries are going to occur. That's a given. Over the past few decades, it's been calming down to more realistic workouts.

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