Projecting QB class not a snap


Jake Locker

MOBILE, Ala. - When it comes to the Bengals and 2011, uncertainty certainly reigns.

From the report date to the changes in the offense to the possibility they'll have a new quarterback, running back, and two top receivers, start guessing. But two things we do know as the Bengals prepared to coach the North Wednesday morning here at the Under Armour Senior Bowl.

They don't think they're watching down here the fourth pick in the NFL Draft, which is where the Bengals pick in the first round. And they have no intention of taking trade offers for Carson Palmer despite his trade request/demand/plea.

But even if they go The Boomer Route and wait a year to trade him, the Bengals need this year to get their quarterback house in order beyond 2011. Jordan Palmer is an untried No. 2, never mind No. 1. No. 3 Dan LeFevour is a rookie No. 3 in his second stop. And there is no elite quarterback prospect in this draft good enough to go No. 4.

Right now.

There is no Carson Palmer. The closest thing in this game to the 2003 Senior Bowl MVP is Washington's Jake Locker, one of three North quarterbacks the Bengals are enjoying working with after two of these games they had next to nothing at the position. Locker has Palmer's agent, USC's offensive pedigree with Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian, and the smooth confidence of a media veteran spitting all-the-right answers.

"We've put aside our differences this week," said a smiling Locker glibly, referring to Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, a former Washington State wide receiver.      

But Locker is trying to get into the top 15, never mind the top five. The gurus and scouts huddled in clutches around Ladd Peebles Stadium believe the most ready quarterback isn't here in the person of Missouri junior Blaine Gabbard, but if the Tigers spread offense gets you David Klingler-Akili Smith queasy, join the club.

The other two consensus first-rounders aren't here, Auburn's Cam Newton and Arkansas' Ryan Mallett. And if you're really thinking The Boomer Route and getting a franchise quarterback in the second round, welcome to more guesswork. There is no consensus No. 5 prospect, but he's probably here between the North's Colin Kaepernick of Nevada and the South's Christian Ponder of Florida State, Greg McElroy of Alabama, and Andy Dalton of TCU.

"Mallett does not make good decisions. He makes every throw but struggles in the pocket," said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. "Cam Newton needs a lot of work on and off the field, but he's better mechanically than Tim Tebow was here last year and Vince Young a couple of years ago. Locker has top 15 ability with a big arm and good feet. Bu can he slide and move in the pocket with accuracy? Gabbard is the cleanest of them."

That's a long drop for Locker, the consensus No. 1 pick last year before he decided to stay in school. Stanford's Andrew Luck just did the same thing and Locker politely congratulated him for the decision "not because of the (impact on) the draft but because it's the right decision job for him. He feels good about that. He's happy with it."

Locker said he's looking forward to meeting Palmer, but already got a phone call advising him how to handle this week.

"Just what to expect as far as what the week entails and how to maximize it," Locker said of the call. "To be upbeat, have a good attitude. You're going to answer a lot of questions and get pulled in a lot of different directions. Just make the best of it."

Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese said Locker had a better Tuesday than Monday, which is a good sign.

"He's got great energy and enthusiasm that's infectious to the group," Zampese said. "Even when he has no idea what he's doing. Most guys, when they're not sure, they're more meeker. He's kind of the other way. Even if he doesn't know, it sounds like he knows it and people follow him anyway. There's a presence to him. He's got a great deal of enthusiasm."

Zampese says Locker, Kaepernick and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi (a mid-to-late draft guy) have reinvigorated him after a tough season with their approach to the game, bright personalities, and texts to watch extra film. But Zampese says the intangibles can only take them so far.

"If you don't have talent," Zampese said, "the rest doesn't matter. You can name 10 guys you remember their names from college but never head of them after that."

Rob Rang, the senior draft analyst for NFLdraftscout.com, is based in Seattle and has seen plenty of Locker. He told him "good practice" as he came off the field Tuesday and sees a guy that can go fairly high simply because the position is valued so highly.

"He's a mid-round (first) guy, but I think he's the kind of guy where teams are going to be worried about somebody else taking him," Rang said. "He has so much upside. He's a good athlete, he's got four years of starting at a Division I program. And he's got the intangibles. His leadership, his passion."

Locker figures he took about half his snaps in the shotgun at Washington while Kaepernick pretty much exclusively worked out of the gun. That's not a minor detail and there is a lot of knocking on wood after two days there hasn't been a botched center exchange. Two years ago there were about a dozen the first day and on the first snap of the game because the spread is prevalent in college where taking a traditional snap is a rarity.

But Zampese says Kaepernick clearly has confidence and experience looking at the defense as he's catching the snap, which isn't easy, either. What he wants him to do is concentrate on his mechanics so he can get a better touch.

"I'm trying to get quicker release and get it out faster," Kaepernick said. "He wants to make sure my eyes are downfield. He wants me to have a little more bend in my legs and make sure I stay balanced with my feet involved at all times."

The 6-4, 225-pound Kaepernick throws bullets. He throws such a heater that Zampese's afraid he's going to break a linebacker's nose.

"He needs to throw the ball with a little touch and play a little lower," he said. "But I can't wait until he gets in the game. He's an athlete. Really fast. He gives you a real threat on the edge. There will be one or two plays where he'll run for 20 yards until he gets touched."

But how Kaepernick and the rest fit is more than up in the air. The Bengals have yet to say the coaching staff is final, but head coach Marvin Lewis has talked to a least one coordinator candidate. Meanwhile, Bratkowski is staying out of it all, saying he has talked with Lewis frequently about making the massive changes Lewis seeks.

He's also staying out of the Palmer stuff.

"That's always the thing at the end of the season, particularly a poor season," Bratkowski said. "You need to get away from the emotion and let some time pass and make some decisions. When we study the offense and evaluate players, you always need some time to get away from the emotion of the season. ... We'll go back and do it in a non-emotional way."

That's the third thing we know.

It always gets back to the quarterback.

"This is the one thing I do know after doing this for the last several years," Mayock said. "He's the most important person on the field and if you don't have him you're not going to the Super Bowl. And to truly understand a guy, the intangibles are so important, which is why it's so hard (to evaluate)."

Throw this into the mix. Draft a rookie quarterback and he won't be exposed to the NFL until the lockout is over. The coaches can have no contact with players. Reps from the NFL Players Association met with the prospects Monday and Locker said they were told to stay ready.

"Another thing you can't control," Locker said.   

Which makes '11 even more uncertain.

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