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Quarterbacks from 2011 draft face make or break seasons

Andy Dalton, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder may have to impress this season or get replaced by members of what should be a talented 2014 quarterback group.

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Frederick Breedon

One of the early storylines of the 2014 NFL Draft is the expected strength of the quarterback group. Among the top prospects are Teddy Bridgewater of Lousville, Tajh Boyd of Clemson and David Fales of San Jose State. While they could end of dropping in the draft like former offseason darling Matt Barkley, they each look like first-round players.

With a possible surplus of quarterbacks in the draft next year, signal callers from the 2011 class are in for a make or break season. The No. 1 pick that year, Cam Newton, is secure in Carolina. The No. 36 pick in that draft, Colin Kaepernick, has the look of a budding superstar.

Heading into their third season in the NFL, the fates of the of the four quarterbacks between them looks less certain.

Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans (Pick No. 8)

What we said then: When you look at Locker as a whole, he smacks of a boom or bust prospect. His deficiencies – accuracy, field vision and pocket presence – are the same as quarterbacks who often bust. But it's impossible to ignore his athleticism, arm strength, toughness and potential to improve more under (Steve) Sarkisian. (Full report)

What happened: After backing up Matt Hasselbeck as a rookie in 2011, Locker took over as Tennessee's No. 1 quarterback last season. He was underwhelming. Locker threw more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10) and had one of the lowest completion percentages of any starting quarterback (56.4). Locker also suffered an injured left shoulder that led to Hasselbeck replacing him for a period.

Going forward: The Titans wisely invested in their offensive line this offseason, adding free agent Andy Levitre and first-round pick Chance Warmack. They even gave Locker another receiving target in second-round pick Justin Hunter. The Titans seem excited about the progress Locker is making this offseason. However, the athletic Locker is the ultimate shorts and T-shirt superstar and still has to prove he can learn the team's new offense.

The future of head coach Mike Munchak and general manager Ruston Webster may be tied with the success Locker can or can't bring to Tennessee this season. Prior to last season, owner Bud Adams wanted to make Peyton Manning a Titan "for life," so he has no allegiance to Locker. Another season of more interceptions than touchdowns and the Titans could be after a new quarterback in the top 10 of the draft.

Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville Jaguars (Pick No. 10)

What we said then: As a pocket passer, Gabbert is loaded with potential. The first noticeable thing about Gabbert is his size. He is 6-foot-5 and has an NFL frame at 235 pounds. His arm strength is at a top level, he gets great ball placement and his throwing motion is crisp and sound. Some of the bigger concerns about Gabbert – coming from a spread where he doesn't have to make many reads – are disconcerting but coachable. Because of that, Gabbert may be the kind of quarterback who is taken in round one but could be better served with a year as a backup. (Full report)

What happened: Gabbert never got the benefiting of sitting for a year and learning the NFL game. He had a rocky rookie season and didn't give much optimism for the future. In the first game of the 2012 season, Gabbert was on point throwing for 260 yards and two touchdowns in a moderately thrilling overtime loss to the Minnesota Vikings. That game was arguably the highlight of Gabbert's season (he also played well against the Packers in Week 8). The Jaguars eventually went 2-14, and Gabbert missed the final six games of the season with a torn labrum and was supplanted by Chad Henne.

Going forward: The Jaguars now are soon to enter a training camp battle to determine the starting quarterback. Gabbert could come out on top, but how many franchise quarterbacks have to win their job? Gabbert is not a franchise quarterback, nor is Henne. New Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch seems to like Gabbert, but how negative is any coach in June? Those same coaches, who have no direct tie to bringing Gabbert to Jacksonville, could become pretty negative next offseason.

Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings (Pick No. 12)

What we said then: I really like Christian Ponder as an NFL quarterback prospect. He doesn’t have the physical attributes like others in this draft but he has a better feel for the game. The things that will really hold him back are his arm strength and injury history. (Full report)

What happened: Although Ponder hasn't had quite the same injury issues he did at Florida State, his physical shortcomings are evident. Ponder started 10 games as a rookie and threw as many touchdowns as interceptions (13). In 2012, Ponder's season started strong with Minnesota going 3-1 and he didn't throw an interception. But Ponder began to struggle, particularly against divisional opponents. While the Vikings made the playoffs last season, few credit Ponder with leading them there.

Going forward: Fortunately for Ponder, he can fall back on running back Adrian Peterson (supposedly the best player in football). But what if the Vikings want to rely more on the passing offense? Minnesota brought in free agent Matt Cassel, but it's considered a move to push Ponder. If the push doesn't work, Cassel could get some spot starts. How's that overwrought cliche work? If you have two quarterbacks you have none?

Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals (Pick No. 35)

What we said then: Andy Dalton leaves TCU as one of the most decorated quarterbacks in the team’s long history. At the college level he has done everything you could ask of a quarterback. Entering the NFL there are questions about Dalton’s arm strength and his "up-side." Many see Dalton and too quickly write him off as a product of a spread system who will not develop farther in the NFL. When we look at Andy Dalton we see Drew Brees. (Full report)

What happened: Well, Drew Brees he is not. But Dalton parlayed a solid rookie season into a spot in the Pro Bowl. Dalton was far more inconsistent in his second season.

Going forward: Wait, how can a second-round player who made the Pro Bowl make this list? Forget the Pro Bowl thing. Dalton was the AFC's fourth QB and an injury replacement only. The draft placement for Dalton doesn't matter either. Despite being a second-round pick, the leash has to be tight. If Dalton struggles in one of the tougher divisions in the league, Cincinnati may be in position to take his replacement in the first round next year. Of course if the Bengals are in playoff contention, it will likely be because of Dalton and his job is safe. Of the 2011 starting quarterbacks on the bubble, Dalton is by far the safest.

These four quarterbacks won't be the only ones under scrutiny this season. Josh Freeman of the Buccaneers is in the final year of his rookie deal. While Tampa Bay did draft Mike Glennon in the third round this year, another quarterback could be drafted if Freeman struggles again and isn't brought back.

The Cardinals added a stop-gap quarterback in Carson Palmer. With Palmer being 33 and the roster featuring the likes of Ryan Lindley and Drew Stanton, the Cardinals could be poised to take a top quarterback if they're drafting high.

In Cleveland, the expectation is that Brandon Weeden is built for Norv Turner's vertical passing offense. The strong-armed Weeden should look the part during training camp, but can he make the reads during games? If not, Weeden, Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer won't stop the Browns from taking a quarterback in 2014.

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