• All quarterbacks, all the time. With Andrew Luck staying at Stanford and Auburn's Cam Newton expected to become the much-discussed and debated Rorschach test of this year's NFL draft class -- the only thing I'm certain of so far is that Denver won't be taking him -- a good bit of the focus at the quarterback position will naturally fall to other passers and how high their stock might climb in the weeks and months ahead.
At least six of the draft's top 10 teams are clearly in the market for a starting option at the game's most pivotal position, so it's a quarterback-needy group that will kick things off in New York's Radio City Music Hall on April 28. Need is still what drives most of what unfolds in the draft, so teams will always stretch for a quarterback. It's just a matter of how much, and which ones rise on draft boards as the scouting process intensifies.
ANDREW PERLOFF: Latest 2011 NFL mock draft
Nobody's had a better track record scouting quarterbacks in recent years than NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, so I called him this week to discuss the collegiate QB landscape, and to get an early sense of who he thinks might benefit the most from a Luck-less draft. Mayock doesn't do much more than TV scouting when it comes to underclassmen, at least until Saturday's deadline for declaring for the draft passes, but he always has an opinion or two to share when it comes to the NFL's incoming arms race.
"For obvious reasons, what Luck's decision really does is opens up the door for even more scrutiny on [Arkansas junior] Ryan Mallett, [Missouri junior] Blaine Gabbert, [Auburn junior] Cam Newton, and even [Washington's] Jake Locker,'' Mayock said. "You have teams sitting there at the top with quarterback needs. It's going to be intriguing to see if one of these young quarterbacks move up because of need. I've only watched him on TV, but Gabbert looks pretty darn interesting to me.
"And because we're all assuming a rookie wage scale of some sort as part of a new CBA, I really think the value of trading the first pick in the draft is better than it has been in years. Because you're going to have a contract at No. 1 that's a lot more reasonable. So if you're [No. 1] Carolina, sitting there needing a quarterback, you've got more trade options than normal. I just think it'll be easier from a financial perspective to move around if you have a conviction about a kid.''
It's too early to say Mayock has a first-round conviction about Locker, the Huskies' senior quarterback who was once seen as the likely No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, but then returned to school and suffered through a difficult and disappointing final season at Washington. But he's not ready to slap a second- or third-round grade on Locker, as some draft analysts already have done, citing his at times glaring accuracy issues. Mayock still has Locker rated higher than any other senior quarterback in the draft, and believes there is time for him to boost his stock considerably.
"Last year at this time everyone wanted to say he'd be the No. 1 pick in the draft, and now he's an afterthought in most people's minds,'' Mayock said. "I don't understand that logic. He's got all the tools to be a top-level quarterback, all the physical tools. The size and the arm strength. I just question his pocket awareness. And that's where his accuracy issues come into play.
"When he moves outside the pocket, either right or left, and not just scrambling, because they did a good job with plays that moved him outside the pocket and had him throw on the run, he has good vision and is as accurate as any quarterback you'll see. But he gets into some trouble in the pocket, seeing the field, and that's where his accuracy breaks down. I'm really excited to see him at the Senior Bowl [in two weeks] and see him working with other receivers. To me he's got first-round ability. But I just need to get more comfortable with him, and his pocket awareness.''
One scout for an NFC team told me this week that Locker's accuracy on the run is much better than in the pocket, but that it's hard to overlook how hesitant he can appear when he's not rolling out.
"He's not very natural,'' the scout said. "At the end of the day, he's indecisive in the pocket, and I've got reservations about guys like that. Pop in a tape of Alex Smith. ... To me, the issues are the same with Locker. [Stuff] happens fast back there [in the pocket], and it's often not very clean. He'll cock it one time, and then re-cock it, and by that time the defenders are on you. I think there are some real similarities between the two, Locker and Smith. Mallett is natural. Cam Newton is natural. Locker's not very natural.''
• The other senior quarterback who most intrigues Mayock is TCU's Andy Dalton. Mayock first got an up-close look at Dalton last summer while working with the quarterbacks at Peyton and Eli Manning's annual passing camp, in Thibodaux, La. Dalton, who led the 13-0 Horned Frogs to a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin, will be one of the draft's fastest risers this spring, predicts Mayock.
"The kid jumped out at me last summer,'' Mayock said. "I told friends of mine in the NFL, he's going to surprise people as a senior. He's at least a second-round quarterback. I think he's got a bigger arm than people thought, with a better physical skill set, and he's certainly won a lot of football games in college. The longer I do this, at the quarterback position, once you get past certain measurables like arm strength and size, the most important thing to me is the football work ethic and the football intelligence.
"Those are hugely important, because those are the kind of guys who end up winning games for you, and they're the type of guys who can take their game to a whole other level in the NFL. That's why I was so high on Matt Ryan three years ago, because of his football IQ and his work ethic. And it's the Aaron Rodgers type of quarterback. You know they're going to put in the work, and you know they have good football intelligence.''
The NFC scout I talked to is very high on Dalton's intangibles as well, but projects him as someone who would require development time to interject himself into a team's starting situation. And that means this team wouldn't likely grade him higher than the fourth round.
"I couldn't hang my hat on him in the second round, but I really see special traits with him, and he could develop into a quality No. 2 and then work himself into a starting job,'' the scout said. "There's a lot of things to like about him, but he'd probably take some time and some work.''
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• What about Cam? Newton hasn't declared yet for the draft, but after Auburn's national championship win over Oregon on Monday night, that announcement is expected any minute. The reigning Heisman winner is this year's Tim Tebow-like wild-card prospect in the draft, and opinions will vary on where his unique skill set best fits, and how long it will take him to master an NFL offense.
"He's so gifted athletically and there are not many guys like him,'' the NFC scout said. "But he's going to need some time, too. You're doing a disservice to him to throw him right into the fire. He's used to playing in the spread, doing the zone-read stuff, and he's pretty much waiting for a guy to come open before he throws it. He has to see him come open before he lets it go. He doesn't see the whole field yet.
"But you know as well as I do, for a team needing a quarterback, let's say the Cardinals at No. 5, if you've got to take one in that slot, he's going to play early. That's just the way it goes. I see him going in the top 10, maybe to someone who is sitting there waiting to trade up for him. But he could use a year or so, like the way Cincinnati handled Carson Palmer.''
I couldn't get anyone to hazard a guess as to whether Newton's draft stock will be affected by the off-field controversy that has followed him and his father, Cecil, since last fall. But with the specter of the JaMarcus Russell draft bust in Oakland still very much on the minds of NFL decision-makers, the NFC scout said he expects Newton's work ethic, motivation level and character issues to be explored in depth by clubs.
"People are going to have to do their homework on him,'' the scout said. "They'll probably overlook some of that stuff, but he could maybe fall in the interview process at the combine. What I've heard from some people is that Cam doesn't like to work on some of the stuff that a quarterback has to work on. Someone who knows him told me the only difference between Cam and JaMarcus Russell is that Cam has Cecil [his father] to keep him on track. But that's potentially a big difference.''
• The top QB right now. Gabbert is the QB prospect who has generated the most momentum for being the top passer taken with Luck out of the mix. Though Gabbert played in the ever-more-prevalent spread offense at Missouri, NFL scouts do not seem to penalize him for it, as they have other recent spread quarterbacks entering the league. It might have something to do with him being about 6-4, 235, with a big arm.
"The thing that sticks out to me is that he's a lot more athletic than you think he is,'' the NFC scout said. "He's like Ben Roethlisberger and Josh Freeman, in that he's a guy who can extend the play even when he's got guys hanging off him. That's the trait that makes those guys so special. They're so big and they can shake guys off. He's not as strong as Roethlisberger and Freeman, but he has some of the same skills.''
Gabbert also gets high marks for largely carrying his team's offense, despite the lack of other great skills players. He scores well too in terms of his work ethic and football savvy.
"Missouri's spread offense isn't like Florida's,'' the scout said. "They don't have great athletes all around him and it's not a simple spread like in some places. He's doing it all on his own. You can see him scanning through his progressions, reading the field, and he has to move, extend the play, and create. And he's a mature kid and will put in the work. I could see him going near the top, in that third, fourth or fifth range.''
• Draft lacking in senior talent. The draft has seemingly gotten more junior-dominated every year, but NFL talent evaluators believe this is one of the weakest senior classes in memory. Mayock said he doesn't have a single first-round grade on a senior running back, receiver or tight end at the moment, with the quarterback position being an open question. While the depth of last year's draft was outstanding, in part because the fear of the unknown prompted a lot of juniors to enter the league before a rookie wage scale is adopted as part of a new CBA in 2011, the draft isn't expected to be as deep, top to bottom, this time around.
"These agents and players, they don't live in a vacuum and they now know there's not a strong senior class this year,'' Mayock said. "So the end result may be that the first and second round could be dominated by underclassmen.''
Last year, some teams actually had as many first-round grades on their board as there were first-round draft slots. Though the impact of the junior class has yet to be fully calibrated until everyone declares, that's not likely to be the case in 2011.
"There were a lot of good defensive players who came out last year,'' the NFC scout said. "So you could get a first-round player all the way through the first round. This year could be a little bit different. Most people think if you're picking 20 to 22, you're damn near getting a second-round player already.''
The uncertainty of the NFL's labor situation in 2011 has not greatly affected the decision-making process of underclassmen, from Mayock's perspective.
"I get the gut feel that, for the most part, it's the same decision,'' he said. "If you're a first-round pick, you probably should go. There are always some caveats to that, but if you're sure you're a first-round pick, you might as well go. It probably more affects the thinking of the guys who aren't sure and are borderline first-round, second-round guys. If there's any uncertainty in your head, that's where the [NFL labor situation] might drive you back to school and win the day. You stay put and try to get bigger, stronger and faster for next year.''
• Fairley riding momentum from BCS win. Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley's monster game against Oregon, combined with Luck's announcement, created a buzz for him that resulted in some mock drafts giving him to Carolina at No. 1 overall. In the estimation of some, Fairley, a junior who is expected to declare for the draft this week, leap-frogged Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers as the top-rated defensive lineman.
"Before it's all said and done, I think you'll see Fairley grade out better than [Oklahoma defensive tackle] Gerald McCoy, [who went third overall last year to Tampa Bay],'' the NFC scout said. "It wouldn't shock me if he goes first overall. Bowers is good, but that kid from Auburn is special now. He's the type of guy that elevates the play of others around him, and those guys are pretty rare. He has his issues with taking cheap shots at times, but there are teams that like a little of that in their players. The Ravens look for guys like that, and they find them, too. He'd have to be a real turd to make me pass on him. We'd make a spot for him if he was somehow still there when we pick.''
• WR depth. First-round receivers are always tricky propositions, but three underclassmen prospects are being talked about in terms of having first-round potential. Georgia's A.J. Green is considered the top talent, but Alabama's Julio Jones and Pitt's Jonathan Baldwin are also in the discussion. Two other potential first-round prospects, Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon and Notre Dame's Michael Floyd, announced Wednesday they would return to school.
"It's an intriguing group of underclassmen at the top end,'' Mayock said. "We're not talking 5-11 guys. We're talking big-bodied guys, 6-3, 220 and up. Some high-level players. I don't have a senior receiver with a first-round grade, but there's going to be an interesting comparison with the [juniors]. They're all so big and so athletic.''
• Lack of linemen. Another issue that will get plenty of attention this draft season is the lack of top tier offensive tackle prospects. There have been three tackles taken in the top 14 in each of the past three drafts, but that's not expected to be the case this year. This is clearly the wrong year to own a top 10 pick if you're seeking a franchise left tackle.
"There are some left tackles you like, but you're not going to get immediate star power in the top 10 picks of the draft like you do most years,'' Mayock said. "It's more the late first round where most of them are this year. There are guys who could get pushed up higher due to need, and the value of the position. But they're graded right now in the mid to lower part of the first round.''
Colorado's Nate Solder, Boston College's Anthony Castonzo, Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi and Derek Sherrod of Mississippi State are the prospects who have the most first-round potential, but what unfolds at the Senior Bowl and the NFL scouting combine in late February might add to that list.