QB puzzle spreads out

Updated: 9:35 p.m.

The only movement in the NFL these days is the calendar grinding to the draft like Jimmy Brown on the highlights, but to those trying to find a quarterback early it is no man's land.

Welcome to the puzzle enveloping the decision-makers as they careen about the college campuses watching the top prospects. Published reports have followed the Where's Waldo trail of Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis the past week: Auburn, Florida State, and on Thursday at Missouri for Blaine Gabbert's coming-out party after he chose not to throw at last month's scouting combine.

The consensus makes Gabbert and Auburn's Cam Newton the only quarterbacks who are top five-worthy and on Thursday some of the pundits anointed Gabbert more ready than Newton after he calmly sifted 44 of 49 passes during his first extended work under center in front of the scouts.

And there's the rub for a guy like Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. Both players have done their best and only throwing out of a shotgun formation and in a spread offense. It's almost like trying to project Bengals cornerback Leon Hall's transition to running back. So the only lock is that they're not locks.

"What we're all doing watching these guys," Gruden says, "is trying to figure out what they are going to do in our offenses. You don't know until you get them. You can watch them throw; you can see how they handle themselves around the guys, check out their footwork. When you go back and watch tape, you watch how they handled pressure and you have to project what they'd do against the rush here. Then when you get another chance to work him out, you ask them to do the things you need him to do."

But Gruden has been impressed with how both Gabbert and Newton have responded under center.

"Cam didn't throw that well at the combine, but was much improved at Auburn and that shows how hard he's been working at it," Gruden says. "Blaine did what he wanted to do. He wanted to show he could throw out of three-step, five-step drops and that's what he did. The guy's got a lot of talent. You're talking about a big, 6-4 and a half, 230-pound guy that can move around."

Dave Matter of the Columbia Daily Tribune via ProFootballTalk.com reported that Gabbert completed 44 of 49 passes ("at least three" of the incompletions were drops) to what PFT called all segments of the field. Newton was 50-of-60 at his Pro Day last week.

It has been reported the Bengals are going to work out Newton privately and that means they're probably headed back to Missouri at some point to do the same with Gabbert. But Gabbert apparently did many things right Thursday. Because of Missouri's short passing game, there are questions about his long-range accuracy, but NFL.com's Gil Brandt raved about all his throws and said Gabbert bested Newton.

"He threw 50 passes, only one of which was uncatchable, a "go" route he overthrew to the left on his 36th attempt," Brandt wrote on his blog. "He had one other pass, a deep post, that probably would have been intercepted in an NFL game. Other than those two passes, he showed remarkable accuracy at all points on the field. He also showed how athletic he is, good velocity on his passes, and an ability to get the ball out of his hand quickly.

"Newton had six passes that were uncatchable at his workout, although it was outdoors in windy conditions. I wrote after Newton's workout that he should go No. 1 to the Panthers. I'm not so sure now."

NFL Network's Mike Mayock also gave Gabbert high marks, comparing his workout to those of NFL stars Sam Bradford and Matt Ryan when they were coming out. Mayock, who has had Gabbert pegged ahead of Newton before just about anybody else, was impressed by his work downfield.

"Timing and accuracy," Mayock said. "His arm strength is more than enough. His footwork was cleaner than I expected. ... (He threw) the intermediate route, the comebacks … the skinny post."

Gabbert told Mayock he thought he showed his stuff when he was able to throw 18-yard outs without hitches, but even Mayock had one question for him.

"Can you read defenses while your dropping back?" and while Gabbert, of course said, yes, it is more like what Gruden says.

"You don't know until you get them," he says. "Can he read defenses when he's dropping back? What's he do on third down? The blitz? What you're really doing is drafting the person. I'm never going to criticize a college offense, or criticize what a guy was asked to do in college. They've been very successful at Missouri and Blaine had a great year. It's up to the coach to take the things he does well on the next level and someone will."

Gruden and Gabbert were a good match. Gruden had never seen him throw in person and Gabbert had never taken so many snaps from under center in front of the scouts, which Brandt numbered at 125.

"I'm sure he's got the arm strength and he certainly has the physical tools," said Gruden before the workout after making the beeline from Florida State. "What you want to see is his footwork on all the drops from center, how the ball comes out of his hand, how he uses his body when he throws, and his accuracy."

According to PFT, Lewis was the only head coach at Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder's workout Wednesday and he was on hand at Missouri with fellow head coaches Rex Ryan (Jets), John Harbaugh (Ravens), Jim Harbaugh (49ers), Jack Del Rio (Jaguars), Mike Munchak (Titans), and Leslie Frazier (Vikings), as well as Broncos football boss John Elway with Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and Titans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer.

Gruden admitted it will be a harder evaluation on Gabbert in some ways than the one he has to make on Ponder. Ponder comes out of a more conventional offense, but after he suffered two arm injuries last season everyone on Wednesday wanted to gauge his arm strength.

"He looked very good," Gruden said. "He's a smart guy. You just want to see how he bounced back from the injuries and he did a nice job throwing the ball."

The top QBs don't look to be lacking in brains, which are some of Gruden's major requirements. According to ESPN via PFT, Gabbert scored 42 out of 50 on the scouting combine's mental agility drill. Ponder logged a 35 and Newton a 21, scores that are seen as solid or above. Other scores had Alabama's Greg McElroy at 43, Iowa's Ricky Stanzi at 30, TCU's Andy Dalton at 29, Arkansas' Ryan Mallett at 26, and Washington's Jake Locker at 20. 

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