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In NFL, Evaluation Of QB Prospects Has Evolved

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Risk and reward. For NFL teams drafting a quarterback with a high choice, that's the simple math.

It's complicated by a hundred other factors. How does the player adapt from the college game, especially one dominated by spread offenses, to the pro game? How does the player adapt to having money in his pocket? If he played in a spread offense, how does he adapt to the pocket?

The quarterback can be the first piece of a franchise's reconstruction. If he succeeds, championships (or at least the chance to compete for them) await.

His failure means the failure of others – the coach, the general manager, the franchise. A flop sets the team back three to five years.

Recent draft history suggests that quarterbacks come to the NFL more game-ready than before. Look at how Sam Bradford, as a rookie, helped elevate the St. Louis Rams from 1-15 in 2009 to one in the hunt for a division title until the final game. Look at how Joe Flacco stepped in to steady a shaky position with the Baltimore Ravens, how the Atlanta Falcons revived themselves with Matt Ryan. Ryan and Flacco were No. 1 picks in 2008, Ryan third overall.

"We knew we had to have a quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons to bring us out of the mire, so to speak," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said at the Indianapolis scouting combine. "Matt was just the ideal fit for us. He had that combination of intelligence and presence about him."

The Falcons, of course, were reeling from the loss of Michael Vick in 2007. Dimitroff came in, hired Mike Smith as coach, and they talked endlessly about what they should do first to reconstitute the fallen franchise. That Ryan seemed to be made of the right parts, especially in terms of personality and leadership, allowed them to follow their instincts. They've had three winning seasons since and two playoff berths.

The Redskins, of course, often get mentioned in the chase for quarterbacks in this draft. With the 10th pick, they're probably not going to be in a position to select Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert and we will leave it to greater minds to say which of them goes off the board first.

The Redskins still have Donovan McNabb under contract, but he spent the final three games of his first season with the team on the bench. Rex Grossman's contract expired. John Beck has not appeared in a game since 2007, his rookie year with the Miami Dolphins.

Perhaps the Redskins will opt for a quarterback early. Perhaps later. This crop seems sound enough and deep enough to give them options in the second round and to hope the failure rate at this critical position is truly declining.

Maybe the latest edition of quarterbacks better fits the NFL. Maybe the process for winnowing out the ones who don't somehow improved.

"It's probably the combination of doing a better job of finding the flaws that keep from being not as successful as some of other guys have been," said Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey. "Probably the combination of doing a doing a better job of finding out all the information you need to find out and maybe some of the situations they're in."

If the Oakland Raiders had spent more time on that, they might have avoided the debacle with JaMarcus Russell, picked first overall in 2007 and now out of the NFL.

Russell came right after the ballyhooed '06 draft, in which the Tennessee Titans took Vince Young, the Arizona Cardinals grabbed Matt Leinart and the Denver Broncos jumped on Jay Cutler. Young won't be back with the Titans, Leinart is a backup with the Houston Texans and Cutler, traded to the Chicago Bears, helped his team to the NFC championship game, though not without issues.

Times have changed and improved.

Two years ago, the New York Jets gambled, traded up and selected Mark Sanchez fifth overall. They'd not taken a quarterback that high since choosing Joe Namath first overall in 1965. Two seasons, two AFC championship games for Sanchez.

Of course the Jets do other things well. They play great defense and they rely heavily on their running game. That takes the weight off Sanchez. They followed the Ravens' model, which is where Jets coach Rex Ryan picked up a little of his knowledge.

"The number one thing is putting a good team around (the quarterback)," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That means a good defense, a good offense and hopefully a good running game."

There's also the "it" factor. Does the guy have "it," it being the makeup to lead, exhort, produce under pressure and set an example? In 2002, the Detroit Lions chose Joey Harrington third overall and he simply never fit their locker room.

Maybe no one could have changed that culture but Harrington certainly didn't and in 2009 the Lions, now picking first overall, selected Matthew Stafford. Their last winning season was in 2000. If Stafford could stay healthy – he missed 19 of the 32 games over his first two seasons – the Lions might be poised to make a move in the NFC North.

Teams seem to know better what they want of their quarterbacks.

"Do they love football? Do they like to work at the game? Do they understand the game? Will they be a fit for our team? Those are critical evaluations," said Jim Harbaugh, the new San Francisco 49ers coach.

A quarterback himself, he was chosen in the first round (26th overall) in 1987 by the Chicago Bears, and played for three more teams in a 14-year career. He can look at this year's group of quarterbacks as not only a former player but as a recent college coach. He also inherits Alex Smith – the overall No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft and one of those not fortunate enough to have the trappings of success around him.

Quarterbacks don't win or lose by themselves. Yet winning and losing often rests on them.

"You take a look at the playoff teams," said Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier. "I don't think there was one that had a question mark at quarterback."


Larry Weisman, an award-winning journalist during 25 years with USA TODAY, writes for Redskins.com and appears nightly on Redskins Nation on Comcast SportsNet. Read his Redskinsblitz blog at Redskinsrule.com and follow him on Twitter.com/LarryWeisman.

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