INDIANAPOLIS – It's been six years since the Bengals drafted a developmental quarterback (Jeff Rowe from the pre-Kaepernick days at Nevada in the 2007 fifth round) and a lot longer than that when they drafted a No. 2 quarterback as early as the fourth round. (Try Rice's Donald Hollas in 1991.) You have to wonder if it's that time again with Bruce Gradkowski heading into free agency and the Bengals aiming their salary cap at their core players.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the 2013 draft. The rich quarterback crops of the last two years have withered and died. Here at the NFL Scouting Combine the consensus about the quarterbacks is that there's no consensus. Some draftnicks believe there are none worthy of a first-round grade and that none of them can help right away. There are others that think even though there are no Andrew Lucks or RGIIIs, there are some guys that can play right now and that this will eventually turn out to be a solid class.
"I think there are some diamonds in the rough," said Jim Miller, the former NFL quarterback who works for Sirius Radio. "Take a guy like (Florida State's) E.J. Manuel. Everybody thinks he's a developmental guy. He was the best one at the Senior Bowl, he picks up offenses quickly, and he's one of the biggest winners in FBS history. To me he's a late second, or third or fourth-rounder who could come into camp and you wouldn't be scared to put him out on the field."
But Rob Rang, a draft analyst for CBS Sports, isn't so sure.
"There are a lot guys in this draft that are long-range developmental guys. I don't think there are a lot plug-in-and-play guys," Rang says. "It would surprise me if the Bengals went to get one of those guys early."
The NFL Network's Mike Mayock probably summed it up best earlier in the week when he was asked about Oklahoma's Landry Jones.
"Like a lot of the quarterbacks this year, he's so difficult to qualify. I can look at certain games and go, 'That's a first-round draft pick.' I can look at other games and go, 'he's a fifth-round guy,' " Mayock said.
The knotty question facing the Bengals is just how high of a pick do they want to expend for a guy that won't start and is here as insurance for an Andy Dalton injury. Head coach Marvin Lewis made it clear this week that the only player the club is ruling out of the draft is a starting quarterback.
But in order to get a guy that could come in and save a game in Pittsburgh in early September, well, is that guy even in the draft? And if he is, do the Bengals want to use a third-round pick on him?
Plus, quarterbacks are notoriously over-drafted. So would that force the Bengals to go a round earlier even though they'd love to get two starters in the second round? Or do they decide it is all too costly; there is no one ready, and live to fight another day and re-sign Gradkowski or find another veteran?
Or, does practice-squadder Zac Robinson make the jump to No. 2?
One of the things we probably know is West Virginia's Geno Smith, USC's Matt Barkley and North Carolina State's Mike Glennon are going to go off the board first. Then Manuel, Landry Jones and Tyler Wilson of Arkansas look to be next. But the question is when. If teams are truly going to reach, what is going to be left when?
"This time last year I was telling people that I thought Ryan Tannehill was going to end up being a top 10 pick, and people laughed at me. He ended up going eight (to Miami)," Mayock said. "That's because during the process, if a quarterback shows a live arm, and some intelligence, work ethic, and toughness, all those kind of things, as coaches get involved with the process with the personnel people, it can push quarterbacks higher. So if you look at this group, and I kind of carved Geno Smith and Matt Barkley away, because I think they're going to be the first two off the board. They'll both end up in the first round somewhere. It could be a lot higher than I would expect.
"Now you start looking at some of the other kids and say is there a Tannehill here that could rise up? Mike Glennon of North Carolina State, his arm talent, his consistency, he takes too long to deliver the football. He makes bad decisions. He makes bad throws, but the arm talent is there. So during this process, are people going to fall in love with him?"
Another thing we know is that the scouting combine isn't the optimum place to scout a quarterback when they take the field Sunday. Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden says it's a good place to gauge measurables, such as arm strength, quickness and accuracy. But because they're throwing to new receivers, it's hard to use it as an evaluation.
"You're throwing to a different guy every time. One guy might take some steps, slant and run it in there. Another guy may take a weirder angle," Gruden said. "They run the out route, and some guys widen it, bow it out. Some guys run it sharp. It's not an easy drill to throw.
"But you're looking at arm strength, you can still see command, how he walks around, how he handles himself. You meet him here, you want to see what kind of leader he is, how he communicates. Get him on the board. See what kind of mind he has. Can he adjust? Then you watch tape after tape. What kind of player is he in key situations? Third down, red zone, when the game is on the line. Scramble drills. How does he react? Does he (panic?) or make good decisions? It's a very, very tough position to play."
The Bengals have to hash this all out and decide if there's one worthy enough with a pick that is worth it. In the meantime, they should end up having pretty good knowledge about two guys that figure to go later in Syracuse's Ryan Nassib and Miami University's Zac Dysert.
One of Nassib's training coaches is Ken Anderson, the Bengals all-time leading passer and former NFL coach. And Dysert's coach at Miami was Mike Bath, the quarterback for Bengals scout Greg Seamon when he was the Red Hawks offensive coordinator.
Nassib is also like a lot of guys in this thing. He struggled at the Senior Bowl and guys like Miller don't think he's gifted athletically enough to play consistently in the league. But guys like Mayock see a string of intangibles.
"Ryan Nassib is the guy that people are going to like a lot," Mayock said. "He kind of reminds me a little bit of the ascension of Kurt Cousins last year, and the ascension of Andy Dalton the year before that where they're smart, tough. And the more the coaches get involved, they see the kid's work ethic and how much he understands of the game, they're going to start to trust him. And with coaches, trust is a big thing, work ethic, trust. And teams are going to trust Ryan Nassib. And I think teams are going to trust Sean Renfree from Duke who is off the boards. He might be a fifth-round pick, but he's got a work ethic like a Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan. "
Anderson can vouch for Nassib's work ethic from his few visits to the Syracuse tundra and he'll return next week to get him ready for his March 7 pro day. He also likes Nassib's command of the West Coast offense that Syracuse ran. Nassib's people made a nice call to bring in Anderson, the man who brought the West Coast offense to the NFL 40 years ago via Bengals assistant coach Bill Walsh's chalkboard.
"He had a bunch of different systems, the number system, stuff I hadn't experienced yet," Nassib said here this week. "So he gave me some overviews with that, and got me a little experience with that."
The Bengals run a similar system when it comes to using words instead of the number tree for the routes, so that would ease any transition.
"He knows a hot read and he's good with protections and his progressions," Anderson said. "He's made a lot of pro throws. Corner routes. The tight end going down the seam on verticals. He's smart and he's got a good arm. Great kid. When you meet with him, you never have to wait for him. He's there when you show up."
Dysert has got a few things working against hm. He won't be able to work out here because he tore his hamstring a week and a half ago running a 40-yard dash and he'll have to wait to do his running for the scouts in April. But he plans to throw at his March 21 pro day. Plus, he spent his entire career in the shotgun and has only been under center the past six weeks.
And the tough thing is that he feels like his biggest strength is being able to scramble and keep plays alive with his legs.
"Accuracy and mechanics," he said here this week when asked to list his strengths. "When I got to college I thought it was all about arm strength but the more I got in the film room and worked with my coaches, you get power from your legs. As long as your feet are right you are going to be in good shape.
"Throughout my career at Miami I've been a scrambling quarterback and been able to throw on the run."
But Dysert shouldn't feel too bad about his lot in this year's quarterback stakes. It may be a tough year to evaluate if you're the Bengals. And that could help the late risers.