Despite a long list of top defensive talent in this draft class, it seems that it will still be the quarterbacks who drive the action on the opening day of the 2011 NFL Draft.
Generally believed to be one of the weaker QB groups in recent years, only two signalcallers were being considered solid first-round talents a few short weeks ago. However, driven partially by team needs and partially by the uncertainty of the current labor situation that has teams guessing what their free-agency options will be, the 2011 QB class is making a late rush up team draft boards.
Compounding the issue is an elevated level of uncertainty when it comes to the skillsets of the available players. That's unusual at the QB spot, but the emergence of the spread option attack in the college game and the off-field behavior of some players has many personnel people wondering which of these candidates actually has what it takes to excel at the next level in the NFL's most important position.
The predraft rumor trail is always a tough one to navigate as some teams will sometimes disseminate misinformation in an effort to push certain prospects up or down the board to create favorable draft situations.
For instance, some teams are rumored to believe that Arkansas' Ryan Mallett is moving up boards because he has the strongest arm and best physical tools of all the prospects. However, still other personnel men have reportedly taken Mallett off their boards altogether due to some character concerns. That's not any different than any other player in any other year, but when it concerns the top players at the top position, it can completely change the face of the biggest day of the NFL offseason.
Here's what we know. On some level, the Panthers, Bills, Bengals, Cardinals, 49ers, Titans, Redskins, Vikings, Dolphins, Jaguars, Seahawks, and possibly even the Raiders could all be in the market for a QB. While a free agent like Marc Bulger, Matt Hasselbeck or Donovan McNabb, or a trade for someone like Kevin Kolb, Vince Young or Carson Palmer is a more workable option for some of those teams, the uncertainty of the free agency landscape makes those options less than reliable at this point. That means these teams have to be thinking about a QB in the draft's early rounds. That demand will drive up the price (or draft position) of a limited supply of talented prospects.
In short, there are ways to hide the lack of talent at some other positions. It is very hard to hide the lack of a viable QB, so teams will have to go get one.
So what does all this mean for next week's draft? We're hearing (like everyone else) that Cam Newton could very well be the top pick in the draft. But Carolina general manager Marty Hurney is still in Jimmy Clausen's corner. If the Panthers pass, Newton would likely go to Buffalo at No. 3.
Cincinnati (No. 4) could take a hard look at Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, but to this point the Bengals have not demonstrated much interest. They could try and wait out their QB need until the 35th overall pick in Round 2. Arizona has been reported as a Gabbert suitor and could jump at the chance to draft him with the fifth pick.
The QB circus really begins after Gabbert comes off the board. The key to a potential run on the position will be triggered by the selection of that third quarterback. Several draft experts have slated Jake Locker to go as high as 10th to the Redskins.
However, as we mentioned, San Francisco (No. 7, whose offer to Alex Smith, reported by West Coast media outlets, could be a fallback option) and Tennessee (No. 8) both could be in the mix, and you can expect a flurry of possible trade activity for Dallas' ninth pick as QB-seeking teams look to get ahead of the 'Skins. Expect Seattle to try and get in position to make a play for Locker.
Other teams like the Jags, Dolphins and Vikings, along with the Bengals, could be thinking about waiting until Round 2. But the latest reports make that a risky play. Nevada's Colin Kaepernick received an invite to the NFL Draft in New York based on a reported story that several teams have him ranked as the top QB on their board.
Also, TCU's Andy Dalton and Florida State's Christian Ponder are making a run at Round 1 consideration. If that ends up being the case, there could be another flurry of trade activity as teams at the top of the second round contact teams like New England (28), the Jets (30), Pittsburgh (31) and Green Bay (32) for an opportunity to trade up into the bottom of the first round.
For those that miss out, there are some mid-round options that are gaining some momentum as well, including Ricky Stanzi of Iowa, Delaware's Pat Devlin and Tyrod Taylor of Virginia Tech. But you can be sure that the teams with those pressing QB needs will have to make a pick early, or make a move to gain better position, making for an interesting first day of draft action.
The question is, five years down the road, will we be wondering if it wasn't a whole lot of fuss over marginal talent that got pushed up the boards because of an overrated need?