The 2012 NFL draft is only a few weeks away at this point and the position that gets the most hype every year is quarterback. That's no different this year as most of the draft talk has centered around Stanford's Andrew Luck and Baylor's Robert Griffin III, despite those two almost assuredly going No. 1 to the Colts and No. 2 to the Redskins, respectively.
The 2011 draft class of quarterbacks saw six players drafted in the first 36 picks, which is a lot. There was a run on quarterbacks last year which caused some teams to select a player higher than they may have in previous years. While the 2011 class had quantity, the 2012 class has more quality.
The Green Bay Press-Gazette posted a story this week where one anonymous NFL scout said he thinks there are five quarterbacks in the 2012 class who are better than any of the players in the 2011 class. That may be stretching it, considering Cam Newton exploded onto the scene in his first season, but the 2012 class ends up being a better overall group of quarterbacks than last year's group. And when I talk about these quarterbacks, I'm talking about the ones most likely to make an impact -- those drafted within the first two rounds.
To compare them, I break the quarterbacks into three groups.
First, the elite group of quarterbacks. Last year that was only Cam Newton and this year that's both Luck and Griffin III. Next, the second tier of quarterbacks in the first round. Last year that was Jake Locker (8), Blaine Gabbert (10) and Christian Ponder (12). This year, the quarterback that falls into that range is Ryan Tannehill. The third group is the fringe first rounders, or early second rounders. Last year there were two players in that group -- Andy Dalton (35) and Colin Kaepernick (36). This year that group appears to include Brandon Weeden, and possibly Kirk Cousins, depending on what the run on quarterbacks looks like.
What do most people care about when it comes to quarterbacks in the draft? Usually not the guy picked in the fifth round. People care about the elite players, the ones getting picked in the top five. The 2012 draft class has two elite prospects in Luck and Griffin III. Considering this is draft season and people love to tear players down, there are very few question marks about each of these guys. They both have good size, accurate throwers, winners in college and come with little to no off-the-field questions. In short, there's a lot to like -- two elite prospects in the draft.
The 2011 class wasn't as top heavy as this one. It's easy to say now that Cam Newton was an elite quarterback prospect but rewind back to April 2011 and you'll recall plenty of people saying Newton should not be the No. 1 pick and he will not succeed right away in the NFL. People talked about the scandal at Auburn, his incidents at Florida and then, of course, Cecil Newton. The point is that, while Newton fits into that "elite" category that we put both Luck and Griffin III into, there were a lot more question marks about him. We know now that those question marks were a little silly considering Newton was basically the man in his rookie season, but the point still remains that the elite quarterbacks in the 2012 NFL draft have fewer question marks with them.
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So, the 2012 class wins out when it comes to the elite players.
Ryan Tannehill is widely considered the third best quarterback in the 2012 NFL draft. Behind Luck and Griffin III, Tannehill is the only other player that almost everyone agrees is a first round pick. Last year, there were four players drafted in the top 12 and, while you won't see that many this year, I think there's more quality this year.
Comparing Tannehil to the second group of quarterbacks last year and you realize how low the bar has been set. Tannehill will likely be drafted somewhere between the fourth and 12th pick, depending on trades and all that. Last year there were three quarterbacks drafted in that range -- Jake Locker (8), Blaine Gabbert (10) and Christian Ponder (12). Locker didn't really play much -- no starts and only 66 pass attempts -- so he's an unknown. Gabbert struggled mightily, to the point where some wonder if he's already a bust. Ponder wasn't anything special with the Vikings, but there's more promise there than what we've seen with Gabbert.
Looking at Tannehill and his first year in the NFL, it won't be that difficult to surpass what the 2011 group of players drafted in the same range did. The bar has been set so low that even with a bad season Tannehill will end up comparing favorably to all three of those players.
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And then there's the late first round/early second round quarterbacks. Last year that was Andy Dalton (35) and Colin Kaepernick (36). Dalton was, surprisingly, a very good player right away. He led the Bengals to the playoffs completing 58 percent of his passes and 20 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. Kaepernick threw five total passes last year so he's a complete unknown at this point.
In the 2012 class, Brandon Weeden is expected to fall in the late first round/early second round range. His biggest detriment is not his play on the field -- it's his age. He's 28 years old which is usually the age when most quarterbacks are hitting their prime. Instead, he'll be entering the league as a rookie. As a pure player, I think Weeden grades out better than both Dalton and Kaepernick and, if he were 22 years old, we would be discussing him as a top 10 pick.
After one season, the 2011 class brought us two players who are basically known quantities -- Newton and Dalton. Both were solid starters while the other four first- and second-round quarterbacks either struggled a lot as rookies or are unknowns. I think the 2012 class has three, possibly four players who could end up being quality starters in year one. Luck and Griffin III, obviously, but I think Tannehill has a chance to be productive in his first year, depending on where and in what situation he lands. The Dolphins, for example, won six games last year with Matt Moore. I think you can make the argument that Tannehill would be a better option than Moore right now. Then there's Weeden, the 28-year old quarterback. I'd predict he ends up being better than Tannehill as a rookie, again depending on where he lands. Weeden I think is ultimately the third best quarterback in this draft but NFL teams pay for potential and, mostly due to his age, Weeden has been ranked below Tannehill. He may not be a good quarterback for a decade, like Tannehill could be, but I think Weeden makes a bigger impact early in his career.
One of the story lines of the 2011 NFL draft was the run on quarterbacks with six picked in the top 36. I think one of the story lines in this year's draft won't be about the quantity of quarterbacks taken in the first two rounds, but the quality. This group seems more polished and ready to make an impact than last year's version.