Washington’s Jake Locker is one of the many quarterbacks whose draft stock has risen because NFL teams can’t improve their quarterback situations through free agency or trades. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

It’s always been about the quarterback in the NFL, but never more so than in recent years. Pass-friendly rule changes have opened up the game to record-book-rewriting proportions, and the first rule for any general manager or coach has been reinforced: If your team doesn’t have a franchise quarterback, you’d better find a way to get one.

So in this highly disrupted pro football offseason, the spotlight on quarterbacks promises to be brighter than ever when the NFL draft begins with Thursday night’s opening round. The lockout has kept the free agent market closed and prevented teams from trading players. Any club that ended last season with questions about its quarterback situation likely has been unable to answer them.

As a result, people in and around the league are predicting that quarterbacks will be selected early and often, even while some call this class of signal-callers less than dazzling. Some believe the record for quarterbacks chosen in the opening round of a draft — six — could be threatened.

“It could be a record number,” Buffalo Bills General Manager Buddy Nix said at his team’s pre-draft news conference last week. “There’s so much need for a quarterback. As far as telling you which ones are legitimate first-round quarterbacks, I’d say it’s according to people’s own board. I think everybody sees them different.”

Few talent evaluators regard this year’s quarterback class as exceptional. Yet many also say Auburn’s Cam Newton, Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert and perhaps Washington’s Jake Locker are probable top-10 selections, with Ryan Mallett of Arkansas, Christian Ponder of Florida State, Andy Dalton of Texas Christian and Colin Kaepernick of Nevada also likely to be taken Thursday or during Friday night’s second and third rounds.

“If you talk about the first three rounds, I’ll agree with what’s being said and I’ll say a bunch of quarterbacks will be taken,” said Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans.

“I think what’s going to happen is they’ll be driven up because free agency wasn’t done first before the draft. Half of these teams that we’re talking about drafting a quarterback would have signed someone in a normal year and we wouldn’t be talking about them drafting a quarterback.”

Some league observers say that among the teams with the top dozen picks in the draft, at least eight — the Carolina Panthers, who have the first overall pick, the Bills at three, the Cincinnati Bengals at four, the Arizona Cardinals at five, the San Francisco 49ers at seven, the Tennessee Titans at eight, the Redskins at 10 and the Minnesota Vikings at 12 — are in search of quarterback help.

Former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck cited the Seattle Seahawks, who have the 25th overall selection and haven’t been able to resolve the status of their quarterback, Hasselbeck’s brother Matt, who’s eligible for free agency.

“If they knew whether they were going to re-sign my brother, that might be the difference between drafting one quarterback or drafting two quarterbacks,” Tim Hasselbeck said. “If Arizona knew if it was going to trade for [Philadelphia’s] Kevin Kolb, maybe they wouldn’t be drafting a quarterback. The Vikings would like to have a veteran quarterback. The Titans would like to have a veteran quarterback. The 49ers would like to have a veteran quarterback. But you can’t get a veteran quarterback right now and so if you don’t have one, you might draft one.

Few put this year’s quarterback class on par with the 1983 class that produced the record six quarterbacks chosen in the first round — including John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino — or the 1999 class of Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper, who were among the five quarterbacks selected in the first 12 picks. The classes of 1987, 2003 and 2004 had four first-round quarterbacks each, including Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

“It’s a high-risk class, to me,” Casserly said. “There’s no true blue-chip guy like a Sam Bradford. There’s no Matt Ryan. There’s no Matthew Stafford. I think Gabbert is the best of the group and there will be a transition for him from the offense he played in college. There’s a lot of risk with the rest of this class.”

Tim Hasselbeck said he regards the group as “a normal quarterback class” and suggested it may not be better than last year’s. A year ago, Bradford was taken first overall by the St. Louis Rams. The Denver Broncos selected Tim Tebow later in the first round. But projected first-rounder Jimmy Clausen tumbled into the second round before being chosen by the Panthers and Cleveland Browns’ third-rounder Colt McCoy was the only other quarterback picked in the first three rounds.

“Is Christian Ponder way better than Jimmy Clausen? I don’t see that,” he said. “Andy Dalton and guys like that, are they that much better than Colt McCoy? I don’t see it.

“If you polled the league a year ago,” he added, “you would have had a lot of people totally sold on [Bradford], probably the same way you’ll have people next year totally sold on [Stanford senior] Andrew Luck. I don’t think you have that guy this year.”

Casserly and Hasselbeck said they have questions about Newton’s NFL-readiness. But the Heisman Trophy winner is widely predicted to go first overall to the Panthers. If so, that could leave the Bills taking Gabbert with the third pick and the other passer-needy teams jockeying for position to choose Locker and the other quarterbacks as the rest of the first round unfolds.

“The people that are not satisfied with their quarterback in the NFL . . . there’s probably 15 teams,” Nix, the Bills’ general manager, said last week. “There’s 13 that are desperate. They think they’ve got to have a quarterback because they don’t have anybody.”