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Billick ranks '11 NFL draft quarterbacks

Is Blaine Gabbert worth the top pick in the NFL draft?
Is Blaine Gabbert worth the top pick in the NFL draft?
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Brian Billick

Brian Billick served as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens from 1999-2007, winning Super Bowl XXXV. He has also authored books, including More Than A Game: The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL. Follow him on Twitter.

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Billick ranks and evaluates the top quarterbacks in the draft.

 

1. Blaine Gabbert | 2. Cam Newton | 3. Ryan Mallett | 4. Christian Ponder
5. Jake Locker

 

Gabbert is draft's top QB

 

Missouri's Blaine Gabbert is the best quarterback in an Alex Smith like draft. He may not be a franchise quarterback from the very first start, but because of the lack of overall quarterback talent in the draft, and with free agency being delayed, teams may be forced into drafting Gabbert as the savior of their franchise.

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Gabbert is an outstanding athlete who shows great leadership and intelligence on the field, but he is inconsistent in his mechanics and doesn't throw an overly impressive deep ball. I do like the fact that he can make plays with his legs and doesn't have to have both set to get good zip on the ball, but in today’s NFL with teams stretching fields vertically, having a better deep ball would definitely make him even more attractive.

He has a slight hitch in his throwing motion that if removed would allow for a much quicker release. Coming from the spread offense, many times a quarterback is only given a single read or at the most two route reads and then pull it down and run. This is true for Gabbert as well, so him being able to read the defense and go all the way through his route progressions and then even dump the ball off the a check down tight end or running back will be a great maturation in his game.

When compared to Cam Newton, who is also drawing attention as the first quarterback to be selected, Gabbert has 933 passing attempts to evaluate on tape to Newton's 292 (12 of them coming from his time at Florida in 2007 and 2008). Having that bigger body of work, makes me more comfortable in determining how his game will translate to the NFL and seeing if he can make all the throws.

I have heard others comparing Gabbert to Matt Ryan, but I struggle to crown him franchise ready from Day 1 like Ryan was. I think Gabbert can get there, but there will be much more of a transition period. Specific to this year's draft, I do think he is worthy of consideration for the first overall pick, but I think Carolina would be better off going with a defensive stalwart. To me, Gabbert makes most sense at three overall to Buffalo or five to Arizona.

 

Newton has a lot to prove

 

Just like last year's draft could have been dubbed the "Tim Tebow Invitational", the 2011 draft has similar buzz regarding Cam Newton. There is absolutely no question that he is an extraordinary athlete and a truly unique college football player, but his skills haven't translated well into the NFL in recent history.

It is no secret that Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks have struggled to be successful at the next level, and I have a feeling that Newton will have those same struggles. When you look at the history of the NFL, a quarterback with his skill set has yet to win a Super Bowl.

Yes, I do think that he can bring immediate excitement and playmaking ability to a team, but in the long run, he will have to develop his pocket presence and look to make plays with his arm rather than his legs. You can look at Vince Young as a recent example with the Tennessee Titans drafting him with the third overall pick in the 2006.

At that time, general manager Floyd Reese was quoted: "Last night at 11:35, I was on my knees praying. ... He will rewrite the position. This guy physically is such a combination of arms and legs."

Well, Young hardly rewrote the quarterback position, and in fact, just five years later, he most likely won't even be on the Titans roster.

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In all fairness to Newton, he has better throwing action than both Young and Tim Tebow and he is much more NFL ready than both prospects were in their respective draft years.

As I mentioned when analyzing Gabbert, the college spread offense makes it very difficult to estimate how one’s games will translate into the NFL, and with Newton it is even more difficult. He has only 292 passing attempts on his resume, and, as one quarterback coach recently told me, only about 10 percent of throws in a spread offense are comparable to NFL style routes.

That means that we are asking a club to play this young man almost $50 million based off game analysis of just 30 throws.

Finally, as has been discussed over and over, Newton's off the field problems are major red flags to me. With football being the ultimate team sport, having a quarterback with a diva mentality makes it very difficult for team cohesion.

Newton obviously proved he can win at Auburn, but the NFL is very different, full of former college superstars. With his "icon” and “entertainer" comments, and his predraft media only workout, he will need to check his ego at the locker room door.

 

Mallett must work on mental game

 

Outside of Newton, Ryan Mallett is the most intriguing quarterback in the draft. His talent is obvious. He has a huge arm and the skill set to make all the throws. As far as physical talent, outside of foot agility, he has all the tools to be successful.

Mallett will need to mature most mentally. For a professional athlete, especially a franchise quarterback, this mental maturation process occurs both off the field and on the field.

Off the field, his character has been dissected and his unwillingness to answer drug related questions at the NFL Scouting Combine only fueled the fire. To me, this is awfully reminiscent of Ryan Leaf as he struggled to find his way in the NFL. I hope that Mallett can mature and handle the media attention that goes along with being a professional quarterback. Right now, I question if he can.

On the field, his mental development needs to occur in the film room. On tape, he missed blitzing schemes in which his linemen were outmanned and he needed to throw the ball "hot." He will be counted on to check out of plays that are already set up to fail just by the presnap alignment of the defense. He will need to read elaborate coverage schemes by NFL defenses and make good decisions as Pro Bowl pass rushers are in his face.

In order to do these things, he will need to spend hours and hours in film study and commit himself to nothing other than football season after season. I am not sure he is mentally prepared for that right now.

Again, Mallett has all the physical skills needed to be successful, and maybe is the most pro-ready quarterback just from a physical attributes perspective. He played in a pro-style offense at Arkansas, and the throws he made as an amateur will translate very well at the next level. I would like to see him develop lighter feet in the pocket and use his size like Ben Roethlisberger to make it difficult to bring him down in the pocket.

I think there will be teams encouraged to move back into the first round to select him, but I think he would be better off in the second round, where he won't have to deal with the pressures from media outlets and fans alike of being a first-round selection.

 

Ponder surges up draft boards

 

Like in years past, there is always one player who gains momentum a couple weeks before the draft that may be just enough to propel him into the first round. This year, he is former Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder.

Of all the quarterback prospects, Ponder has the most experience being under center and has great fundamentals. He is an accurate passer who relies on great timing and coverage recognition, more so than a huge powerful arm. Talent scouts have dubbed him a West Coast quarterback, which basically means, he is a smart accurate passer, but has absolutely no arm strength.

Ponder showed up to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., in the shadows of Jake Locker and Colin Kaepernick as they seemed to be garnering the most attention. By the end of the week, Ponder had proved during each practice that he was the most NFL ready quarterback and backed it up by being named the game's MVP.

He showed a certain level of comfort taking snaps from under center and had very impressive elusiveness inside the pocket. By that, I mean, he recognized pressure and had a calm pocket presence in which he made subtle movements to elude tacklers, reset his feet and throw a strike to his receiver downfield.

With Ponder as my fourth best quarterback prospect and 45th overall, he may be a key cog in the gamesmanship of teams trading up into the late first round or early second round to pick him up. Whichever team that is, they will be getting a very intelligent player both on and off the field.

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Ponder received his degree from FSU in just 2 1/2 years, and that same level of intelligence shows up on the field as well. One major concern for teams evaluating Ponder will be his injury-filled college career. Just last season, he battled an elbow injury all year, and capped off his college career with a concussion in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

When I watch Ponder play, he shows flashes of both Chris Simms and Colt McCoy, but the player he most reminds me of is Brodie Croyle,who was selected 85th overall by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2006. Croyle and Ponder have similar arm strength, but I think Ponder's mental capacity and patience as a passer elevate him into the top 50 of the draft.

Ponder may grow into a future starter, but in the interim, he will make a solid back-up that will be snap ready without needing a ton of reps throughout the week to gain an understanding of the offense.
 

Accuracy a big concern with Locker

 

There isn't a better young man in this year's draft than Jake Locker. I had the opportunity to speak with him at the NFL Scouting Combine, and I was immediately drawn to him as a human being.

He is eloquent, intelligent, passionate and all the other off-field intangibles you look for when drafting a franchise quarterback to be the face of your organization. Problem is, his on-field measurables don't add up.

In today's quarterback evaluation, there are two things that you can't compromise, accuracy and work ethic.

Work ethic is not the concern with Locker. I have no doubt he will live in the film room, he will be the last one off the practice field and his car will be the last one in the parking lot every night. Accuracy is where you begin to question his ability to not only be a "franchise" quarterback in this league, but even a serviceable one.

When looking at Locker's career numbers, they are pretty self-explanatory. He has never been better than a 58 percent passer. You just can't win with that percentage in the NFL.

Now, because he is such a great young man, we have begun to make excuses for his on the field deficiencies. I know by this time, you all are getting tired of me eating crow on the Kyle Boller pick, but this is very reminiscent of our evaluation process of him as a player.

We loved him as a human being, and therefore started making excuses for his college tape, namely his inaccuracy being a result of a subpar receiving corps. Same thing with Locker, there are too many excuses being thrown around for him as a player, which is why I have him sliding to my 50th player overall and just the fifth best quarterback in the draft.

As always, there is going to be a head coach, coordinator or quarterbacks coach who lets his ego get in the way and say that based off potential, he can turn this kid into a perennial Pro Bow player. For Locker's sake, I hope they do because he deserves to have a long and successful career.

I'm just not totally convinced that career is in the NFL … possibly MLB?

For more analysis, follow Billick on Twitter at @coachbillick.

Tagged: Titans, Chiefs, Chris Simms, Vince Young

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