INDIANAPOLIS -- If this is combine week, it must be time to focus like a laser on the first-round quarterback hopefuls and the prospect of one of them being the top pick in the 2011 draft. But at least I'm starting to understand the fixation we all seem to have with those particular topics, and I'll give you six very good reasons it continues to be annual source of debate and discussion:
Sam Bradford, Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco.
Once upon a time, and not all that long ago, conventional NFL wisdom held that drafting a first-round quarterback was a 50-50 crapshoot, a hit or miss proposition that was downright reliable in its unpredictability. But not lately. Have you noticed? With the possible exception of Denver rolling the dice on Tim Tebow at 25th overall last year -- a wild-card choice if there ever were one -- NFL teams have hit on their first-round quarterbacks for three years running.
Stafford has been injury prone in Detroit, but the Lions' first overall pick in 2009 has showed promise when healthy. Other than that caveat, nothing but quality young starters have entered the league in recent years: Atlanta's Ryan and Baltimore's Flacco in 2008; the Jets' Sanchez and Tampa Bay's Freeman in 2009; and St. Louis's Bradford last year.
Compare that to the more typical three-year period spanning 2005-2007 on the first-round quarterback front: The misses were JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn in 2007, Matt Leinart in 2006 and Alex Smith in 2005. Let's give Vince Young (2006) and Jay Cutler (2006) an incomplete, Jason Campbell (2005) an average grade and call Aaron Rodgers (2005) the cream of that particular crop. And it's worth noting that six of those eight quarterbacks are either no longer with the team that drafted them or about to part ways (Young in Tennessee).
Without a doubt, the three-year trend of successful first-round quarterback selections has made an impact on NFL decision-makers, and perhaps it will even embolden teams to select this year's top-rated passers -- Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Ryan Mallett -- higher than they otherwise might have. After all, seven of the draft's top 10 teams have legitimate quarterback needs, with No. 1 Carolina, No. 3 Buffalo, No. 5 Arizona and No. 8 Tennessee topping that list.
"There are a lots of different things that have gone into quarterbacks being successful the last few years,'' Bills head coach Chan Gailey said Thursday morning. "I think it makes everybody say, 'Let's not be so hard on that statistic [about first-round quarterback failures] from the last 15 years. Let's look at the last four or five [years].''
Nobody has a bigger quarterback decision to work through this offseason than Carolina, which is in position to mirror Detroit and St. Louis of the past two years and select a hope-generating franchise quarterback first overall. New Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was peppered with quarterback questions on Thursday, and he acknowledged that the NFL's recent run of first-round quarterback success stories leaves him hopeful rather than burdened by the weight of the pick.
"Very much so,'' Rivera said, when asked if the recent trend inspires confidence. "Look at the type of quarterbacks that have been drafted. Look at the size of these guys. They are all big men. Look at Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco. Cam [Newton] has got those types of physical attributes. He's a tall, powerful young man. He's got great athletic ability. He might be the best athlete of all of them. The one thing he does have is a great arm, and he's a winner. Go back to junior college and his college days and you can't pass that up. Again, there are eight to 10 guys we're looking at and we have to explore all avenues with everybody.''
Don't know if you caught that, but Rivera mentioned Newton at length, but never once in his media session brought up Gabbert or any other potential first-round quarterback. I came away thinking Carolina is likely considering only one quarterback for the top spot, Newton, and would look at someone from the ranks of Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, Georgia receiver A.J. Green, LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson or Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller if it didn't take a quarterback.
But Rivera, a longtime NFL defensive coach, more than once mentioned how tough it would be to compete in the talented NFC South without a franchise quarterback, be it one currently on the roster (2009 second-round pick Jimmy Clausen), one taken in the draft or one acquired via free agency or the trade market.
"Look at all three of those teams and they all three have franchise-style quarterbacks,'' said Rivera, referencing the Saints' Drew Brees, the Falcons' Ryan and the Bucs' Freeman. "If there is something that has to happen, we have to identify that and come up with our own. We have to get him.
"Look at throughout the league and how franchise quarterbacks [are pivotal] to what's happening in this league in terms of it becoming a passing league. Teams that have those guys that can attack you vertically are really tough.''
Is the NFL's streak of quality first-round quarterbacks a fortuitous aberration, or are league personnel evaluators just getting better at knowing what they're looking for? Are they catching instead of missing the red flags that once were ignored, and are they asking the right questions that help to identify those prospects who are destined for NFL success?
"If you talk to the personnel people, they'll probably tell you they're doing a better job of looking and finding the flaws that keep guys from being not as successful as some other guys have been,'' said Gailey, whose No. 3 Bills could be in the market for either Newton or Gabbert, and haven't had a successful long-term starter at quarterback since Jim Kelly retired.
"Probably the combination of doing a better job of finding all the information that you need to find out about, and maybe even some of the situations they have been in have really helped them. You look at Flacco, you look at [Sanchez]. They both have great defenses that don't make the quarterback go win every game.''
In yet another sign that the Panthers are seriously considering a quarterback at No. 1, Rivera said he planned to talk to fellow NFL head coaches who have recently been through the arduous process of scouting, researching and selecting a quarterback first overall -- the Rams' Steve Spagnuolo and Detroit's Jim Schwartz.
"I was talking with Steve [Spagnuolo] earlier with that thought in mind,'' Rivera said. "You most certainly should visit with people who have gone through the same experience and understand what they've gone through and what they had to do to make sure they got it right.''
If there is a rookie salary scale implemented this year as part of a new CBA, the cost of getting it wrong with a quarterback at No. 1 shouldn't be quite so devastating to a franchise. Bradford agreed to a six-year contract with St. Louis last summer that included a reported $50 million guaranteed. Those days are probably gone, although a $30 million to $40 million mistake won't hurt all that much less, I would imagine.
But the tricky part of this year's quarterback evaluation process is that the past three years of boffo drafting in the first round may not translate all that well to the 2011 QB class. Not when Newton has just one season of major college football under his belt, Gabbert comes out of a Missouri spread offense that may not leave him well-equipped to adapt to a pro-style attack, Locker had a disappointing senior season in most respects, and Mallett is dogged by questions regarding his inconsistency and immaturity.
"It's a different quarterback group,'' Gailey said. "These guys gave been in a lot of different types of offenses. It's not just your cut and dry pro-style type of quarterbacks that are in this draft. So you're projecting a little bit more maybe on this group than we have in years past.''
One NFL head coach told me Thursday that he would be scared of investing in Newton because "he hasn't thrown very much. He hasn't played very much. How you get good is you get about 10,000 reps of practice and playing in games. There's not a substitute for that.''
Mark Dominik made Freeman his first ever pick as Bucs general manager in 2009, moving up two spots in the first round, from 19th to 17th, to select him. In his first full season as Tampa Bay's starter, Freeman led the Bucs to a turnaround 10-6 record and the cusp of an NFC wild-card playoff berth. Though not in the market for a first-round quarterback this year, Dominik sees the challenges the 2011 class represents.
"I haven't studied this class as hard, but those last six quarterbacks taken in the first round were all pretty special people,'' he said. "I think it's fair to say there's a lot more work that needs to be done with this year's class in order for clubs to be comfortable selecting them, because of one season at Auburn, or coming out of Missouri's offense, or Locker's senior season not being as consistent as I'm sure he would have liked.''
It sounds like Carolina is about to commence the hard work that scouting and vetting Newton will be. The Panthers will watch every move he makes and try to hear almost every word he utters for the next couple months. And even then, it may come down to whether Carolina thinks it has to have a franchise quarterback to build around, whether Newton is completely NFL ready or not.
"Part of the process we'll go through is to see how he fits what we want to do,'' Rivera said. "As far as his skill set goes, the young man has tremendous talent. He has natural size and can run and has a tremendous arm. He's got a good pocket presence already. I think he's well on his way. Again, we have to go through that process. We're going to go to his workout [pro day], we're going to bring him in obviously and will go through that whole process to try and get a feel for how he learns.''
After the work is done, then it'll be time for Carolina to make its choice, perhaps making it three years in a row that a quarterback goes first overall, and for the 10th time in the past 13 years. If recent history holds, the Panthers will be very glad they did. But there are no 100 percent certainties in the scouting process. Newton could be another Bradford, Sanchez or Ryan. Or he could go the way of Russell, Quinn or Leinart. In the NFL Draft, the past is a guide, but never a guarantee.