The Virtues of Drafting a Quarterback Early, in the Middle Rounds, or Late

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 26: Jay Cutler  of the Chicago Bears looks for a receiver as David Harris  of the New York Jets rushes at Soldier Field on December 26, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the Jets 38-34. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

My last article examined the Redskins need to address positions in their defensive front, using the available picks at the top of the draft.  It also looked at the necessity of the Redskins to successfully find a trade down in (or out of) the first round to get enough picks to fill their needs.

Truth is, if the Redskins cannot trade down, they’ll have to use the player valuations on their draft board to address some of their needs to the best of their ability.  And that means that their ability to address the quarterback position, the biggest need of all, might not be something they do in the first two rounds.  That seems unfathomable given the current roster situation at quarterback, but I’m here to discuss the virutes of picking a quarterback early against going after one later on, or going the undrafted free agent route to grab an amatuer passer.

Drafting a Passer in the First or Second Round
This is the spot where most franchise passers come from.  In this year’s class, there are 6 guys in the early rounds class, and 4 more in the middle rounds class.  For simplicity purposes, I will consider late rounders and undrafted players to be synonomus.  They are largely indistingulishable anyway.

The six guys who will only be available to the Redskins in the first two rounds are: Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton in the first round, and then in the second, the much deeper class of Christian Ponder, Ryan Mallett, Jake Locker, and Colin Kaepernick.

There is a large difference in the scope of a first round quarterback and a second round quarterback, if not a huge difference in draft value spent.  It’s much easier to be tied to a first rounder than to a second rounder, who can lose his job and his “future” status with the organization with one bad year.  The Redskins need to weigh the positives of taking one of the high-value quarterbacks in the first round vs. taking one of the best of the rest in the second.

The first issue is that Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton may not be available when the Redskins pick at no. 10.  Both are athletic passers with good accuracy who fit what the Redskins are trying to do.  Both have their issues when pressured up the middle.  Gabbert tends to flush the pocket in a manner that will leave him unable to reset his feet.  Newton tends to feel and beat the pressure (often causing dangerous overthrows), or just takes the sack.  Both Sam Bradford and Matt Ryan before him came out with an advanced concept of dealing with pressure from the defense.  Other successful players, such as Josh Freeman and Aaron Rodgers, had to learn it.  Of course, consider that the players in the former group went with a pick that averaged no. 2 overall.  The latter group went at an average of no. 21 overall.  At best, both Newton and Gabbert are solidly first rounders, but belong in the second group.

Newton’s best comparable from recent drafts is Mark Sanchez, who went 5th overall in 2009, and simply has yet to justify being taken that high.  That’s a likely outcome of Cam Newton’s career.  Because of all of the simple things Newton still struggles with, much like Sanchez, I can’t honestly say there is any team in the top five selections that could take Newton and make him a successful NFL quarterback.  Once we start progressing into teams out of the top five such as San Francisco, Tennessee, Washington, and perhaps Seattle, I think you start to see situations where Newton makes some sense in the first round.

Of course, making “some sense” doesn’t exactly scream bona fide first round selection.  Not with the depth of “early round” players available in this class should the Redskins pass in the top 10 and target guys in the second round.  Taking a quarterback early in the second round makes some sense as well.  First of all, using the 41st pick on a quarterback prevents a situation where the Redskins are waiting into the middle rounds to draft the top remaining quarterback on their board.

The Redskins know that if Gabbert and Newton are gone by the 10th pick, they can pretty much wait an entire round to get the next guy on their board, whether that’s Locker, Ponder, or Kaepernick, or whoever.  They’ll probably lose a shot at all those guys by waiting to the fifth round, or even to the third day by planning to trade up into the fourth round.  So in this class, there’s value in waiting a round because the “top guys” on the Redskins board will still be there.

Either way, the Redskins don’t have many of those early picks, and have other needs besides quarterback to address, and will find that now in playing the 3-4 defense, that those early round picks are absolutely necessary for filling the holes in their front seven.  The Redskins cannot draft ANY quarterback in the first two rounds without a trade down and still adequately address the defense so that Jim Haslett has a shot of being successful in Washington.  That’s not hyperbole, it’s just the way things are with the defensive transition.  The Redskins need two pieces, at least, to have a full, competent front seven.  Either Mike Shanahan robs Haslett of an opportunity to build a defense to draft a QB of the future, or the Redskins pass on all the highly-rated quarterbacks in this draft, hoping to pick up the next Kyle Orton in the middle rounds.

Drafting a Quarterback in the Middle or Late Rounds
This could be the best option for the Redskins.  There are good quarterbacks to be had in the middle rounds of every draft, and perhaps more than a few in this specific draft.  The problem is, if the good prospects were in any meaningful way distingulishable from the bad prospects, they would be pushed into the higher rounds.  The quality QBs down here (like Orton in 2005), have incredibly limited opportunity to prove themselves, and a lot of the players who do get opportunities just aren’t very good.

What teams can always do — even if they can’t decide who is good and who isn’t — is to select players who fit their current scheme.  This is the Kyle Shanahan scheme, so you want to try to find atlethic players who can throw downfield.  Pat Devlin is a pocket passer who probably isn’t enough of an athlete to play in this system.  The Redskins like Greg McElroy a lot, but he’s probably no more of a scheme fit than Ricky Stanzi is.  Scott Tolzien is a passer who can get on the edges, but can’t make the outside deep out throw from the pocket.  That could be a scheme fit.  The Redskins don’t throw deep outs from the pocket.

The two guys who might be worth trading up into the fourth round for, if they fall into the third day, are TCU’s Andy Dalton, or Kaepernick (I would also do it for Devlin, but that’s because I have him rated as a second round value).  The Redskins would value the mobility of these players.

The middle rounds approach is excellent if the Redskins go defense with the first two picks, but indistingulishable talent is indistingulishable talent.  And because of the depth of this class, I also have some names of probable undrafted players who will be around when the Redskins pick.

Signing an Undrafted Quarterback
The big problem here is that if there’s a lockout, the Redskins have to wait until there is a new CBA to make their undrafted free agent signings.  But presuming the CBA is settled before the draft, this option is where teams uncover true developmental options.  Tony Romo was an undrafted signee of the Cowboys.  Caleb Hanie was undrafted by the Bears.  Warren Moon and Kurt Warner were undrafted in their day as well.

The Redskins could possibly get their choice of one of the following players without spending a draft pick: Va. Tech’s Tyrod Taylor, NW Missouri State’s Blake Bolles, Kentucky’s Mike Hartline, California of Pennslyvania’s Josh Portis, Texas A&M Jerrod Johnson, North Carolina’s T.J. Yates, Minnesota’s Adam Weber, and Hillsdale’s Troy Weatherhead.  All would be worth at least a look by the Redskins.

There’s no downside to the undrafted quarterback route, and I’m surprised more teams don’t use it.  The upside does go away if you draft a quarterback highly in the same year, because there will be no opportunity for the undrafted type if one is fully invested in another rookie quarterback.  It could be intelligent for the Redskins to go the undrafted QB route, though this is not a reason to avoid a QB in the draft.  Instead, it’s what the Redskins needed to do last year to avoid the Rex Grossman situation.

The Redskins need to pick up a quarterback in the draft this year.  As long as they aren’t married to the idea of a quarterback in the first or second round I think they’ll be fine.  It’s hard to say which option is the best — it will be much easier as we progress through the 2011 NFL Draft.