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Will No. 4 please stand up?

Posted Feb 27, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS - After the nation's top college passers left a mushroom cloud of questions following Sunday's workout here at the NFL scouting combine, the fourth draft pick on April 28 suddenly looks like a river of doubt when it comes to selecting a franchise quarterback.

Cam Newton was inaccurate. Blaine Gabbert was inactive. Ryan Mallett was inexplicable. Jake Locker was inscrutable.

Which means it sounds like it's time to dust off the bio of Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green, keep texting Carson Palmer, ask new wide receivers coach James Urban about Kevin Kolb, and think about the second round and guys like Florida State's Christian Ponder.

"Right now a quarterback at No. 4 is a reach," one scout said. "Mallett was the best one here. The best thrower of the ball. But he's got off-field issues. Newton was terrible and he's got off-field issues, too. Gabbert didn't do anything here and he was the only guy that didn't, so that makes you wonder about him."

Analyst Mike Mayock walked off the NFL Network set and into the media room late Sunday afternoon declaring that just three quarterbacks will be gone in the first round. Even with Carolina at No. 1, Buffalo at No. 3, Cincinnati at No. 4, Arizona at No. 5, San Francisco at No. 7, and Washington at No. 10 all needing one. He envisions one of those teams that didn't get one trading back up late into the first round for one. But don't count on the Bengals doing that in a draft they want to keep all their picks to fix several holes on offense.

Mayock's lone top 10 QB pick at the moment is the 6-5, 235-pound Gabbert of Missouri. But he decided not to throw until his March 17 campus workout.

"He came in saying he was the best quarterback here and he's the only that didn't work out," one scout said. "That's something you'd have to look into."

Even though Mayock says Gabbert is worthy, he also knows the spread offense has made the transition for some quarterbacks to the pros much more difficult.

"He's got a bigger transition than Sam Bradford or Matt Ryan; it's more similar to (Joe) Flacco," Mayock said. "He's a spread quarterback who never gets under center where Ryan, Bradford and (Stafford) occasionally went under. You saw them do it. Fifty percent of his throws are catch, rock and throw with no footwork whatsoever and the other 50 percent are three step and hitch, which means there's going to be a transition on his footwork, no question about it."

But Mayock likes the fact the Missouri spread has a lot of intermediate throws between 11 and 20 yards and that Gabbert has shown enough arm strength to make the 18-yard comeback routes and the 20-yard digs through anticipation and accuracy, which Mayock calls the NFL's defining throws.  

"I believe in Blaine Gabbert," he said. "A franchise quarterback trumps everything else. If you don’t have one you don’t win in this league. ... If Cincinnati believes he's a franchise quarterback they have to take him."

But the only guy who looked anything close to a franchise quarterback during the drills is Mallett. He had the best throwing session of a group that included Washington's Jake Locker, Nevada's Colin Kaepernick, and TCU's Andy Dalton. Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese was one of the NFL assistant coaches working the drills, as was former Bengals receivers coach Mike Sheppard, the new Jaguars receivers coach.

The 6-6, 240-pound Mallett is the one guy that looks like an NFL quarterback when he drops back in the pocket. He had no problem throwing the go, or the deep out, or any other route.

ESPN's John Clayton, the pool reporter for the Mallett session, said he was "flawless arching the ball with perfect touch and hitting receivers in stride. On out routes to the sideline, Mallett delivered his best fastball and was perfectly accurate. The ball exploded into receivers’ hands."

But Mayock calls Mallett a first-round talent who is going to go in the second round.

"When there's pressure and the pocket collapses, I don’t think he's got good enough feet to slide, move, find vision, redirect and throw the ball. I think you have to be able to do that at the next level. And I think the perceived off-field issues are red flags."

Mallett is getting ripped for his unsteady performance in front of the media Saturday afternoon in which he refused to talk about his off-field issues in rather surly fashion, but Saturday night he apparently showed better during the 15-minute team interviews. One scout described as having "a down-home charisma. I can see why players follow him." During the throwing session he mingled easily with the other QBs with high-fives and back slaps, talked to the coaches before and after he threw, and looked everyone else in the eye when he walked by.

Newton, Auburn's Heisman Trophy winner, took the field with the second group and while he got a better rating for his news conference than Mallett, he apparently didn't come off as well in the team interviews. Word from the clubs is he sounded defensive when challenged.

A long way to go, though. As Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said Saturday about drafting a franchise quarterback, "Is he going to be a leader, stand up and follow him? You can’t tell that by a 15-minute interview or going in there and meeting him at a school. That’s why that position there are so many (draft) mistakes."

Reporters emerging from the second group's workout in Lucas Oil Stadium gave the nod to Ponder. Since his MVP performance in the Senior Bowl late last month, the 6-2, 219-pound Ponder has been making a steady climb into the late first round and on Sunday he may have got there with an accurate performance that bested Newton.

"(Ponder) was accurate on the short and intermediate routes but struggled a little bit on the long passes," said pool reporter Joe Reedy of The Cincinnati Enquirer. "He doesn’t have the strongest arm. Extremely accurate and good placement on throws. Definitely had the most command of anyone out there."

Newton didn't drop out of the consensus top 10, but his inaccuracy was a surprise in completing just 11 of 21 passes. However, he did launch the deep ball pretty effectively.

"What’s clear is he needs to work on his footwork on passes to his left," Clayton reported. "Like a lot of young quarterbacks, Newton tended to over stride and not be accurate on passes to his left. The longer the pass, the less accurate he was. He was one-for-three on short 'out' passes to his left, rebounded with his left side 'turn-in' passes, but missed all three of his 'go' routes down the left sidelines. ... Perhaps the most disappointing part of his performance was overthrowing receivers on three passes to his right on short 'out' passes to the sideline."

But Clayton emphasized Newton's 6-5, 248-pound sheer athleticism. He ran 4.59 seconds in the 40-yard dash and had a 10-foot, six-inch broad jump, one of three quarterbacks who tied for the best broad jumps at their positions.

Locker seems to be gathering some steam that he lost during the season and the Senior Bowl, but maybe he'll be there in the second because the Bengals can't take him at four, it would seem.

"He opened by showing great arch and touch on seam routes down the middle of the field," Clayton wrote. "Though his throws on slant routes were fine, a drop and a misstep by a receiver led to two of three incompletions … (he) wasn’t as sharp in two of his three 'nine' routes to his left, being a little high with a couple of throws. Locker bounced back with a strong performance of throws to his right. He completed two of three throws on short 'out' routes."

Ponder is getting real interesting. Coming out of this draft with Green and Ponder just might save the day. Mayock says Ponder would fit best in a West Coast scheme, which Gruden has implemented since his Feb. 3 arrival.

"I thought the Senior Bowl was his coming-out party," said Mayock of Ponder's comeback from a concussion and an arm injury. "I think he's an accurate thrower with good feet that's best suited to a classic West Coast offense. Hit the back foot, get the ball out, good leader."

The pool report also said TCU's Dalton, a possible shot for the Bengals in the third round, probably had the best percentage of the first group at anywhere from 65 to 70 percent. But he looked at times to struggle with the long ball and threw some over middle that weren't close.

As usual, the 6-4, 218-pound Colin Kaepernick had the most velocity. This guy can fling it with the ease of putting on a hat. He wasn't as accurate as Mallett, but no surprise there.

It was hard to tell if his overthrows on deep seam routes were because of new receivers or inaccuracy. But it was clear he's not as accurate deep as he is with curls and cut-ins, routes which he blisters. Coming out of the anti-pro pistol offense, he would be the perfect developmental quarterback behind a solid No. 1 because he'll need two to three years to develop.

 

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