Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford were clear-cut choices as the first quarterbacks taken in the past three NFL drafts, but it's wide open this year after Andrew Luck elected to return to Stanford for his redshirt junior season.
Longtime ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper considers Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, Auburn's Cam Newton, Ryan Mallett of Arkansas and Jake Locker of Washington as first-round probabilities or possibilities, but he has numerous questions about each. And please don't suggest to Kiper that they will excel right away.
"You're going to have some woeful performances by some of these rookie quarterbacks," Kiper said. "People act like rookie quarterbacks should be six- or seven-year veterans. If one of those four plays well as a rookie, then you've got a scoop, because I don't see any of those rookies looking good if they're forced to play."
Gabbert, Newton, Mallett and Locker head a list of 18 quarterbacks who received invitations to the NFL combine in Indianapolis, which runs Feb. 23 to March 1. Also making the list were Alabama's Greg McElroy, TCU's Andy Dalton, Florida State's Christian Ponder and Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor.
This year's draft will be held April 28-30.
Kiper's most recent mock draft has Gabbert (6-foot-5, 232 pounds) going fifth overall to Arizona, Newton (6-6, 250) going 10th to Washington and Mallett (6-7, 238) going 25th to Seattle. He does not have Locker (6-2, 228), the expected No. 1 overall pick this time last year, going in the first round.
Newton was the most efficient of the quartet this past season, ranking second nationally among Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks by completing 185 of 280 passes (66.1 percent) for 2,854 yards with 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also rushed for 1,473 yards, led the Tigers to their first national title since 1957 and was impressive Thursday during a scripted workout in San Diego.
"Cam Newton is a giant, giant man," said ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who quarterbacked Baltimore to a victory in Super Bowl XXXV. "Just his presence was amazing, but the ball really jumped out of his hand. This is a gifted, gifted passer, something I don't think most people know.
"The ceiling is so astronomically high for this player that the scouts and GMs and coaches are going to be slobbering about the prospects of having him on their team."
Newton's workout was a media-only event and was under the guidance of quarterbacks coach George Whitfield, who worked with the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger last September during his four-game suspension.
"Coming out of a spread offense, there was a concern about me coming from under center and being fluent," Newton told ESPN. "I just wanted to come out here and show what I have."
Whether Newton did enough to supplant Gabbert as the top projected quarterback has yet to be determined. Each played in a spread system, with a notable worry for Gabbert being his 6.71 yards per pass attempt compared to Newton's 10.19-yard clip.
Gabbert, who completed 301 of 475 passes (63.8 percent) for 3,186 yards with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions, finished 64th nationally in efficiency.
Mallett had the gaudiest numbers, completing 266 of 411 passes (64.7 percent) for 3,869 yards with 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, but Kiper has concerns with both former SEC standouts.
"'Intangibles' is a word you're going to be hearing a lot about, and it will define whether Newton is a top-10 pick or Mallett is even a first-round pick for that matter," Kiper said. "Newton only got 14 starts, and teams will look into that Florida situation and what went on there and what went on in the recruiting controversy with Mississippi State and Auburn. Teams will look into all that.
"With Mallett, it's the meltdowns late in the Alabama and Ohio State games. It's the sloppy mechanics at times and the long striding in the pocket."
Locker finished 73rd nationally in efficiency this past season, completing 184 of 332 passes (55.4 percent) for 2,265 yards with 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Kiper was among Locker's biggest fans this time last year but was unimpressed by his senior showing.
The Huskies went 7-6 and upset Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, but four of their losses were by 30 or more points.
"If you can't get it done against college defenses, how are you going to get it done in the NFL?" Kiper said. "He even had a second chance against Nebraska in the bowl game and struggled. Nebraska didn't show up and didn't care about being in a rematch, and most of his plays were running plays. He only made one big-time throw in that game that I can remember.
"Kyle Boller was the same way. If he couldn't complete a high percentage of his passes at Cal, how could we expect him to be a first-round pick? He still went in the first round, so maybe Locker will, too."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.