They haven’t taken a snap in the pros, nor do they know where they will be playing next season, yet the top quarterbacks at the NFL scouting combine already are standing behind an imposing wall of blockers.
Blockers named Tony Romo, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jay Cutler.
It’s quite a challenge, after all, for fresh-out-of-college prospects to steal the spotlight when there are seasoned veterans who could be up for grabs.
That’s one of the reasons there isn’t the same kind of vibe at this combine as there was in the past two years, when quarterbacks went 1-2 in the draft, with Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota in 2015, followed by Jared Goff and Carson Wentz a year ago.
To this point, there isn’t a clear pecking order among the quarterbacks, or at least it’s up for debate. The top tier consists of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes.
“From a high-level talent standpoint, there’s not one of those guys in this draft,” said Greg Cosell, senior producer for NFL Films and a respected talent evaluator. “My guess is there aren’t a lot of teams who would have these quarterbacks among their top 10 players in this draft. What this comes down to is ‘scheme adaptability.’ If [San Francisco 49ers Coach] Kyle Shanahan thinks that a particular quarterback can run his offense efficiently and effectively over time, then he could take that quarterback.”
Part of that comes down to the players themselves — there’s no sure-fire Andrew Luck in this class — but part also comes down to the college systems they have run, and the widening chasm between those and what’s asked of pro quarterbacks. The Rams, for instance, are in the process of reprogramming Goff, who until last season had not taken a snap from under center since early in his high school career.
“The gap's getting wider between the differences in our league and college football,” Rams General Manager Les Snead said Thursday. “And nothing against college football, they're doing well there… We’re going to have to be more patient with these young kids coming out.”
The Cleveland Browns have the No. 1 pick and are in need of a quarterback, but that doesn’t mean they will use that selection on one. Coach Hue Jackson said it’s too early to tell if there’s someone in this group worthy of that spot.
“We’re still in the process of finding out to know that for sure,” Jackson said. “That’s why we’re here, to spend more time with them and to see what they know and what they don’t know and how we can help them and how they would fit in our system.”
Rick Neuheisel, now a CBS college football analyst, sees Watson as the best pro prospect in this quarterback class, pointing to his seven touchdowns and one interception in a pair of bowl games against Alabama.
“He was essentially playing against the NFL’s 33rd team, at least on defense,” said Neuheisel, formerly UCLA’s head coach and offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens. “In terms of guys who have ‘it’ when the lights come on, Deshaun Watson has it.”
But Watson also had 32 interceptions in his college career, 17 of them last season when he ran less and threw a bit more.
“They moved him toward more of an NFL offense this year,” Neuheisel said. “That resulted in more interceptions, which is something you’re going to have to endure when you make that transition.”
Some evaluators rank Trubisky as the best quarterback prospect in this class. He started for only one season, however, throwing 30 touchdowns with six interceptions last fall.
Kizer threw for 5,805 yards as Notre Dame’s starter the past two seasons, with 47 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.
Mahomes, a two-year starter, put up huge numbers in his three-year career, with 11,252 yards, 93 touchdowns and 29 interceptions.
The real scrutiny starts now, as teams get their first chance to work out players — testing them on the field and in the interview rooms — and weigh whether it’s better to invest in a rookie or potentially a more seasoned free agent.
“There's a lot of pressure in this business, especially on the quarterback position,” Shanahan said. “How are they going to handle pressure? How are they going to handle adversity. No matter how good you are, everybody is going to tell you how bad you are sometime during the year. All that stuff goes into play when you talk about, to me, one of the most scrutinized positions in sports.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer