• For a while Thursday night at the draft, the NFL was picking like it was 1999. Quarterbacks everywhere you looked.
Not since that spring's momentous spree of five quarterbacks being selected in the first dozen picks had the NFL seen such a parade of passers at the top of the draft: Cam Newton first overall to Carolina, as expected; the shocker of Jake Locker to Tennessee at No. 8; Blaine Gabbert "falling'' to a trading-up Jacksonville at No. 10; and the surprising choice of Christian Ponder at No. 12 to the Vikings. Four out of the top 12 selections were QBs, just behind the draft's pace of 12 years ago.
We knew going into this draft's opening night that quarterbacks would take center stage for a few obvious reasons. It wasn't hard to figure out that with so many teams desperate for quarterback help (at least 10) and free agency coming after the draft in this labor-affected offseason, the prospects at the game's most pivotal position might get overvalued.
But we still managed to underestimate how much the NFL operates under this rather straight-forward premise: If you don't have a quarterback, you really don't have a chance. And teams will do almost anything to fill their vacancy under center.
So much for the notion that this year's first round would be dominated by defense, especially on the D-line. In the top 12, seven offensive players came off the board, highlighted by the four quarterbacks, as well as receivers A.J. Green (No. 4 to Cincinnati) and Julio Jones (No. 6 to Atlanta in a blockbuster trade-up by the Falcons).
Clearly, the mantra of some teams on this night was beware of passing on the passer, rather than beware of passers who might not be ready for the lofty draft position bestowed upon them. The jury, of course, is certainly still out on the likes of Newton, Locker, Gabbert and Ponder, none of whom can be considered to be locks to be their team's opening-day starters (with the possible exception of Ponder in Minnesota).
No matter. NFL teams perhaps have gotten much bolder of late when it comes to taking first-round quarterbacks, thanks to the early-career success of six QBs: Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco in 2008, Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman in 2009, and Sam Bradford in 2010. Only Denver's Tim Tebow, who went 25th overall last year to Denver, bucks that near-historic trend.
But that's where 1999 might come in as a useful reminder of the risks that were taken Thursday night. That famous quarterback class had just two success stories, and three swings and misses -- a 40 percent rate of success that's much closer to the norm over the years. Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb (No. 2) and Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper (No. 11) paid the kind of dividends that made their price tag defensible. But Cleveland's Tim Couch (No. 1 overall), Cincinnati's Akili Smith (No. 3), and Chicago's Cade McNown (No. 12) were costly and early flameouts.
It's not breaking news to say the NFL is a quarterbacks league, but it's now true more than ever. Teams reached Thursday night for passers. I'm certain of that. We just don't know yet which ones, and how far their overextension entailed. The first round of 2011 now becomes one of those quarterback classes that we'll track for years to come. For the sake of the Panthers, Titans, Jaguars and Vikings, let's hope that's where the comparisons to 1999 begin and end.
• Speaking of scrutiny, Atlanta gave up a ton-and-a-half of draft currency to move up 21 spots to No. 6 and take Alabama's Jones. And I love it. You need to have some conviction in this draft business, and Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff is in no short supply of either belief in his own judgment or a sense of moxie.
Earlier this month, when I spoke to Dimitroff about this draft, he repeatedly returned to a theme of being willing to take a chance in the first round -- if you think you have identified a difference-maker for your team.
"You cannot be afraid to go for it when you get the chance to make something big happen,'' he said. But I didn't know he meant that big. The Falcons sent five picks to Cleveland for the No. 6 slot: This year's first- (27th overall), second- (59th) and fourth-round (124th) picks, as well as next year's first and fourth. That's not Herschel Walker deal territory, but you can see it from there.
Dimitroff looked at his 13-3 Falcons and deduced their top need was for another impact receiver to pair with All-Pro Roddy White. Atlanta was clearly not going to be able to consistently beat the likes of New Orleans in its division and Green Bay in the NFC unless it could increase its explosiveness on offense. The playoff-opening rout at home against the eventual Super Bowl-champion Packers merely showed Dimitroff how much firepower his team lacked.
Is Jones worth that kind of bounty? The track record of first-round receivers emphatically says no. But if he helps the Falcons maximize the window of Super Bowl opportunity they currently have, at what price that kind of glory? I give Dimitroff credit for going all in, and rolling the dice on a player he believes will help Atlanta reach elite status.
• I'm not saying No. 2 overall pick Von Miller is the next Aaron Curry, but the history of taking outside linebackers in the top five, then playing them in 4-3 defenses, isn't all that glowing in terms of recent impact.
Curry went fourth overall in 2009 to Seattle and hasn't done much yet. Others who haven't or didn't earn their top-five billing include Keith Rivers (9th to Cincy in 2008), A.J. Hawk (No. 5 overall in 2006 -- he's now in a 3-4) and LaVar Arrington (No. 2 pick in 2000).
That's not the most exhaustive sampling, but the point is the track record isn't all that good. Maybe Miller breaks the mold in Denver. But if not, the Broncos might be guilty of ignoring the lessons of (recent) history, and being doomed to repeat them.
• So the Jimmy Clausen era in Carolina becomes the Jimmy Clausen error. Or does it? What if Clausen is given the chance to compete on a level playing field with rookie Cam Newton, and clearly beats him out in the preseason? Could happen. If the Panthers let it. But they wouldn't be the first franchise to make sure their new franchise quarterback "won'' a training camp competition.
• Score another one for the science that is draft analysis. (And I'm aiming that one at myself as much as anyone who attempts to predict what will unfold.) Back in January, when the draft chatter first started percolating, most every mock was trying to decide between Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers and Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley for the No. 1 slot.
Neither one even made the top 10 when all was said and done. True, Bowers' balky knee knocked him way down draft boards, and Fairley's work ethic and character didn't fare well enough upon closer inspection (he went 13th to Detroit). But the gist of it all is so much of what we think we "know'' during draft season turns into so much blather. And it happens every year.
• I'm told Ponder is a really impressive young man, interviews well and really has the mental and personality aspects of playing quarterback down pat. But when's the last time a Florida State quarterback really made anything happen in the NFL? Probably Brad Johnson, and he wasn't even a fulltime starter for the Seminoles and had to fight his way up the ranks after being Minnesota's ninth-round pick in 1992.
• Smart move, Da'Quan Bowers, choosing to not attend the draft's first round. Who needs the misery of sitting there and waiting for your name to be called while other players blaze a trail to the podium and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell?
Bowers could still go first overall, of course. But now the best he can do is lead off the second round on Friday night, which definitely was not what he had in mind.
• Like the Falcons, NFC South division mate New Orleans went for it, too, trading back up into the first round (No. 28) to take Alabama running back Mark Ingram. The price once again was high. New Orleans had to give up its first-round pick in 2012 to get New England's No. 28 selection.
But I like that Sean Payton's club came away with two well-experienced and proven players in the first round: Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan at No. 24, and Ingram. Both are the sons of former NFL stars. They're used to being around the league, and the game at this level won't be a shock to their systems.
But what is it with the Saints and drafting Heisman-winning running backs? George Rogers, Ricky Williams, Reggie Bush and now Ingram. And some of those didn't have to vacate their Heisman win.
• So much for Andy Dalton Fever. I was told it was catching as Thursday night's first round approached. Guess not. After Ponder went off the board to the Vikings at No. 12, the following QB-needy teams took a pass on the redhead from TCU: No. 15 Miami, No. 16 Washington, and No. 25 Seattle (my pick for his landing spot).
Dalton, Arkansas's Ryan Mallett, Nevada's Colin Kaepernick and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi might all be second-round options Friday night.
• Seattle taking Alabama tackle-guard James Carpenter had to rate as one of the biggest first-round head-turners; but don't scoff at the pick. The Seahawks are building a quality young line, and they have ex-Raiders head coach Tom Cable on hand to work with it. Carpenter will join 2010 first-rounder Russell Okung and 2009 second-rounder Max Unger to form the nucleus of a very promising unit in Seattle.
• Browns fans might be disappointed in the near term, because they didn't get an impact playmaker like Jones up high, but Cleveland set itself up nicely for the rest of this draft and next year in its deal with Atlanta. And I also like the Phil Taylor selection at No. 21, moving up six spots from 27th (dealing with Kansas City) to take the Baylor nose tackle.
The Browns are in a tough, rugged division, and you have to have the big boys up front to compete with the Ravens and Steelers, matching the likes of Haloti Ngata and Casey Hampton at nose.
• Not a great final mock effort from yours truly. My 6.0 direct hits were Cam Newton at No. 1, A.J. Green at No. 4, Tyron Smith at No. 9, Mike Pouncey at No. 15, Danny Watkins at No. 23, and Jimmy Smith to Baltimore (the Ravens passed at 26 and wound up picking 27th). In addition, I had the right slot but wrong team for Julio Jones at No. 6, and Mark Ingram at No. 28.
I did wisely move Pitt receiver Jonathan Baldwin into the late portion of the first round just Wednesday (he went No. 26 to Kansas City; I had him No. 27 to Atlanta). But all in all, not much for pure bragging rights. A few near-misses, but plenty of not-even-closes. (Check back Friday afternoon for Don Banks' Round 2 Mock Draft.)