When Blaine Gabbert takes the field Thursday for his much-anticipated pro day at the University of Missouri, the ex-Tigers quarterback is probably going to be wearing some version of the No. 11 jersey he helped make popular during his collegiate career. But it might as well be a question mark on his shirt as far as the NFL is concerned.
Because with just six weeks left before the draft starts to unfold on the evening of April 28 at New York's Radio City Music Hall, plenty of unknowns still remain when it comes to the junior who might wind up leading the league's annual parade of draft picks.
As potential No. 1 picks go, Gabbert is something of a blank slate, even at this relatively late date in mid-March. But that's where Thursday's pro day looms so large. The eyes of the NFL will fully be on Gabbert for the first time in Columbia, Mo., after the quarterback elected not to throw for league talent evaluators at last month's scouting combine in Indianapolis.
What will they see, and what will Thursday's spotlight moment prove to the NFL about Gabbert and his potential as a franchise quarterback? I put those questions this week to the man who has watched him closest for the past two months-plus, as Gabbert went through his draft-season paces and prepared to show off his best side to the NFL: quarterback coach Terry Shea, the ex-NFL offensive coordinator who has tutored him on behalf of Athletes Performance Institute in Arizona.
Shea has been here and done this before and knows the terrain by now. In the past two years alone, he has helped shepherd first-round quarterbacks Sam Bradford, Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman through the pre-draft on-field process, in affiliation with agents Tom Condon and Ben Dogra at Creative Artists Agency. Bradford and Stafford, of course, went No. 1 overall the past two drafts, and Freeman has been an early success story in Tampa Bay after being selected at No. 17 in 2009.
"I believe what they'll see is a quarterback whose skill level is very high,'' Shea said by phone Tuesday. "It's right there, as good as I've seen from some of the other guys I've been with in recent years. I know it's at the same level as those other guys. I can't imagine anyone who has the need to draft a quarterback not taking this guy. You talk about being the face of the organization and being the guy who you put out there, he's got it. He certainly looks the part. I don't like to play the comparison game, but this young guy has the tools and the makeup to be what you're looking for.''
What we do know about Gabbert so far is this: He gets high marks for his athleticism, running a 4.62 40-yard dash at the combine, and his intelligence, scoring a 42 out of 50 on the much-debated Wonderlic Test. NFL scouts love his prototypical quarterback size (a shade over 6-foot-4, and 234 pounds), the football-first work ethic that all attest to, and a commanding presence and personality that lends itself to the unique demands of a franchise quarterback. In short, he looks and acts like a top of the draft quarterback.
But we also know this: Having played in Missouri's spread offense, Gabbert enters his pro day workout needing to show the NFL that he can master the mechanics of playing quarterback from under center, rather than in the shotgun. And his track record at Missouri wasn't exactly a record-breaking tour de force performance. Gabbert wasn't on the Heisman radar, didn't make All-America, and his passing statistics left him in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 (seventh among starters in completion percentage at 63.4, eighth in yards per attempt at 6.7, and eighth in passer efficiency rating at 127.1). Gabbert led the Tigers to a 10-3 season, but Missouri was only eighth in the conference in scoring offense in 2010, and most of the attention went to a Tigers defense that led the Big 12 with only 16.1 points allowed per game.
Some scouts I've talked to in recent weeks rave about Gabbert's measurables, but they're not yet sold on his accuracy making throws outside the hash marks, or question whether he consistently enough stretched the field vertically in Missouri's offense. And that's where an impressive pro day could greatly aid Gabbert's cause, giving scouts a comfort zone that his arm is NFL material in every way.
"I really believe I've got a pretty good pulse on it, and I don't understand the feedback about whether or not he can move the ball up the field,'' Shea said. "In terms of the 25- to 45-yard throw, he has tremendous spin on the ball, and the ball will travel. Every once in a while he'll be a little high. So his release point has to be tinkered with some. If he's off target at all on Thursday, it won't be because he underthrows it. It's that he'll be a little high on some throws. But everybody watching on the sideline will get their money's worth when he's throwing the ball.''
As for Gabbert's footwork and ability to transition to playing under center, Shea looks forward to Thursday's session putting that concern to rest. He points out that Gabbert played in and was schooled in a pro-style offense in high school, and says unlike other spread-offense QBs, Gabbert is already "fluid with his feet, and looks like he's been taking snaps from under center from the very start'' of his career.
To help prove that point, Shea said Gabbert will conduct his entire pro day workout from under center, with ex-Tigers center Tim Barnes on hand to snap the ball to his former quarterback. Every play will hopefully re-enforce that Gabbert's footwork is NFL ready, and no Tim Tebow-like transition away from the shotgun formation will be necessary.
"He just looks like a quarterback who has played under center from the very beginning,'' Shea said. "The Missouri experience gave him another angle, but he doesn't look unnatural or uncomfortable under center at all. He separates from under center very well, and he's got great balance and his feet look alive as he gets back to his set-up point very smoothly. He comes over the top with that circular [throwing] motion of his, and drives the ball with tremendous velocity. He's been able to prove to me in the last nine weeks that he can throw the ball at a lot of different angles with a lot of different touch. What more can he really prove than that?''
Scouts will also be watching to see how Gabbert handles the pressure-packed environment of his pro day workout. After all, his likely competition for the No. 1 overall pick, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, has already thrown three times this spring (with mixed results): Once for the media in early February, again at the combine, and again last week at Auburn's pro day. But for Gabbert, Thursday shapes up as a one-time deal. Though he'll likely have some private workouts, you know what they say about getting just one shot at first impressions.
Bradford, who held last year's most anticipated pro day workout, will be a tough act to follow. The Heisman-winning Oklahoma quarterback was coming off major shoulder surgery in the fall of 2009 and nothing less than the No. 1 overall pick of the Rams hinged on how he threw at his pro day. He didn't just impress, he hit a grand slam, completing all but one of his pro day passes in a workout that was hailed as the best anyone had seen from a college quarterback in decades.
Shea said Gabbert never wavered in the plan to place all his chips on his pro day showing, an approach that has worked well for past CAA clients such as Bradford and Stafford. But he concedes it does amp up both the pressure and the expectation level for Thursday, a challenge he believes Gabbert will relish.
"That's a question I'm not certain I have an answer for,'' said Shea, when asked how he thought Gabbert would respond to the pressure. "But I've been with the kind of guys that have met the same challenge, and I know that Blaine is a fierce competitor. That will jump out at you as much as anything. He really slices himself up when he throws a ball that he shouldn't have. That competitiveness really comes out. I really sense that he's going to be ready and be there to compete. He sure shows me that side plenty.''
The only caveat Shea offers is that unlike Bradford, Gabbert will not be throwing to familiar receivers who he played with in college. There are no Missouri receivers coming out in this year's draft, so Gabbert will throw to receivers he just started working with only four days ago. Given some take issue with his accuracy, that unfamiliarity could factor in to his performance.
"I knew going into this thing that he'd have to achieve a certain comfort zone for people,'' Shea said. "I believe when coaches and scouts come to watch the event, they'll be able to appreciate what kind of presence he brings as a quarterback, but also how solid he is mechanically as well. From a mechanic standpoint, he's probably as athletic as they come compared to the recent group I've worked with. He's going to be A-plus with his footwork.
"And we're going to show him in every situation we can possibly present. Have him under center, have him moving around, throwing from different angles, and into different windows. It's just a matter of can he demonstrate the accuracy? Because his accuracy will probably be the determining factor of how high he's going to go.''
For Gabbert, the time to step up and answer has finally arrived, and his right arm and passing form will do most of the talking. Thursday's pro day means throw day, and with it, we get to see if his showing makes the question marks disappear.