It was 35 years ago that a record six quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the NFL draft, among them future Hall of Famers John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino.
While it’s wildly premature to suggest this year’s class of quarterback prospects will rival that one in success, the greatest such draft in league history, it’s conceivable that this first-round crop could match it in number.
An annual milestone in the evaluation process starts this week with the scouting combine, in which more than 300 invited NFL hopefuls are measured and studied, interviewed, and put through various physical and mental tests by representatives from all 32 teams.
This is an especially quarterback-rich class, featuring top-shelf prospects such as USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph.
Lots of teams are looking for quarterbacks, so this could be a case of solid talent meeting opportunity. Then again, there is expected to be an enticing crop of free agents as well, among them Kirk Cousins and Case Keenum, so it’s entirely possible this draft, which begins April 26, could have four first-round quarterbacks as was most recently the case in 2011 and ’12.
This almost surely will be a history-making offseason for college quarterbacks from the Los Angeles schools. Only once have quarterbacks from UCLA and USC been selected in the same draft, and that was in 1989, when the Bruins’ Troy Aikman went first overall and the Trojans’ Rodney Peete went in the sixth round. At this point, it would be an upset if either Rosen or Darnold slipped out of the first round.
Mike Mayock, the widely respected draft analyst for NFL Network, said on a Monday conference call with reporters that Darnold is the No. 1 quarterback on his board.
“He’s got plus-size, plus-arm strength, outstanding athlete, and I really like the way he extends plays inside and outside of the pocket,” Mayock said of the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Darnold. “If he scrambles or moves, it’s with the intent of getting the ball down the field.”
Mayock said Darnold’s propensity for turnovers is a concern. He had 13 interceptions last fall and was tied for the second-most fumbles (11) in Division I.
“He's got a history of fumbling going back to high school,” Mayock said. “But I think fumbling can be controlled in the pocket. That's one of the few things you can learn in the pocket as an NFL quarterback, is how to keep both hands on the football and control some of the fumbling.”
Mayock called Rosen the “best pure thrower” in this class, and in fact, “the best pure passer I’ve seen in several years.”
“He’s on balance on every throw. He's accurate — short, intermediate and deep,” Mayock said.
“The problem I have with him is there is a durability issue. The shoulder issue in '16, two concussions in '17, and when you combine that with an inability to escape from the pocket, I'm concerned. I'm concerned whether or not he can play enough games to make a significant dent in the NFL.
“So I love his talent, but I'm very worried about his ability to survive.”
Mel Kiper, a draft analyst for ESPN, has Rosen out of the top 10, with both Darnold and Mayfield selected before him.
“For Rosen, the interviews at the combine are going to be important to show that he can be a galvanizer, that he is a great leader, that he is passionate and loves the game of football, that he will be the first one in [to work] and last one out,” Kiper said on a conference call last week.
“We know he has great intelligence. We know he is a great pure passer. But does he have that extra intangible to be the great quarterback he is capable of being?”
This is closer to the start of the evaluation process than to the end. Teams will fall in and out of love with players in the coming weeks and months. The combine will be followed by on-campus pro days and individual workouts, along with the usual free-agency deck shuffling. This is a little like predicting the end of a book having read only the first few chapters.
That said, speed-reading season is officially underway.