COLUMBIA, Mo. -- You have to take a pro-day workout partly as the dog and pony show it is, but Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert officially has given the Carolina Panthers a decision to make at the top of the 2011 NFL Draft.
Throwing for the first time before representatives from all 32 teams, Gabbert threw accurately and moved with smooth athleticism in a well-reviewed, 25-minute pro day workout on Thursday at the University of Missouri. If the No. 1 Panthers want to take a quarterback, they now must put Gabbert and Auburn's Cam Newton side by side and choose the one they feel has the most potential to be a clear-cut franchise passer.
Gabbert turned some heads here and won himself some believers among those who wondered if he could make the transition to playing quarterback under center after starring in the spread offense in his two years of starting duty at Missouri. Starting all 64 of his pass plays by taking a center snap, Gabbert looked fluid and comfortable throughout his drills, and his accuracy never suffered no matter if he threw on the move or after setting up in the pocket.
"He's my No. 1 quarterback, and to me he's the one quarterback in the draft who, if you've got to bang the table for a franchise quarterback, he's the guy,'' NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said after Gabbert's workout. "The kid confirmed everything you want to see in a franchise quarterback. I thought he did as good as he could have. His footwork was real clean. His arm was real accurate, and his arm strength was great.''
Gabbert was the obvious center of attention at the Mizzou pro day. The event drew a staggering 125 NFL personnel evaluators, according to Missouri's sports information staff, including six head coaches: The Jets' Rex Ryan, Vikings' Leslie Frazier, Titans' Mike Munchak, Bengals' Marvin Lewis, Broncos' John Fox and the 49ers' Jim Harbaugh. In addition, team executives such as Denver's John Elway, Buffalo's Buddy Nix, Detroit's Martin Mayhew, Tennessee's Mike Reinfeldt and Minnesota's Rick Spielman were on hand.
Gabbert chose not to throw at the NFL Scouting Combine last month in Indianapolis, so league scouts were getting their first real chance to see him throw live on Thursday. But more chances will follow, because teams such as Carolina, Denver, Miami and Baltimore have scheduled private workouts with Gabbert, sources said. The Panthers will meet with him Saturday in Charlotte. Gabbert also said he would have dinner with Vikings team officials tonight in Columbia, after having dined with Buffalo executives Wednesday night.
Gabbert certainly looked like the real deal in the controlled environment that is a pro day, with its scripted passing workout. In terms of his live drills, he completed all but six of his 49 passes, with three of those registering as drops by his four receivers. Gabbert had three passes that he clearly would have liked to have back -- a dig route in which he threw behind his intended target, a deep sideline ball that was overthrown, and a wounded duck that he offered up on a deep post route. But NFL coaches and executives I talked to after his workout praised his performance across the board.
"He's a very good athlete and has very quick feet,'' one AFC offensive coordinator said. "He moved around really well today and he showed me plenty with his arm. I didn't see anything not to like.''
Said new Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden: "You knew he could run, but sometimes that doesn't really translate to the position. But his athleticism really showed today. And he spun the ball pretty good. It was impressive.''
I took a limited and informal poll among some NFL personnel evaluators and asked them how Gabbert compared at this point in the pre-draft process to recent first-round quarterbacks like Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford, both of whom went first overall? The consensus was that Gabbert, despite having relatively modest success as a collegiate starter, certainly measured up based on his pro day showing.
"What I liked most was his movement today,'' said Gabbert's pre-draft quarterback coach Terry Shea, who also worked with Stafford, Bradford and Tampa Bay's 2009 first-round pick, Josh Freeman, in the past two years. "He looked so quick. Maybe it was 'game day' for him, but he looked so quick and fluid. We did everything we needed to do for the NFL, other than do it against a live pass rush. From that standpoint, it was an A-plus for him.''
Gabbert's had accuracy issues at times at Missouri, especially when the Tigers attempted to stretch the field vertically, and when Gabbert had to throw outside the numbers. With that in mind, Shea scripted a workout that had him throw 23 passes of at least 15 yards, and another 20 or so balls that were outside the numbers and near the sideline. When rolling out to either the left or right, or dropping into the pocket, Gabbert exhibited smooth footwork without seeing his accuracy suffer.
"He's very excited about his workout,'' Shea said. "He's very disappointed with how he squeezed the ball on that one deep post throw, because it kind of wobbled. But knowing him, if I hadn't drilled him to the point where I said 'You're not going to repeat any throw,' he would have wanted to step back in there and throw that one again. But you don't get a second chance.''
At least not when it comes to first impressions. The Panthers didn't send either head coach Ron Rivera or general manager Marty Hurney to Columbia, but they were well represented, with no less than five members of the team's coaching and scouting staffs (QB coach Mike Shula and college scouting director Don Gregory among them).
As for Gabbert, who does not lack for confidence in his game, he pronounced himself pleased with his pro day efforts and said he was glad to show off all the work he and Shea have been doing since January.
"The biggest thing we wanted to do was show the transition in my footwork from the spread,'' Gabbert said. "It was our time to show to everybody that we worked hard to make the transition to the NFL. The footwork is not hard, and I've been working on it all along. It was just showing everybody that I can do it, and I thought I did a pretty good job of it today.
"I threw the ball from under center and that was the biggest thing the coaches wanted to see, my transition in taking the three-, five-, and seven-step drops from under center. It was our day to go out here and show the teams what we've worked on the last 10 weeks and that we can do it in the NFL. I was just out there having fun.''
• Other highlights of the Missouri pro day included a 4.33 time in the 40 by Lindenwood College receiver Jamere Holland, who was one of Gabbert's two wide receivers during the passing drills. Holland, who was previously at both USC and Oregon, ended up at the NAIA school in St. Charles, Mo.
Missouri cornerback Kevin Rutland also helped his draft chances with a 4.43 in the 40, which was significantly better than the 4.65 he ran at the combine. As for Missouri defensive end-outside linebacker Aldon Smith, a certain first-round pick who could go as high as No. 11 to Houston, he impressed NFL scouts with his showing in the drill work. Smith didn't run, standing on his combine time, but did many of the other drills with obvious athleticism and impressive speed. Known for his ridiculously long wingspan, Smith measured an eye-opening 84 inches in that department on Thursday.
As good as Gabbert looked, the star of the day may have been Jamorris Warren of Central Missouri State, who made a circus-like, one-handed catch on the sideline. He drew praise from scouts in attendance.