• Top prospect: Auburn’s Cam Newton is as impressive a specimen as the league has seen in years but has accuracy issues that could make him a boom or bust.
• Overall: There’s talk that this year could tie the record of six first-round quarterbacks.
• Packers outlook: They’re set at starter for years but will need a new No. 2 when Matt Flynn departs, either this year in a trade or next year in free agency.
• Rising star: TCU’s Andy Dalton doesn’t have a big arm or standout athleticism but has moved up boards as teams have scrutinized him this spring and might go late in the first round.
• Falling star: The premium on quarterbacks in the NFL is pushing them up the board, not down, but the more scouts look at Delaware’s Pat Devlin, who transferred from Penn State, the more they don’t see another Joe Flacco, another big quarterback who transferred (from Pittsburgh) to Delaware and is the Baltimore Ravens’ starter.
• Sleeper: Wisconsin’s Scott Tolzien by all rights is a tad too small, unathletic and weak armed to make it in the NFL, but his off-the-charts intelligence and leadership give him a chance to be a No. 3.
• Wisconsin ties: UW’s Scott Tolzien.
Finding a Pro Football Hall of Fame-type quarterback, a Tom Brady (sixth round, No. 199 overall in 2000) or Bart Starr (17th round, No. 200), at the bottom of a draft is a once-in-a-generation-type shot at best.
Even landing a competent starter from the late-rounds or free-agent prospects, such as Dallas did with Tony Romo (undrafted in ’03) or the Packers did with Matt Hasselbeck (sixth round 1998) is a relative long-shot.
But with starter Aaron Rodgers only 27 years old, the Green Bay Packers would be plenty fine with uncovering another Matt Flynn.
The Packers figure to lose Flynn, a seventh-round pick in 2008 and their backup the last three seasons, either this year in a trade or next year in free agency. They have one possible replacement in Graham Harrell but no doubt would consider adding another in this draft if a quarterback they have a good feeling about is available in the late rounds or goes undrafted.
The hard part is identifying the right guy. In the last decade anywhere from four to 11 quarterbacks have been selected from the fifth to seventh rounds in a given draft, with anywhere from none to two of them ending up a good backup or possible starter.
Most drafts have at least one. This year it could be any of several players, depending on the scout consulted. But interestingly, of five scouts interviewed for their choice of the sleeper, late-round quarterback, four named Alabama’s Greg McElroy. One of them considers McElroy a better prospect than Flynn was coming out of college.
“(McElroy) has got some stuff,” the scout said. “A smart, tough guy. Played big games, won a lot of games. I think he’s got some stuff.”
Flynn was the last quarterback the Packers drafted and probably the best of the eight selected from the fifth round on in ’08. Pittsburgh’s Dennis Dixon, who played in college at Oregon, has shown some starting potential also, but the other six basically have been washouts: John David Booty (fifth round), Josh Johnson (fifth), Erik Ainge (fifth), Colt Brennan (sixth), Andre Woodson (sixth) and Alex Brink (seventh).
Flynn beat out a second-rounder, Brian Brohm, for the Packers’ backup job as a rookie and was overmatched when he had to replace an injured Rodgers against Tampa Bay that season. But he kept improving working under coach Mike McCarthy and quarterbacks coach Tom Clements, and by last season, in his one start in place of the concussed Rodgers, took Brady and the AFC East champion New England Patriots to the wire in a 31-27 loss.
Late-round quarterbacks come in all shapes and sizes, but they generally don’t have the physical talent of the quarterbacks drafted on the first two days. If they’re big and strong armed, they’re slow in delivery and foot speed. If they’re athletic, they lack arm strength, accuracy, or both. Many times they’re both smaller and weaker-armed than higher-rated players. But what sometimes gives them a chance is intelligence and intangibles.
That’s what the scouts consulted for this story liked about McElroy.
“He’s second-level arm strength, down-the-line arm strength,” a second scout said. “But a smart, heady guy, and he handles (pass rush) pressure.”
McElroy was a two-year starter at Alabama and, like Flynn in the 2007 season, led his talented team the national championship. He’s only a little on the small side at 6-1 7/8 and 220 pounds, and doesn’t have the arm talent of the quarterbacks rated in the first three rounds of this draft. He’s also not particularly athletic for a smaller quarterback (4.84-second 40, 33-inch vertical jump).
But he is unusually smart and had the high score (43) on the Wonderlic intelligence test among all players at this year’s combine, for whatever that’s worth. He’s also tough, which scouts say is critical at that leadership position, and has just enough ability at least to have a chance.
“He’s got that natural ‘It’ factor as far as leadership, he doesn’t waver much,” a third scout said. “He’s played in big games, he’s gone through the (coach) Nick Saban program, so I’d give him the nod over those (other late-round) guys.”
1. Cam Newton, Auburn, 6-5, 248, 1: Junior entry spent first his two seasons at Florida, including one as a redshirt, transferred to Blinn Junior College in Texas where he won the junior-college national championship in ’09, then led Auburn to the national championship last year. Exceptional combination of size, strength and athleticism, but some scouts like Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert better. “Newton’s got the most upside (of this year’s quarterbacks),” a scout said. “That guy’s kind of a freak of nature. He’s just got so much physical ability, and I’m thinking he’s a little bit better than Vince Young, I think this guy has more presence, has more about him.” Charismatic and outgoing, but some question whether he’s genuine. In his second year at Florida was arrested for stealing a student’s laptop computer, had charges dropped when he completed a diversion program. Also accused of three incidents of academic cheating before he transferred. Won the national championship last year playing under the cloud of his father shopping his services during his recruitment while in junior college, and was declared ineligible for a day in the run-up to the national championship but was re-instated when NCAA investigators could not find sufficient evidence he or the school knew of any transactions. Also turned off some teams when he told a reporter this spring he wants to be an entertainer and icon. “My interview with him at the (scouting) combine, he’s intelligent, very articulate,” another scout said. “You ask him a question and it’s a three- or four-minute answer, he goes now, he pushes the button and talks. He comes off as an all-about-Cam kind of guy. It’s red flags, you have to investigate it all. I know one thing, I don’t want a celebrity quarterback.” Won the Heisman Trophy last season with a passer rating of 124.9 points and 66.1 completion rate, plus 5.6-yard rushing average and 20 rushing touchdowns. Played in a simple, option-oriented offense at Auburn. Scored 21 on the Wonderlic. “I talked to my sources down there, both inside the athletic department and outside the athletic department. I can’t get anything negative on the kid,” a third scout said. “Any time you can lead two teams at two different levels to a national championship and pretty much carry the load and have those guys follow you, that speaks volumes. He’s not a rah, rah cheerleader guy. When the father put him in that situation, he went in the next day and said (to teammates), ‘Look, this is the deal, something’s coming down the pike, it’s not going to affect you guys, let’s stay focused on the national championship.’ I heard that from a couple players at the combine and a couple coaches, almost word for word. So I think this guy is going to be a good leader. Is he a little immature? Absolutely, he’s still young.”
2. Blaine Gabbert, Missouri, 6-4 3/8, 234, 1: Junior entry who in two years as a starter was 18-8 with a 90.1 passer rating. “He’s really big and athletic, he can throw with touch, scrambles well, knows his own system,” a scout said. “He’s a polished personality, he’s not trying to be Eminem, he’s not an entertainer and an icon, he’s not those things. He just wants to be a quarterback, he just wants to be the best quarterback, he’s a professional-type guy.” Has good straight-line speed (4.61-second 40), though he’s not elusive. Good arm talent but played in a spread passing game, which means more quick and easy completions than in the NFL, and always played from the shotgun, so he needs work on drop backs. “He’s got some fundamental stuff that’s not real good,” another scout said. “He’s not as accurate as you’d like to see, he’s not fundamentally balanced, some technical things aren’t as good, footwork isn’t as good. The percentages of his deep ball isn’t as good as all those bubble screens and quick stuff they do in that spread offense. I’d have a hard time taking him in the first round.” Extremely smart (42 on the Wonderlic, second-highest score of this year’s combine). Polished persona, in fact came off as too polished and rehearsed for some. “(He and Newton) both were to a certain extent,” a third scout said. “Both have good agents that prepared them and let them understand what’s ahead. Blaine spoke very well, expressed that he wanted to be at the next level, how he’s going to get there, what his goals and objectives to achieve all that.”
3. Jake Locker, Washington, 6-2½, 231, 1-2: Highly touted baseball prospect who opted to concentrate on football in college, though he played in the summer of ’08 and has a contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim through 2013. Had a bad record (15-25) and passer rating (77.4) as a four-year starter for an undermanned Washington program. “I think you give him the benefit of the doubt, those guys were terrible around him,” one scout said. “The poor guy, they were awful on the offensive line. He was running for his life every down.” Excellent athlete who plays well on the move, ran the 40 in 4.50 seconds. Has strong arm but accuracy issues (53.9 completion percentage). Some scouts like his leadership and consider him an excellent talent, and one said that while Locker’s accuracy is suspect, his receivers also dropped 28 percent of his passes last year. “If you look at 2009 tape it’s really good because the guy does some things,” a scout said. “There were a couple teams really scared of the guy, you ask Pete (Carroll, the former USC coach), ask (former Stanford coach Jim) Harbaugh, they had to really game plan for that kid. He can beat you with his feet, and once he gets his passing down he’s going to be dangerous.” Other scouts wonder if the accuracy issues will do him in. “I liked the kid a lot when I talked to him, very smart, seems to be well grounded, has it all in a good perspective,” another scout said. “Very athletic, very strong, fast. He throws a good ball, fundamentally he’s very good. I asked him, ‘You’re fundamentally good but you’re inaccurate, why is that?’ He threw at me a couple reasons why. My thought is if you’re halfway fundamentally good and you’re missing guys, I don’t know how we can help you. At this level, you have to complete balls.”
4. Christian Ponder, Florida State, 6-2, 229, 1-2: Three-year starter who has had three surgeries on his throwing arm – one to his shoulder and two on his elbow. “(Late first round) seems really high to me,” one scout said. “But nice prospect. He’s got physical ability. The guy played injured all year, he had that elbow puffed up thing, you kind of give him the benefit of the doubt that way.” Had a 22-13 record as a starter and 87.2 passer rating. Earned an MBA last spring and scored an excellent 35 on the Wonderlic. “I liked his skills, think he throws the ball really well,” a second scout said. “I thought he threw the ball maybe the best guy at the combine, him and Mallett. But then you watch the tape and you don’t see that. He’s quick to bail, he can hold the ball too long instead of getting it out. He’s slow getting through reads, doesn’t seem to see the field that well. He can kind of goose balls and aim’em in there instead of just playing and throwing it and being aggressive, kind of cautious. He has better ability than what I see on tape.” Plenty-good athlete (4.61-second 40), but teams might be rolling the dice with his post-surgical shoulder and elbow. “Sooner or later he’s going to have arthritis in both those joints,” a third scout said. “To put a lot of money into a quarterback and have him be your guy, and have a surgical shoulder and elbow, even though they say it’s going to be fine …”
5. Ryan Mallett, Arkansas, 6-6 ¾, 253, 1-2: Junior entry transferred from Michigan in 2009 because he didn’t fit new coach Rich Rodriguez’s spread offense, which emphasizes mobility at quarterback. Huge, strong and slow (5.37-second 40), with probably the best arm talent in this draft. “There’s things to like about him because he can do some things that most guys can’t,” one scout said. “It’s just, he may come around and do something most guys wouldn’t because they have better judgment. Same thing makes you laugh, makes you cry sometimes. But he knows football. I like him that way.” Carries a red flag because of possible substance-abuse issues. Admitted in private interviews with teams he’d done drugs in college and had an arrest in ’09 for public intoxication. Some teams won’t touch a quarterback with those kind of questions, but others checked him out and were fine with him and his hillbilly manner. “I like him that way,” a scout said. “I like him just fine. I can see where some of those (concerns) might come from, and he’s had his past. I wouldn’t say those things would never come up again and he’s completely different, I wouldn’t say that. But I think he has an idea of the gravity of what he’s about to get into.” Had a 21-8 record as a starter and 100.5 passer rating. “He can be affected by the rush, which is scary, particularly with his lack of athletic skills,” a third scout said. “I worry about him struggling with pressure. But arm strength, throwing the ball, he’s good.”
6. Andy Dalton, TCU, 6-2, 215, 1-2: Four-year starter with a 42-7 record for a team that dominated the Mountain West Conference, had a 94.6 passer rating. “Liked him,” one scout said. “Competitor, smart guy, tough guy. We’ll see how much those skills he has translate when you’re not better than the team you’re playing against. That will be fun to watch, what’s he going to do now. But he sure gives you a reason to like him.” Has the weakest arm of the top eight quarterbacks but is plenty smart (29 on the Wonderlic) and has the makings of a good West Coast offense passer. Might go late in the first round and start early in his career. “Very intelligent, has a command of the offense there, plays within himself, has good clock management,” another scout said. “He throws a very good ball on the short and intermediate routes. Can he throw the ball deep? Yes, but not on a consistent basis, that’s really not his thing. If you’re talking about 25, 30 yards on a bead, that’s him. You’re talking about throwing the go route 60 yards on a consistent basis, that’s not him, that’s Mallett.” Has all the intangibles and was MVP of the Rose Bowl in TCU’s win over Wisconsin in January. The question is whether he has the physical talent to consistently make plays. “I kind of liked him at first and ended up not liking him as much the more I watched him,” a third scout said. “I don’t know if there’s any more upside. He’s not a big arm-strength guy, and he’ll miss some throws, inconsistent in his accuracy. He’s a good winning, good college quarterback, I don’t know that he’s a starting NFL guy.”
7. Colin Kaepernick, Nevada, 6-4 5/8, 233, 1-2: Lightly recruited out of high school and drafted as a pitcher in baseball by the Chicago Cubs in the 43rd round in ’09. Big, fast and athletic, but raw. “There’s some technical things to work out with him, he’s a project-type guy,” a scout said. “But he’s the right kind of project. He has some things that are above average, the physical ability. He’s a wonderful human being, there’s things you’re not going to be worry about with him.” Went 31-16 as a 3 ½-year starter, and had a 97.3 passer rating. Blazed the 40 in 4.53 seconds. Played in a spread, short shot-gun snap offense, probably will need extra time to learn to take snaps from under center and make NFL reads. “He can zip-snap it off, so he can put a lot of velocity on the ball,” a second scout said. “But he’s slow getting it going. He’s tall and a straight-line fast guy, not as athletic as Cam (Newton) is. He can run fast but he’s kind of stiff, a big ol’ 6-5 guy that has great measurables and great arm strength, but he’s not a natural guy. He’s all that pistol offense, all you see is the first read kind of stuff. Whether he can get through a whole read and process all the stuff, I don’t know. There’s a lot of work there to be done.”
8. Ricky Stanzi, Iowa, 6-4 3/8, 223, 3-4: Four-year starter with a 26-9 record and 92.1 passer rating. Has the size and arm strength of an NFL quarterback, and comes from a pro-style system. Cut back his interceptions from 15 as a junior to six last year. “He’s got an awkward, over-the-top throwing motion,” a scout said. “He’s spent a lot of time with that Tom Martinez guy, (Tom) Brady’s personal (coach). I don’t like his throwing motion much, he’s inaccurate on too many throws for me, and I don’t see him hitting too many deep balls. He’s a down the line guy, needs a lot of fundamental work.” Seems to have been a good leader, but some scouts think something is missing. “He’s ‘ehhhhh,’” one scout said. “Nothing spectacular there.”
9. Nathan Enderle, Idaho, 6-4 1/8, 240, 5-7: Four-year starter with great size and arm strength but slow feet and questionable decision making. “There’s a skill set there that’s worth talking about, that guy did a nice job,” a scout said. “He’s got a big arm, he really can move the ball around the field pretty good.” Won only three games and threw 35 interceptions his first two seasons, then went 14-11 his last two. Had an unimpressive 76.8 passer rating for his career, and his senior season ballooned back up to 16 interceptions. Scored 38 on the Wonderlic, third best among the quarterbacks this year. “I didn’t like him all that much, the more I watched him,” another scout said. “Another guy that struggled with (pass-rush) pressure.”
10. Greg McElroy, Alabama, 6-1 7/8, 220, 5-7: Father works as an administrative vice president for the Dallas Cowboys. Played behind (New Orleans No. 3) Chase Daniel in high school until his senior year, then won Texas offensive player of the year. Redshirted as a freshman at Alabama, was a backup for two years, starter the last two. Had a 24-3 record and led the Crimson Tide to the national championship in the ’09 season. Had a career passer rating of 106.7 and showed great accuracy last year with a 70.9 completion percentage. Is on the smallish side and lacks arm strength but might have the intangibles to give him a chance to make it in the NFL. “Some people think that,” one scout said. “I’m not sure coming away from the Senior Bowl it’s that way for me. They just come in a bigger package typically, a stronger package.”