When Andrew Luck, the can’t-miss prospect from Stanford chosen first overall by the Colts, and Robert Griffin III, the the electrifying Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor taken second by the Redskins, walked across the stage at Radio City Music Hall last April, expectations had been raised that 2012 might provide a memorably great quarterback class. Yet the history of quarterbacks going first and second in NFL drafts suggested that one or the other would fail to live up to his considerable draft-night promise.
But Luck and Griffin were everything they were advertised to be — and perhaps more — as rookies last season. And when Russell Wilson, a less-celebrated third-round selection by the Seahawks out of Wisconsin, joined them in the NFL playoffs, the league had quite possibly its best season ever for rookie quarterbacks. Each set a rookie standard — Griffin had the highest passer rating ever, Luck had the most passing yards and Wilson tied the record for touchdown passes.
So that is the standard by which this year’s less-glittery rookie quarterback class, headed by West Virginia’s Geno Smith and Southern California’s Matt Barkley, will be judged.
Good luck with that.
“Compared to last year with all the guys at the top, I don’t think there’s anybody like that,” former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck said. “But that doesn’t mean that nobody will go there.”
The current debate is whether any of the available quarterbacks are worthy of going in the first round Thursday night.
“Barkley is the most ready to play,” Casserly said. “With most of them, you could be talking about guys who end up being backup quarterbacks.”
The group does have its defenders.
“I’ve said from day one this quarterback class is better than everybody thinks it is,” Buffalo Bills General Manager Buddy Nix said at his team’s pre-draft news conference last week. “It’s better than the publicity that they get. And by that I mean there’s about five or six of those guys, maybe seven, that do a lot of things good and do them good enough to win. . . . I’ve said this from the start that two or three of these guys will be franchise quarterbacks. I believe that.”
Nix pointed out that there was relatively little pre-draft adulation, at least by quarterback-hype standards, last year for Wilson or the year before that for Colin Kaepernick, a second-round choice by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2011 draft from Nevada who took the team to the Super Bowl last season as a second-year pro.
“Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, right now if you were drafting, you’d take them first,” Nix said. “You’d take them first in the top five. So the jury’s out on this group. But they do enough good things that if you do what they do best, you can win with them.”
Some projections have Smith being a top five or top-10 pick Thursday night. Others have no quarterbacks going in the first round, which last happened in 1996. It is a draft in which prognostication is proving even more difficult than usual, with a shortage of marquee players — mostly at quarterback — to serve as headliners and certain early first-round choices. Evaluators say they like Smith’s game; they’re just not certain if they like it enough to justify a lofty pick in the draft.
“I watched five games of Geno Smith before I was impressed with him, with the things he was asked to do in that offense,” said Hasselbeck, now an NFL analyst for ESPN. “Matt Barkley has got a ton of really good tape. But physically he’s not imposing like the guys that you usually see drafted up there. It’s just a year like that.”
Some draft observers believed last year that Barkley might have been in line to be the third overall pick, behind Luck and Griffin, if he’d left USC. Instead, he returned to school and saw the uncertainty about his draft stock increase, thanks to a season in which he threw 15 interceptions and suffered a shoulder injury.
Other quarterbacks such as EJ Manuel of Florida State, Ryan Nassib of Syracuse, Zac Dysert of Miami (Ohio), Mike Glennon of North Carolina State and Tyler Wilson of Arkansas have impressed some talent evaluators, but perhaps not enough to be chosen in the first round.
The quarterbacks do have one thing working in their favor, though — the rookie pay system put in place by the sport’s 2011 collective bargaining agreement. The money in rookies’ contracts is not as big, and a team in need of a quarterback might be more likely to take a first-round chance on one of the available passers simply because the cost of being wrong is not as prohibitive as it once was.
“With the CBA, you’re not having to guarantee these guys over $40 million any more,” Hasselbeck said. “It’s not like it used to be that way. I think there is a willingness to take guys up there if you feel like you’re getting a starting quarterback and you don’t have to pay him what you used to have to pay him. That’s a pretty good setup.”
There are teams with varying degrees of quarterback needs picking in the top 10, including the Jacksonville Jaguarssecond, the Oakland Raidersthird, the Philadelphia Eaglesfourth, the Cleveland Brownssixth, the Arizona Cardinals seventh, the Bills eighth and the New York Jetsninth.
Several of those teams already made moves this offseason to add veteran quarterbacks. The Raiders traded for Seattle’s Matt Flynn, then dealt Carson Palmer to the Cardinals. The Bills signed Kevin Kolb after he was released by Arizona. The Kansas City Chiefs, who have the top overall selection, traded for San Francisco’s Alex Smith.
Whether those moves were enough to satisfy those teams remains to be seen. The quarterback-related motto of this draft just might be: There’s always the second round.
“I don’t know if you’ll have anyone go in the top 10,” Casserly said. “When you get into the 20s, you have more of a chance. It’s more of a second-round draft for quarterbacks. But when you get into the later part of the first round, you could see somebody trade up to get the guy they want if they feel like somebody else might take him. On the other hand, most of the teams that needed quarterbacks already went out and got someone.”