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In 1984 an engaging first-round quarterback prospect, Maryland's Boomer Esiason, was coming off a separated shoulder from a December bowl game. Cleared by doctors, he threw at the scouting combine in late January and then waited three months to be picked. Esiason visited no teams and had no Pro Day—in those days no schools did. One club, the Bengals, sent a coach to work him out. Cincinnati took Esiason midway through the second round.
In 2011 an engaging first-round quarterback prospect, TCU's Andy Dalton, is coming off a mostly healthy season and a terrific Rose Bowl. He threw at the combine and met with 21 NFL teams there; threw again at TCU's Pro Day, which was attended by 26 teams; worked out privately for 11 teams and visited six in March and April; ate meals with four quarterback coaches or coordinators; and faced at least one crazy job interview. A team will choose him no later than midway through the second round this year.
Esiason made it big. Dalton might. The inexact science of choosing a quarterback will be in the spotlight again at the 76th NFL draft next week, when as many as seven passers, all with professional or personal faults (or both), could be among the first 50 picks.
In a normal year some teams would solve their passing needs through free agency or trades, and veterans such as Donovan McNabb, Matt Hasselbeck, Marc Bulger and Kevin Kolb would have moved to new clubs by now. But because the labor stalemate prohibits trades or free-agent signings—and the league has banned under-the-table deals during the work stoppage—teams enter the draft without knowing whether they'll be able to snag one of those vets. So those needing a passer are probably going to be more aggressive. It's an ideal scenario for college QBs, and a potential recipe for disaster for the teams drafting them.
"They all have traits you love," says Jim Harbaugh, the rookie coach of the 49ers. "They all have traits you question. There's a lot of teams looking for the quarterback with the great NFL DNA."
Despite a decent streak in the last three drafts, NFL general managers haven't improved much in picking the most important player on the field. From 1980 to '95 (16 drafts), teams selected 35 first-round passers. Nine, from John Elway to Kerry Collins, became consistent long-term starters or stars. Ten, from Art Schlichter to Heath Shuler, had very little impact. The others either were middle-of-the-road players or were derailed by injuries.
From 1996 to 2010 (15 drafts), G.M.'s chose 36 first-round quarterbacks. Excluding Sam Bradford and Tim Tebow, who just finished their rookie years, that leaves 34 QBs. Of those, 11 appear to be long-term starters or stars (if you include recent picks Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco), and eight appear to be busts or doomed by injury.
We'll call the bust rate 29% in the earlier group and 24% over the last 15 years, with 26% stars before to 32% now. It's a little better, but not the change you might expect from the information explosion of the last two decades, all the tools and analytics teams employ to determine if a prospect is the next Dan Marino or Dan McGwire. "Why is it still such an inexact science?" Harbaugh says. "Because there's still some variables you just can't measure."
The Colts used the same principles to scout Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf in 1998 that they're using to dissect the top quarterbacks in this draft. Indy, looking because Manning is 35, is weighing the same issues as every other team. Auburn's Cam Newton has just one year as a Division I starter; Missouri's Blaine Gabbert is a virtual run-and-shoot passer who'll need a major adjustment to the pro game; Washington's Jake Locker was inaccurate in college; Arkansas's Ryan Mallett is a plodder who might have some off-field concerns; Dalton and Florida State's Christian Ponder are short (6'2") and struggle on some deep throws; Nevada's Colin Kaepernick will be making the move from the oddball Pistol offense to a pro-style scheme. (Iowa's Ricky Stanzi also could sneak into the second round.)
Colts president Bill Polian has always been partial to experienced QBs who played in college the way they'll play in the pros. Manning was a three-year starter at Tennessee, and Kerry Collins (Polian's first-round pick at Carolina in 1995) started two-plus seasons at Penn State, and each played a version of the pro-style offense they'd use in the NFL. Most of the 2011 prospects come from spread or unconventional schemes.