Joe Flacco (Winslow Townson/AP)
All of the quarterback prospects for the 2011 draft seem to have significant question marks, which makes the Vikings’ decision especially interesting. NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi thinks work ethic is key, but it also seems that the success rate of first-round quarterbacks is on the upswing.
While the Vikings continue to send out the signals that they will look to draft a quarterback early, even they know there is no guarantee that draft pick will pan out.
For some time, that seemed even more apparent when first-round picks from Akili Smith to Alex Smith were flaming out. However, the last few years have brought renewed faith in the ability of NFL teams to choose wisely early at the quarterback position.
From first overall picks like Sam Bradford and Matthew Stafford the last two years to middle-of-the-first-round picks like Josh Freeman in 2009 and Joe Flacco in 2008, first-round quarterbacks seem to be making the transition more successfully the last three years.
So what makes one highly ranked quarterback a success when only a few years earlier many of them were busts? According to NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi, a former personnel executive in the league, the difference between quarterback success and draft regret is often about the work ethic of the individual.
“When you look at the quarterback class, this is going to prove a lot. What’s going to happen here is you spend time getting to know them, what their work habits are. If your quarterback isn’t the hardest working player on the team, you really can’t be successful,” Lombardi said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “You just saw the Super Bowl. When Aaron Rodgers came out, whether he slipped in the draft or went later in the draft, his arm strength isn’t what it was today. He really worked at his craft when he was sitting out. The time you spend with the players here to learn their work ethic, the players in the locker room – that guy’s going to be the face of your franchise. If you pick him in the top 10, you better make sure he works hard. You better make sure he does all the things necessary.”
That’s one reason Cam Newton is considered a big risk. Some draft analysts in the media have the athletic quarterback from Auburn going in the top five picks in the draft. Others say he is destined for NFL failure because of questionable work ethic and coming from a college offense that doesn’t translate into the NFL.
Fact is, it has never been easy to predict quarterback success with athletes coming out of college.
“Coach (Bill) Walsh told me in 1984 when I was picking up his dry cleaning that the hardest position to evaluate was the quarterback and it was even harder to coach. So I think that still holds true today,” Lombardi said. “I think there’s very few people that have expertise at evaluating the quarterback and even fewer that have expertise in coaching the quarterback. A lot of guys do it, but there’s a unique expertise. How does New England develop Matt Cassel when he didn’t even play at USC? That’s something that you have to look at.
“… I think when you draft a quarterback in our league, you have to have a plan for them. We’re going to run this offense and then you have to be adaptable. You can’t put the guy and say we’re going to be a West Coast offense team and this guy fits what we do. I think you have to be adaptable and you have to know what you’re getting. And you have to give it some time.”
The Vikings don’t want to wait for a quarterback to develop, but they know that they may have to, depending on who they end up picking. Head coach Leslie Frazier has maintained for the last two months that a “bridge-the-gap” veteran quarterback, as he calls it, may be necessary while a rookie develops.
Frazier also knows the uncertain nature of the position when it is manned by inexperienced players.
“When you look at the statistics, even when teams have had the No. 1 pick overall and misses, you still go, ‘Wow.’ It gets your attention, but really makes you want to cross all the T’s and want to dot all the I’s,” Frazier said. “You’ve got to do everything you can to get this right, but it’s not an exact science and you just hope you get it right. But others have tried and failed who are very, very good at this. It’s not an exact science.”
Frazier also saw one of the league’s better success stories first-hand when he was an assistant coach on defense in Indianapolis and had Peyton Manning directing the on-field show on offense. Manning was the first overall pick in 1998 and has turned into one of the best in the history of the league.
Manning started right away as a rookie and hasn’t missed a game since. After his rookie year, he also hasn’t posted a passer rating below 84 for any season.
The Vikings could be at a disadvantage if there is a work stoppage that cuts into the team’s ability to hold a normal number of offseason practices (usually just shy of 20). That is valuable developmental time a rookie quarterback could miss, but Lombardi sees a bright side to that potential scenario.
“I think the better way to look at it is (teams) have more time to develop their system within their own building. When you hire a new coaching staff and you put a new offense in, you’re teaching the offense to the coaches first and then to the players,” Lombardi said. “And I think if there is a lockout, now you have an opportunity to teach it to the coaches first so they really know it and understand it before you give it to players.”
Frazier had a veteran minicamp planned before the draft, but without a labor agreement in place, that is likely to either be delayed or scrapped altogether. Frazier also said at the NFL Scouting Combine that the Vikings were still putting the finishing touches on their offensive playbook under new coordinator Bill Musgrave.
Either way, while the Vikings might be focused on looking for a quarterback, Lombardi sees a team that shouldn’t be pigeonholed into thinking that’s their only great need.
“I think the Vikings’ misconception was they weren’t as good defensively as people thought” he said. “… I think Minnesota has more needs than they actually think they have. When you are so close, you kid yourself into thinking you don’t have all these needs and then the next year when you don’t get there you realize we’ve got a lot of needs and I think they do.”
Whether or not their need for a quarterback trumps all other needs in the first round remains to be seen, but at least they know there is no guarantee of success, especially at that position.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.