Like every year, one of the biggest questions heading in to the 2011 NFL Draft is which quarterback is the best prospect.The Carolina Panthers have the number one overall pick and could select Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert or Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. These are two players that most football fans had never heard of a year ago. A lot can change in the span of 12 months, especially for mock drafts. Last year, Washington quarterback Jake Locker was seen as the consensus top prospect for the 2011 NFL Draft, similar to how Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is seen as the consensus top prospect right now for the 2012 NFL Draft. Blaine Gabbert is this year’s quarterback who came out of nowhere and shot right up Mel Kiper’s Draft Board around Bowl season. (similar to Joe Flacco in 2008 and Josh Freeman in 2009). Many scouts think Gabbert is the better pro prospect and the safer pick. Newton has more upside, but is the more risky pick. In four months, he went from unknown to a Heisman and BCS National Title winner. He may not be a traditional NFL-style quarterback, but he is a proven winner.
Other quarterback prospects that could go in the first round are TCU’s Andy Dalton, Florida State’s Christian Ponder, Arkansas’s Ryan Mallet, and mentioned earlier Washington’s Jake Locker.
As much as NFL general mangers, scouts, the media, and fans alike scrutinize and debate about which quarterback should be the first overall pick or first drafted from the position, one factor that is always overlooked is the situation that these quarterbacks end up in. Take the 2009 NFL Draft for example. Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford was the first overall selection by the Detroit Lions and USC quarterback Mark Sanchez went 5th overall to the New York Jets. The Lions were coming off a win-less season, while the Jets were coming off their 9-7 Brett Favre season. The Jets weren’t seen as a Super Bowl contender at the time, but they already had the pieces for success in place.
Mark Sanchez was joining the 3rd highest scoring team in the AFC that a great running game and offensive line intact. Not to mention a respectable defense that was about to get a rude awakening from new head coach Rex Ryan.
Matt Stafford was joining a team that has long been the NFL’s version of the Washington Generals. They had a new head coach Jim Schwartz and a roster with very little talented.
Two years later the benefits of getting drafted lower, but by a better team, are evident.
The Jets have been to the AFC Championship Game to the last two seasons and have established themselves as a Super Bowl contender. Granted a bigger part of the Jets success has been their strong running game and defense, but Sanchez has clearly had more success than Matthew Stafford thus far.
The Lions went 2-14 during the 2009 NFL season and improve to 6-10 last season. Matthew Stafford has struggled during his first two seasons on a poor team, but its too early to call him a bust right now. However, he could face the same fate as Joey Harrington did in Motown. Stafford has played only 13 games in two injury filled seasons. A big part of his injuries, is his offensive line pales in comparison to what Mark Sanchez has with the Jets. His running backs and wide receivers are also inferior, but he is surrounded with some talented players like Calvin Johnson and Kevin Smith.
In 2009, If Mark Sanchez had gone first overall to the Detroit Lions and the New York Jets traded up to select Matthew Stafford at fifth overall their career paths could be reversed right now. Mark Sanchez would not have led the Detroit Lions to the conference title game during his first two seasons as quarterback. It’s more likely they would have finished last both of those years in the NFC North. The New York Jets may not have made the AFC Championship Game during the first two seasons of the Rex Ryan and Matthew Stafford era, but they certainly would have a better record than the Lions. Who knows maybe they would have the Super Bowl during one of those seasons. After all, Stafford was considered the better prospect heading into that draft.
Mark Sanchez is not the only young quarterback that has been benefited from getting drafted lower in the first round by a better team. Two notable examples are Ben Roethlisberger getting selected 11th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2004 and Joe Flacco going 18th overall to the Baltimore Ravens in 2008. As rookies both of them helped their teams reach the conference title game as rookies (Shaun King did this for the 1999 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so its not always a sign of a rising star). Aaron Rodgers slipped to 24th overall in the 2005 NFL Draft to the Green Bay Packers. Many thought he could have gone 1st overall to the San Francisco 49ers. He may waited four years (backing up Brett Favre) to be a starting quarterback, but had gone to the Niners, there’s a great chance he wouldn’t be a Super Bowl MVP right now. A less talked about example was Dan Marino going 27th in the 1983 NFL Draft to the Miami Dolphins. Marino’s draft stock slipped as a senior, but he was going to a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance. This was a much better scenario for success than what Todd Blackledge got with the Kansas City Chiefs or what John Elway would have gotten with the Baltimore Colts.
However, a quarterback going to a good situation is not always a recipe for success.
Matt Leinhart was the 10th overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals. He would have been the top pick of the 2005 NFL Draft, but his stock slipped during his senior season at USC. While he did lose some guaranteed money slipping in the draft a year later,he ended up with what seemed like an ideal scenario for a young quarterback. The Cardinals had two young Pro Bowl caliber receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin and had just signed Edgerrin James away from the Indianapolis Colts. To top it off, his back up was 2-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner. Leinhart struggled early on and never established himself as the Cardinals quarterback. Instead the scenario was ideal for Kurt Warner, who reinvented his career and helped lead the Cardinals to within minutes of a Super Bowl victory. Even after Warner retired, Leinhart’s opportunity to start was long gone and now he’s a backup on the Houston Texans.
Sometimes the right quarterback can turnaround an entire franchise.
Peyton Manning joined an Indianapolis Colts team in 1998 that was coming off the worst record in the league. It’s hard to beleive now that he and the now infamous Ryan Leaf were actually compared to each other at one point. Manning is now an NFL legend and Leaf is the NFL’s equivalent of Sam Bowie. Even if they had switched places in the 1998 NFL Draft, the Colts would have been the ones suffering years later and the Chargers would have had their first franchise quarterback since Dan Fouts.
Matt Ryan was drafted 3rd overall by the Atlanta Falcons in 2008 and instantly helped the them become a competitive team after the Michael Vick fiasco. He helped lead the Falcons to an 11-5 record and was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Granted part of his success can be tied to the players the Falcons already had on the roster. Roddy White was entering his 4th NFL season and Michael Turner was just signed as a free agent. Nonetheless, the Falcons would not be a Super Bowl contender right now had they not selected Matt Ryan in the 2008 NFL Draft.
While the top quarterback prospects will continue to be scrutinized until the 2011 NFL Draft begins on April 28th, one aspect that can not be overlooked is what kind of roster that quarterback and new franchise savior will inherit.