Thursday, April 7, 2011

The QB Special Part I: Newton & Gabbert

In today’s NFL you must have good quarterback play to win. Look at some of the recent Super Winning teams and their signal-callers. Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning; all of them were first round draft picks, save for Drew Brees who was the 32nd overall pick in 2001, when there were only 31 teams in the NFL prior to the Houston Texans joining the league in 2002. All of those names are typically considered top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL. Eli Manning is the only one you might be able to argue, but he knocked off one of, if not the best teams in NFL History, and consistently has the Giants in playoff contention.

The NFL is even more starved for good quarterback play given the number of college programs switching to spread offenses, the scrutiny on quarterbacks has become even more ridiculous. See Tim Tebow, 2010 NFL Draft. This year’s draft is no different with several teams picking in the top half of the first round, including Carolina, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Arizona, San Francisco, Tennessee, and Washington in the top 10 alone. Throw in Denver if you really believe new football operations boss, the legendary John Elway, isn’t just trying to throw teams off the Broncos trail by scheduling meetings with Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, and Ryan Mallett despite having Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow, and Brady Quinn presently on his roster. I think, I repeat, I think Brett Favre is finally done, and Minnesota has no plans to have Travaris Jackson take over the keys to the franchise. My very own Miami Dolphins have let it be known they want to bring in competition for incumbent Chad Henne. Jacksonville has also spent time with quarterbacks in the pre-draft process, and has been linked quite a bit to Florida State’s Christian Ponder. That’s 11 of 16 teams in the top half of the first round with questions, albeit some are milder than others, at the quarterback position – more than a third of the league.

In the 2010 draft, only two quarterbacks went in the first round: Sam Bradford and Tim Tebow. We saw three in 2009: Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez, and Josh Freeman. So, that’s a grand total of five in the past two years and seven in the past three years counting Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco from the 2008 draft. This year, the general consensus seems to be that at least three quarterbacks – Auburn’s Cam Newton, Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert and Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett – seem set to go in the first round. The aforementioned Christian Ponder has been a hot name in the draftnik world, and many think he might go in the first as well, getting heavy interest from Miami and Jacksonville, and plenty of rumors are swirling that top 10 teams, such as Washington, may try and trade back and tab him in the latter part of round one.

If you believe ESPN’s Adam Schefter, and his track record seems to be pretty good, he’s been calling Auburn’s Cam Newton to be drafted first overall by the Carolina Panthers for a while now. Let’s not forget Schefter pegged the Rams taking Sam Bradford over Ndamukong Suh last year about this time. So, with Newton pegged to go #1, I’d like to take a look at my top 4 quarterbacks, and ask, are they really worth the first round? Or, are they just a product of need? As I’ve discussed already, the demand outweighs the supply.

To start off, let’s get my top 4 quarterbacks straightened out. In no particular order, they are Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Mallett, and Christian Ponder. Todd McShay’s (Todd McFraud, as I call him, though I’ve seen McFaketan as well, which is pretty good) love children Jake Locker and Andy Dalton don’t make my list. However, even those two have been linked to the late first round, with Seattle in particular. I don’t think I’d touch either of them before round three personally. Jake Locker’s got everything you want, except accuracy. His career completion percentage at Washington is 54% so let’s throw him out. Andy Dalton comes from Justin Fuente’s offense at TCU, which doesn’t really lend itself to any NFL system aside from the West Coast offense, which has probably triggered the Seattle rumors. I’ll defer you to the Draft Winds article on him in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Draft Winds is a weekly column geared toward the Miami Dolphins compiled by the staff of Universal Draft. The staff consists of Chris Kouffman, Richard Lines, and Simon Clancy, and their work has been mentioned nationally in Sports Illustrated, by SI’s Peter King, Dan Patrick, and they’ll be appearing on NFL Network’s “Path to the Draft” show to discuss Ryan Mallett – more on that later. Let’s be clear, they definitely know their stuff.

So, now that I’ve eliminated Locker and Dalton, onto the top four. My mock draft will be unveiled soon, but as of right now – Tuesday – and this is still subject to change, I’ve got the quarterbacks getting drafted as follows:

Cam Newton to Carolina – 1st overall
Blaine Gabbert to San Francisco – 7th overall
Ryan Mallett to Minnesota – 12th overall
Christian Ponder to Jacksonville – 16th overall

This probably isn’t what you were expecting if you’ve read mock drafts from around the Internet. My goal with this is to explain why I think each player will go where I have them slotted; discuss their strengths and weaknesses; and give you my opinion on whether or not they’ll represent good value in the NFL.

Cam Newton, Auburn

The Fit: I’ve got him pegged to the Panthers for several reasons. First, you have to respect what Adam Schefter’s heard from his NFL circles – he’s very well connected and projecting him to Carolina says a lot. Secondly, Carolina owner Jerry Richardson said shortly after the regular season that he’d take Stanford’s Andrew Luck if he entered the draft. Luck did not, but it still says something that the owner has a genuine interest in a quarterback a year after selecting Jimmy Clausen in the second round. That leads me to point number three. Coach John Fox is gone. Ron Rivera is in, and when coaching changes occur, they usually like to bring in their own guys and their own players. Ron Rivera has a unique situation where he can bring in his own guy at QB, presumably Cam Newton, while having another youngster in Jimmy Clausen on his roster. That gives you some room to operate with, and it reminds me of the situation the Chargers faced when they drafted Philip Rivers while having Drew Brees on the roster. If you’ll remember, Brees’ first three seasons in the NFL weren’t anything spectacular. Obviously Clausen hasn’t been around for three season’s as Brees was, but the situation is similar. Carolina, who is most likely to be losing one of their most recognizable players, RB DeAngelo Williams, and has been rumored to be shopping aging WR Steve Smith, could definitely draw fans back with the polarizing Newton. This pick makes a lot of sense, provided you think Cam Newton will be successful at the NFL level.

Strengths and Weaknesses: Personally, I have a hard time believing Cam Newton will have success at the NFL level. Initially. All the guy’s done is win everywhere he goes from high school, to Blinn Junior College, and onto a Heisman Winning year at Auburn where he brought home the BCS National Championship. For an in-depth analysis on Newton, I’d like to defer you to the article in the “Draft Winds” series composed by the Universal Draft guys in the Sun-Sentinel. Here’s the link.

As I said, very thorough, outstanding research and excellent work – their stuff is outstanding and I look forward to their article every week. Back to Newton; yeah he took some laptops while at Florida. Yes, he referred to himself as an “icon”. True, he does come from Gus Malzahn’s spread offense at Auburn where he was generally asked to make one or two reads and then run – it won’t be that simple in the NFL. However…

Value: Cam Newton has the 2nd best arm of these top 4 quarterbacks in the draft, trailing only Ryan Mallett. Newton, despite only playing one year in the always tough Southeastern Conference, registered a completion percentage of 66.1% in 280 attempts, which is a lot higher than you’d expect, and higher than Vince Young’s (the prospect most people compare Newton to) outstanding 2005 season; Newton had more touchdown passes as well. Newton is the classic “Boom or Bust” prospect, and his ceiling is certainly higher than any of the other three quarterbacks I’ve mentioned. His floor is a lot lower though as well.

While on most total draft boards, Alabama DT Marcel Dareus is the consensus number one ranked player – both offense or defense – I have hard time not seeing Cam Newton’s name being called by the Panthers (assuming they don’t try to trade the 1st overall pick, which is very unlikely). Carolina can afford to take this risk because they still have 2010 second round pick Jimmy Clausen on the roster. While Cam Newton is certainly the more gifted player, he doesn’t come a pro-style offense like Clausen, and I anticipate it will take Newton some time to get acclimated to the pro game. Ultimately I think Newton will take several weeks to get ready, but ultimately, if Carolina selects him, I expect him to play at some point in the 2011 season. And based on what Judge Nelson said and hinted at yesterday, there’s going to be a 2011 season. I think that Cam Newton’s career is going to be very interesting to watch, and will be somewhat better than what Vince Young’s done so far (Young’s record is a solid 30-17). That said, if I’m a GM, I don’t pull the trigger on Newton unless I already have a veteran quarterback to develop him behind, especially in round one.

Blaine Gabbert, Missouri

Gabbert’s been projected by many to be the first overall pick in the draft. Let me make one thing clear – I don’t think he’s worth that at all. Ask yourself, who would the Carolina Panthers have taken had Stanford’s Andrew Luck declared? Trick question, they said they’d take Luck right after the regular season, and if you believe the draft rumor mills, Gabbert only declared this year because Luck didn’t. To expound upon that, if Luck were in this class, I’d have a hard time valuing Newton and Gabbert in the top 10 due to the influx of talented defensive players. But alas, Luck will have to wait until 2012, or 2013 since he’s only a junior.

The Fit: I’ve currently got Blaine Gabbert slated to slide to the 49ers who own the 7th overall pick. Jim Harbaugh needs a quarterback out there with Alex and Troy Smith proving they’re not capable of driving that team to the playoffs despite having some outstanding weapons. Of the quarterbacks I’ve selected for this mock, this might be the one I’m most inclined to change. Gabbert’s completion percentage on throws traveling further than 15 yards is a measly 38% - not good.

I think a lot of the projections basing Gabbert going first overall over Newton are there for a few reasons. First, unless something pops up in the next three weeks he’s got no off-field issues that I’m aware of, which is a strike against Newton for normally conservative owner Jerry Richardson. Secondly, by all accounts Newton’s individual team interviews have gone very well, but I hear that Gabbert has been exceptional, especially in chalk-talk sessions (X’s & O’s); more on that later. Lastly, Gabbert’s learning curve, while steeper than Mallett’s and Ponder’s is probably less steep than Newton’s, meaning Gabbert will likely see the field sooner. This assuming that neither is thrown directly into the fire, which I would vehemently argue that any team that drafts them not do despite the successes of other rookie quarterbacks in recent years.

Now, for San Francisco, new coach Jim Harbaugh was fortunate enough to have Andrew Luck at Stanford. Luck is the total package of accuracy, arm strength, intelligence, athleticism, leadership, intelligence, and intelligence (did that on purpose). Gabbert has a lot of those same qualities, but not to the level of Luck. But, his game is similar in the fact that he’s smart, accurate underneath (Harbaugh runs a West Coast style predicated on short routes, crossing routes, hitches, slants, quick outs, etc. all of which were staples in Gary Pinkel’s offense at Missouri). Thus, Gabbert is more familiar with this than any other quarterback. If Gabbert can learn the drops, playaction steps, and fakes necessary to go with the Power I running game that Harbaugh will instill, he’ll have some success. Strengths and Weaknesses: Hailing from Gary Pinkel’s spread system from Missouri, as Alen mentioned in our guru interview earlier in the week; Missouri’s offense is predicated on short routes with vertical tags associated with them. For example, see this play at about the 1:00 minute mark, you’ll notice a route called “hitch n’ go”. There’s the vertical tag. In this video, Mizzou is in the redzone, but this is their concept all over the field, due to Gabbert’s deficiency in deep ball accuracy.

Another thing that will stunt Gabbert’s development early is his transition to taking snaps under center. The 3 step, 5 step, 5 quick, 7 step, and play actions will take time to learn as Gabbert came mostly from the shotgun. In this clip, you can watch Gabbert and FSU’s Christian Ponder doing the same drop drills. Christian Ponder, who comes from a pro style offense looks very fluid, very natural. You can tell Gabbert is thinking about his drop steps, as opposed to the “catch, rock, and throw” he was accustomed to at Missouri. Though Gabbert says his drops feel more natural in the video, it’s still not where you’d like it to be. This will take some more time, but ultimately I think he can get it down.

Where Gabbert will succeed depends on what system he’s drafted into. If it’s a place like San Francisco, where he can use his successful short and intermediate game, it will help his development. He’s got a decent amount of starting experience with 26 games, and has 933 attempts in 31 career games. While that’s not the kind of starting production that historically has succeeded in the NFL, it is close. He’s certainly got some things to work on, but his floor is higher than Cam Newton’s.

Value: Gabbert is a “safer” prospect than Cam Newton, but I’m not so sure he’ll be as good as Newton. His completion percentage is lower, which is surprising as he played in the notoriously wide open Big 12 Conference. I think it’s also safe to value Gabbert as a top 12 player in this draft, though personally, I don’t think I’d pull the trigger on him in the top 10 of the first round. I think he’s definitely a system player, and if you ask him to become the next Ben Roethlisberger, you might be in trouble. His deep-ball accuracy isn’t anywhere close, and he’s not as physical when he takes off in the run game. Strangely enough, he reminds me somewhat of Mark Sanchez, with more mobility, but not quite as good of an arm. Say what you want about Sanchez, but the guy is clutch.

I think Gabbert has some of the tools to be successful in the NFL, and he’s go the right temperament to develop some of the ones he lacks. Again, I have to stress that he’s a system guy in my opinion, and that I wouldn’t take him in the top 10.

I'll have Part II up soon with coverage on Ryan Mallett and Christian Ponder.

1 comment:

  1. Great analysis KD! Looking forward to hearing about the next two superstuds tomorrow.