Top fantasy prospects: Quarterbacks

BY foxsports • April 7, 2011

Whatever the fate of the 2011 NFL season, one thing is certain.

The NFL Draft will proceed according to schedule, and fans will be able to celebrate their team’s new toys, if only for a weekend. I volunteer to stand in for any draft prospect who decides to spurn the invitation to attend the NFL Draft in New York. My only requirement is that I have the opportunity to present the fans’ case in one-minute increments throughout the night.

In any event, it’s time to start reviewing the principals in this year’s draft class. It all begins with the quarterback, so who am I to break with tradition? This year’s class is replete with question marks and a “hot potato” feel to it.

Fans, beat writers and national pundits are putting a “stay away” sign on many of the top prospects. I’m doing a quick review of the players in this piece, sizing up the physical attributes and performances notes from their NCAA efforts, NFL Combine and workout notes.

Once they’ve been drafted, I’ll re-order the players and assess them in the context of their new teams. I suspect that Cam Newton will lead both lists, as he’ll become the new face of Carolina, Arizona or Minnesota.

1. Cam Newton, Auburn

Newton rates as the most polarizing prospect to enter the draft in quite some time. His off-the-field issues have been well-chronicled, and questions related to the recruiting process and his tenure at Florida will cast a cloud over everything he does.

There’s no denying Newton’s physicality and natural talent. He electrified a nation with his strong arm and legwork, producing 30 passing touchdowns (2,854 passing yards) and 20 rushing touchdowns (1,473 rushing yards) en route to the Heisman Trophy win and BCS Championship. There isn’t a throw that he can’t make, and he demonstrated great resiliency in navigating the SEC as a first-year starter while pundits and reporters scrutinized his every move.

He’s the classic high-risk for high-reward proposition. Newton does need to refine his motion and put in the film study to become comfortable with working through progressions.

2. Blaine Gabbert, Missouri

Gabbert is, by most accounts, the best pure prospect on the board, and he doesn’t carry the same baggage of his 2011 NFL Draft classmates. He has the size, arm strength and athleticism to get outside the pocket. Gabbert improved his completion percentage in 2010 (63.4 percent) and added five rushing touchdowns to his total of 16 passing touchdowns. The consensus is that he has the mechanics to translate to the next level, but needs to improve his “feel” in the pocket and follow through on his throws.

3. Jake Locker, Washington

Coming into the 2010 season, many fans and pundits were questioning why Locker chose to return to Washington. He completed 55.4 percent of his pass attempts (58.2 percent in 2009) and forced throws at times. On some level, the Huskies needed him to do anything and everything to make a play. Therefore, you have to excuse some of the forced throws. You can excuse some, but not all, of the throws, making accuracy the big question facing Locker as the draft approaches.

On the whole, you’re looking at a quarterback with the arm strength to make every throw. He works well through his progressions and has demonstrated an ability to play through injuries. Another plus for Locker is that he’s already worked in a pro offense, so the learning curve should be accelerated.

4. Colin Kaepernick, Nevada

Kaepernick received some national attention in Nevada’s fantastic 2010 season. He passed for more than 3,000 yards (3,022) and rushed for 1,206 yards. He threw 21 touchdown passes and posted 20 rushing touchdowns.

At 6-foot-5, Kaepernick is a mighty intriguing option with the prototypical NFL body. He’s elusive in the pocket and has the strength to buy time. The downside is that he relies on his athleticism and will pull down the football instead of working through his progressions. He needs to shorten his passing motion and get out the football. If a team can speed that process, Kaepernick rates as a nice long-term prospect.
 

5. Christian Ponder, Florida State

Ponder posted solid numbers for a Florida State team that was devoid of its traditional powerhouse options at receiver. His completion percentage dropped by seven percent, and his average yardage per attempt dropped by 1.4 yards per attempt.

It should be noted that Ponder played through elbow and shoulder injuries last season. When sound, Ponder has demonstrated the arm strength necessary to make all throws. His ability to work past those injuries remains a question mark.

6. Andy Dalton, TCU

Dalton produced strong numbers with both his arm and legs last season. He passed for 2,857 yards with 27 touchdowns, and added 435 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. He completed a career-high 66.1 percent of his pass attempts while standing tall in the pocket.

A number of scouts point to two things in his throwing motion that must be rectified. Dalton needs to adjust his arm angle to keep from getting passes batted back into his face and to work the deep ball. He’s excelled on short and intermediate passes, but needs work on his deep throws.

7. Ricky Stanzi, Iowa

Stanzi was a player that you loved or hated during his tenure at Iowa. He made big plays with his arm and legs, and gave up his body for his team. As a result, you may have cheered against the Hawkeyes, but you respected his approach to the game.

Stanzi knows how to work through progressions, and demonstrated great pocket “feel” and elusiveness. He slides in the pocket and buys his receivers time. He vastly improved his completion percentage (64.1 percent in 2010) and tossed 25 touchdowns against six interceptions last season. Stanzi relies on his arm strength and tries to thread the proverbial needle downfield, although he made better decisions in 2010. Stanzi stands 6-foot-4 and has the strength to throw the deep pass. If he can further refine his decision-making, he’ll have a shot to be a backup with upside.

8. Ryan Mallett, Arkansas

Like Newton, Mallett’s physical tools and skills under center have been secondary to questions of character, desire and leadership. At 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds, Mallett has the size to read the field and has the arm strength to work the ball downfield. However, he forces passes into tight spots and may be susceptible to a high-turnover count (he threw 12 interceptions in 2010).

Mallett resembles Ben Roethlisberger in how he uses his size. He’ll shake off would-be tacklers to make the pass. The big question is whether he can find a receiver instead of an opponent.

9. Nathan Enderle, Idaho

Enderle has all the physical tools to make it on the next level. He stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 240 pounds with great arm strength. In the classic interview scenario, Enderle’s greatest asset is his biggest weakness. That is to say, Enderle tries to force passes into tight spots and risks turnovers (he threw 16 interceptions last season). He needs to work on reading through his progressions and allow plays to develop. Enderle completed only 56.7 percent of his pass attempts in 2010 and struggled markedly against top opponents.

10. Taylor Potts, Texas Tech
 

Critics will be quick to dismiss Potts’ productivity as a function of the Texas Tech system. His 3,726 passing yards and 35 passing touchdowns tend to be italicized in write-ups. However, Potts did improve his mechanics in 2010 and registered a career-high 67 percent completion rate. He holds onto the football and tries to compensate with his arm strength (have we seen that before on the NFL level?).

11. Pat Devlin, Delaware

Devlin started his career at Penn State before assuming the starting role at Delaware in 2009. He demonstrated good mechanics and touch on short and intermediate routes. Devlin completed 68 percent of his pass attempts in 2010 (7.9 yards per attempt) and was stingy with the ball (had 22 touchdowns against three interceptions). He gets through progressions quickly and has good pocket presence. However, scouts remain concerned about his inability to throw the deep ball and his tendency to hold onto the ball too long (even when he does slide in the pocket).

12. Jerrod Johnson, Texas A&M

Johnson stands 6-foot-5, possesses a big arm, is elusive in the pocket, and has an ability to throw on the run. Unfortunately, his delivery is slow, which allows defensive backs to recover. As a result, Johnson completed only 58.6 percent of his pass attempts. His 56.6 percent completion rate and 14-to-9 touchdown-to-interception rate led to his benching in 2010. With some fine-tuning of his mechanics and working with a football equivalent of a “shot doctor,” Johnson makes for an intriguing project.

13. Tyrod Taylor, Virginia Tech

Taylor’s footwork and general play-making ability make a comparison to another former Hokies star too easy. He operated best when on the move, and his improvisational skills made for more than a few highlights. Taylor completed only 57.2 percent of his pass attempts (8.7 yards per attempt). But recorded 24 touchdowns against five interceptions and ran for 659 yards and five touchdowns.

Taylor isn’t particularly comfortable in the pocket, and his height doesn’t make him the statuesque option that scouts love. He’s perhaps too quick to tuck the ball and improvise instead of working through his progressions. Will Taylor work as a quarterback or find himself transitioning to the return game?

14. Ryan Colburn, Fresno State

Colburn has the size, toughness and arm strength to advance to the next level, provided that he can correct a couple of fundamental issues. He holds onto the ball too long and fails to feel pressure in the pocket. Colburn also locks onto his primary target and fails to check down to secondary options.

To his credit, Coburn made a moderate improvement in his completion percentage (63.1 percent) and limited his turnovers. He threw 23 touchdown passes against nine interceptions in 2010 (had a 19-to-11 ratio in 2009), though his yardage average per attempt dipped by nearly a 1/2 yard.

15. Greg McElroy, Alabama

McElroy made headlines for early reports about his Wonderlic score, almost pushing his efforts at Alabama to the wayside. He’s an accurate passer (66.3 percent career completion rate) and threw 37 touchdowns against nine interceptions in two years as a starter. McElroy demonstrated great poise in the pocket and good touch on intermediate routes while working through his progressions. The biggest knock on McElroy is that he doesn’t possess the touch for deep passes. I’m reticent to dismiss him altogether, as he can lead in the right circumstances.


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