"We look for what we've always looked for," says Polian. "Fast eyes, first and foremost. By that I mean, see the receiver, read the coverage, get the ball out quickly. Quick feet are an absolute must. Then accuracy. I asked our staff recently, 'Does anyone here think you can teach accuracy?' The answer was no. Then it's handling the pressure in the NFL, pressure that comes from everywhere—the fans, the media, internally. And then it's the ability to process information week after week and stay on top of it. One week you might face the Tampa 2, the next week Rex Ryan's pressure. Calling the protections—which quarterbacks didn't used to do—and identifying blitzes, those are hard things. And now we place a lot more emphasis on the intangibles."
Intangibles—the gut feeling you get from being around a player. Can he lead older men? How will he adjust to having millions in the bank? Does he want to be great, and will he grind the long hours to settle for nothing less?
The stress can be hard to handle. "You've got to love being the guy a city, a state, a region focuses on for three hours a week," Esiason says. "I lived for it, but not all guys do." In 1995, the week after being the first pick in Panthers history, Collins called coach Dom Capers and said he needed a day off from minicamp to get his head together because the pressure was too much. And the games were six months out.
Now it's worse, and not just because of the money: There's less patience. "When I was drafted in the first round [in 1987]," Harbaugh says, "the Bears had four other quarterbacks. I came in right away and challenged for a job, but the reality was that quarterbacks then, in most cases, were going to be able to learn for two, two-and-a-half years before they had to play. For first-round picks today, that's usually not going to happen."
Alex Smith, the No. 1 choice in 2005, got his first start in Week 5 of his rookie season with the 49ers. San Francisco is now looking for his replacement. Aaron Rodgers, the 24th pick in '05, didn't start a game until his fourth season, and he was the Super Bowl MVP in February. Rodgers didn't like sitting for three years behind Brett Favre, but he admits now that it monumentally helped him to be prepared to take over in Year 4. Who's to say Rodgers would have handled playing early on a bad team like the 49ers any better than Smith did? Tom Brady, a sixth-rounder in '00, once said that if he had been taken high in the first round and played right away, "I'd probably be a third-stringer in Arizona right now—or out of the league."
The 2005 draft points to another factor that teams wrestle with as they finalize their draft boards: grade inflation. One former scout who's worked for four NFL teams told SI last week that the Smith-Rodgers case was a perfect example of how teams can boost a quarterback's grade when they need a passer. Mike Nolan, the San Francisco coach at the time, has privately told friends in football that Smith wasn't first-pick quality but that his team needed a QB. A number of draft experts rank neither Newton or Gabbert among this year's 10 best prospects. But it's almost certain both will go in the top 10.
And a fair warning to any struggling team drafting a quarterback: To this day Browns coaches are convinced that Tim Couch, the top pick in 1999, made an early exit from football because he got the tar beat out of him while playing on an expansion team. "When I hear Tim was a bust," says his Cleveland offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, "I get so mad. Tim wasn't a bust; he was busted up. He's the poster boy for a kid who had to play behind a struggling line with the hopes of a city on his shoulders. He broke his leg, he hurt his shoulder. He was too tough for his own good." David Carr, the No. 1 pick by the expansion Texans in 2002, was sacked an NFL-record 76 times as a rookie. Matt Stafford, the top pick in '09, has played just 13 games for Detroit because of injuries suffered on the field.
The bright spot for the 2011 Panthers, who are eyeing Newton with the first pick? Their offensive line is actually pretty good, as is the running game. That takes pressure off a rookie quarterback.
These days teams are trying to get an edge any way they can. When the Dolphins scheduled an on-campus visit with Dalton for Sunday, April 3, they sent him a portion of their playbook, with their 100-odd formations—motions and shifts and protections, route trees for the receivers. He got the package late on Thursday and was told, Learn this by 10 a.m. on Sunday. Dalton had sessions with the Cowboys all day Friday, then a rehearsal dinner for a friend's wedding that night and the wedding on Saturday night. So he woke early Saturday and crammed all day, and on Sunday morning his fiancée drove him to campus so he could spend another hour studying in the car.
Miami offensive coordinator Brian Daboll stood in front of Dalton with a magnetic board, with six magnets emblematic of the skill players. He'd call out "Flex Right," and Dalton would have to place the magnets in the proper positions on the board. He was also tested on the protections and on where to go with the ball on certain calls. Dalton thinks he aced those tests.