One decade after three quarterbacks were selected among the top 11 picks and went on to impact the league dramatically, at least that many could hear their name called in the first 10 selections next week in the NFL draft.
Problem is, which quarterbacks will be selected early remains as big a mystery as which teams will select them.
That’s because, unlike the 2004 class that produced Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, too many questions surround the top quarterbacks in the draft — none more telling than whether any of them deserve to be drafted that high.
And, by the time the first round of the draft begins next Thursday, that could be enough to scare off some of the five teams who are seeking quarterbacks — Houston, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Oakland and Minnesota — and bring some sanity back to the process.
Blake Bortles of Central Florida, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Teddy Bridegwater of Louisville are considered the top three quarterbacks in the draft, with Derek Carr of Fresno State making a late push to join them. But opinions on which is most ready to play in the NFL, or even if they will have a significant impact in the league, vary as greatly as their abilities.
“I can pick apart all three,” said draft expert Mike Mayock of NFL Network. “I could not pick apart Andrew Luck.”
“I don’t really have a first-round grade on any of [the quarterbacks],” said former quarterback and CBS analyst Rich Gannon.
No position in pro sports is as important as quarterback, and NFL teams fall all over themselves trying to find the one who will produce a Super Bowl championship. Most of those quarterbacks tend to come from the first round. In the past nine Super Bowls, seven have been won by quarterbacks drafted in the first round, including two each by Roethlisberger and Manning from the Class of 2004.
Granted, the most recent Super Bowl was won by a quarterback drafted in the third round (Russell Wilson). But that might not stop at least three teams from taking a quarterback before the draft is 10 picks old.
The Steelers hope they do. With the 15th overall pick in the draft, the more quarterbacks that are selected before them, the more likely they could land one of the four players who intrigue them — wide receivers Mike Evans of Texas A&M and Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State and cornerbacks Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State and Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State. The Steelers do not expect Evans to be available.
“Are we going to force a quarterback at No. 8?” Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said at the NFL combine. “We’re going to take the best player, unless we’re absolutely in love with a guy. There will be enough depth in this class where you can potentially get a quarterback maybe in the second round, third round, fourth round, where that guy can potentially be a franchise guy for you.”
The Vikings made that mistake three years ago when they used the 12th overall pick to select quarterback Christian Ponder, a move that surprised many in the NFL. Ponder has struggled to remain a starter in his three seasons with Minnesota.
Using a high first-round pick to draft the wrong quarterback can be one of the most debilitating moves a franchise can make. Not only do teams have to invest big money to sign him, they sometimes spend too much time trying to turn him into the player he never can become.
Ponder is only one example. Vince Young, JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden, Blaine Gabbert are other recent first-round picks who already have been discarded by the teams that drafted them.
“I think everybody probably reaches for a quarterback because they realize how important it is if you’re going to win,” said former Dallas Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt, an analyst for NFL.com. “The quarterback is such a catalyst to winning. I think we all have to understand the quarterbacks we get today are so much more advanced than the quarterbacks we got 10 years ago because of the fact that all teams, high school and college, throw the ball more than they run it.”
Because of all the top talent at other positions in the draft, Mayock thinks it’s better for teams to wait until the second and third rounds to take a quarterback. And he thinks the success of quarterbacks such as Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton or Nick Foles might convince them to do so.
Mayock said in an interview in USA Today he thinks there will be run on quarterbacks beginning late in the first round because of players such as Carr, Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, Zach Mettenberger of LSU, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois.
“I think either one or two quarterbacks will go in the top eight,” Mayock said. “That’s at the most. Teams are a little more willing to be patient about where they get that guy. And I think they have to, especially in this draft. It’s so good at the top with great players.”
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com and Twitter @gerrydulac.