Posted: Monday April 4, 2011 4:29AM ; Updated: Monday April 4, 2011 2:52PM
Peter King
Peter King>MONDAY MORNING QB

2011 NFL Draft: There's never been a crazier year for quarterbacks

Story Highlights

In past 33 drafts, Mel Kiper says he's never seen anything like this QB class

Teams have mixed feelings about Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett

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Ryan Mallett passes the eye test, with protypical NFL size and arm strength, but has to answer questions about his character.
Ryan Mallett passes the eye test, with protypical NFL size and arm strength, but has to answer questions about his character.
US Presswire

It's a fun time to be a football fan. Sort of. The draft is 24 days away, and we're going to talk quarterbacks this morning, with only one little side trip into the biggest court case in recent NFL history. The one little side trip is because all of you care a little bit, if only to find out how long this lockout can potentially last.

Case in point. I was in Arlington, Texas, Sunday to see the last game of the Red Sox getting swept, courtesy of the '27 Yankees (OK, it was really this year's Rangers). Before the game, Texas GM Jon Daniels gave me and my brother-in-law a tour of the ballpark. "What's going to happen with this lockout?'' Daniels asked just before we parted. Tell you in a few paragraphs, Jon.

But first, let's stop in Maryland, at the home of the well-coiffed one, Mel Kiper. When I reached the longest-running TV draft maven, he was frantically -- and do you know anything Mel doesn't do frantically? -- putting the finishing touches on his 33rd NFL Draft Report, due at the printers today. (Go to www.melkiper.com for your very own copy.) I had no intention of leading this column with a Kiperism, but I couldn't help it when he said in that quick cadence of his: "I've done this for 33 years, and I can tell you there has never been a crazier year for quarterbacks in the draft.''

Whoa. What about 1983, with Dan Marino crashing into the floor of the first round, below Todd Blackledge? Or 1999, with all the strange options (Akili Smith, Tim Couch, Cade McNown) up top? Or the score of Jim Druckenmiller-, Kyle Boller-type reaches?

"Start with the guy not in the draft,'' said Kiper. "Andrew Luck was the no-doubt first pick in the draft, and just think -- how many guys who would have gone number one and had their coach resign return to school? That's a big surprise.

"Now Jake Locker. He was the clear-cut number one guy back in August, and with Luck not coming out, you'd figure he should have been number one easy. Imagine if he came out last year. I think he would have gone number four overall to Washington, and the Redskins never would have traded for Donovan McNabb. But he comes back and struggles, and who knows where he's going.

"Cam Newton. Last summer he was a total unknown quantity, and he comes out and plays great and wins the Heisman and the national title. But there're all kinds of questions about him off the field, and he's only done it one year.''

You're on a roll, Mel! Where's Berman to intercede?

"Blaine Gabbert. Lotta people comparing him to Drew Bledsoe coming out, but I don't see it. I'm not buying into Gabbert. I know he runs a 4.65 at 6-5 and 235, and I give him credit for doing it with a poor receiving corps, but I think he's shaky. You realize he completed only 38 percent of his throws 15 yards [and farther] downfield? And he was only 44 percent on third down, with six touchdowns and five interceptions? You know what Andrew Luck was on third down last year? Seventy-one percent. [Gabbert will] go in the top five, but I've got him down past 10 -- not exactly sure where right now. Still finalizing that. But he and Newton will be around 12, 13 for me.

"The other guys ... Ryan Mallett, amazing size and a phenomenal arm, and I don't think his lack of speed is going to kill him. But he's got some issues off the field. Andy Dalton and Christian Ponder, both good prospects; lots of people think Dalton can be that prototype West Coast quarterback, and I like him.''

In other words, a weird year. And the story of Ryan Mallett could be the weirdest when it's all over.

***

Mallett as metaphor.

Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett heads for Seattle today, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the Seahawks consider him with the 25th pick in the first round. Seattle is still looking longingly at quarterbacks, with incumbent Matt Hasselbeck 35 and not certain to return, and Charlie Whitehurst still an unknown long-term quantity. GM John Schneider was at Mallett's Pro Day in Fayetteville. But is this serious interest or due diligence? It may be both, because in Mallett's case there's so much good and bad out there on the grapevine that you have to work hard to separate fact from fiction. And is Mallett, all 6-6 of him, the second coming of Dan McGwire -- drafted in the first round by Seattle 20 years ago this month -- or a mature pocket passer with the most pro-ready game of any quarterback in this draft?

As I wrote last week, I had one team's scouting report on Mallett read to me, and it questioned his leadership, football and non-football decision-making, a string of off-field problems, and made it clear Mallett should never come within 50 feet of that team's locker room. Former Rams personnel man Tony Softli said Mallett didn't declare for the 2010 NFL draft because of "heavy rumors of drug use and possible addiction.''

But I've spoken with two teams that have done significant homework on Mallett, and neither seemed scared off by him. They believe there's a line of demarcation between his one year at Michigan -- where he enrolled as an 18-year-old freshman in the middle of the academic year -- and his two successful seasons at Arkansas, and that most of his problems in Ann Arbor stemmed from immaturity, homesickness (he's from Texas), and learning that he wasn't the best quarterback in the world, all at the same time. He drank to excess there, including one time when he was arrested for public intoxication.

Someone I trust in the league told me there's something else you have to know about Mallett before you can judge him with finality and decide whether to pick him in the draft. He wouldn't say what it was. Without proof, I'm not going to speculate.

My attempts to contact Mallett through the weekend failed. Mallett knew I wanted to delve into the non-football side of his draft prospects, and he chose not to discuss it. He's been consistent that way since the Scouting Combine, saying he'd answer any questions about his past from teams, but he wouldn't answer them from reporters.

"If you listened to what everyone was saying about him, you wouldn't take him in the seventh round, never mind the first or second,'' one general manager whose opinion I trust implicitly said Sunday night. "Every team is going to have to figure him out for themselves, and you're going to have to trust the guys in your building you ask to look into players who might have a lot of baggage.''

At Michigan in 2007, Mallett was full of himself, maybe as a defense mechanism for his insecurity, and he wasn't well-liked. He started three games for the injured Chad Henne, including a 38-0 win over Notre Dame. But when Rich Rodriguez got the Michigan coaching job after the season, it was obvious Mallett was a poor fit for Rodriguez's spread scheme. He transferred to Arkansas soon after Bobby Petrino got there, and they were a good fit together. Petrino is a demanding coach, particularly with quarterbacks; he chews out offenses the way Nick Saban chews out defenses. When NFL people asked those they trust at Arkansas about how Mallett fit with Petrino, the answers came back positive. Clearly, Mallett can be coached, and coached hard.

That's one of the things that intrigue teams. Mallett is very good at reading defenses and making changes at the line, which he'll need to do early on in the NFL. He's a plodder, slower even than Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. But as another GM told me Sunday: "He can't run at all, but he can move in the pocket well. He's very confident back there, both throwing and moving around when he has to. That part doesn't worry me.''

His throws come out crisp and with accuracy. His arm is plenty strong to make the sideline throws he'll have to make in the NFL. People at Arkansas say he loves football. That's one of the differences between him and Matt Jones, the failed first-rounder for Jacksonville; Mallett loves it, Jones thought it was a job.

Where will he go? It'll have to be a team that can process his past foibles and see him as a maturing person and player. I don't know if that place is Miami or Carolina. It might be Cincinnati or Seattle. ("You better love football here,'' Hasselbeck told me about Pete Carroll's regime last season. Mallett does.) Or Tennessee, with the kind of strong offensive line and running game a slow-footed quarterback would need to survive.

We'll see. Expect a lot of sleepless nights for the teams interested in most of these quarterbacks, particularly the strong-armed one from Arkansas.

***

So what happens Wednesday in Minnesota?

The NFL will oppose the players Wednesday in a Minnesota court room, with lawyers for the players attempting to get a judge to tell the league it cannot continue to lock out the players.

But when federal judge Susan Richard Nelson gets ready to hear the case Wednesday in St. Paul, there's a chance she might not hear the case at all. She might mediate it first, to see if the two sides can be nudged toward an agreement without going the injunction route. As Amy Shipley of the Washington Post reported last week, Nelson took a highly charged Minnesota case -- two gay teenagers suing their school for the right to walk together in a major school social event -- and removed it from the public eye. She oversaw six hours of mediation on a Saturday that resulted in the case being settled before it ever came in front of her officially. In exchange for dropping the suit, the girls got to walk together at the school function. So don't be surprised if she says to the two parties, in effect: You made a lot of progress before stopping the talks last month. Let's get together and see if we can make some more.

But with due respect to the gay-teen settlement, this one's a little more complicated and the NFL is viewing it like a playoff game, slating new star attorney David Boies, one of the best appeal lawyers in the country, to make the league's oral argument in front of Nelson.. So I'll just assume the judge will make a ruling here. And if Vegas made a line on what Nelson will do, I'd say it's 3-2 she'll rule for the players, telling owners they have to open their doors and conduct business as usual. At that point, the NFL would appeal (whoever loses will appeal to a three-judge panel from the Eighth Circuit), and bring in its second big gun, the former solicitor general of the United States, Paul Clement, to go in and try to convince three judges that the league is within its rights to lock out the players since they haven't reached a labor agreement through collective bargaining. The odds there? Maybe 6-5, owners. If that happens, then the players will continue to be locked out.

Remember, for the new league year to begin, and for free agency and trades to be allowed, the players would have to win in front of the appeals court.

As for how long it will take, I hear about three weeks. It's still highly likely that a new league year could begin before the April 28 draft.

After that, the next interesting date on the legal calendar is May 12. That's when Judge David Doty will hear arguments on potential damages in the television case. That's the case he ruled on a month ago, saying the NFL was not within its rights to use any of the $4 billion in 2011 TV money from the networks while it locks out the players. Most legal observers think the players will get significant damages awarded by Doty, punishing the NFL for so brashly negotiating with its network partners and forcing them into contracts that would pay them in 2011 even without football.

For the NFL, Boies and Clement loom as important as Peyton Manning to the Colts if the league loses round one in the legal skirmish in Minnesota.

 
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