NFL scouts cringe the Monday after draft weekend when, almost in ritualistic form, letter grades are assigned to teams for the draft class they selected over the three days. One recalls back to 2005 – the year the Vikings dropped a big dud by selecting Troy Williamson with the seventh overall pick – when the Vikings consistently got among the highest draft grades at the time, only to prove to be one of the worst drafts in franchise history.
The rule of thumb among draft analysts and general managers is that you can’t really make informed analysis on a draft class or individual draftees until after three years. That has typically been the benchmark. As a player heads into his fourth season (usually the year in which he gets his first big contract if he has proved himself), you usually know what you have. It didn’t take the Vikings that long to figure out Williamson was a bust, but it did take that long for Sidney Rice to prove he had what it took to be a big-time NFL receiver and Percy Harvin to become an acknowledged star.
The draft of 2011 is just a year old but is already being looked at as one of the most significant years for drafting quarterbacks who are viewed as potential franchise types. Four of the first 12 and six of the first 36 picks of the draft were made at quarterback, including the Vikings’ selection of Christian Ponder with the 12th pick of the draft. They’re all just one year into their careers but have quickly taken very different paths.
While it will still take a couple of years to accurately assess the Big Six of 2011, we have one year in the books and here are our early grades on where each of the QBs from the Class of ’11 sit one year into their fledgling NFL careers.
Cam Newton (1st pick, Carolina Panthers) – Newton defied the skeptics and raised the bar for future rookies. Viewed by some scouts as a one-hit wonder at Auburn who would have a difficult time translating his game to the NFL level, especially with the worst team in the league in 2010, Newton not only helped redefine the role of a modern quarterback, but has raised the bar for the top of the 2012 draft class – Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. He started all 16 games, completing 310 of 517 passes (60 percent) for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns. 4,000 yards is the benchmark for greatness among quarterbacks and even some of the best QBs in the game needed years to reach that plateau. Newton did it as a rookie. But what set him apart was his running ability. He ran 126 times for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns – a total second only LeSean McCoy of the Eagles and more than Panthers star running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart had combined. Defensive coordinators have learned they have to game plan directly around Newton, which is a testament to the best QBs in the NFL. GRADE: A+
Jake Locker (8th pick, Tennessee Titans) – The Titans surprised some by taking Locker this high. He was viewed by a lot of scouts as a late first-round prospect. As the Vikings attempted with Donovan McNabb, given the lockout and lack of tangible time for the rookie quarterbacks of the Class of 2011 to learn their respective offenses, the Titans brought in an available veteran free-agent QB – Matt Hasselbeck. Unlike McNabb, who stunk out the joint on a regular basis, Hasselbeck took the starting job by the horns. Locker was reduced to mop-up duty. But in the five games in which he saw playing time, he posted a passer rating of 99.4, completing 34 of 66 passes for 542 yards with four TD passes, one TD run and no interceptions. While he didn’t see any extended playing time, his learning curve has picked up this offseason and he and Hasselbeck are expected to battle it out in the preseason for the starting job. GRADE: Incomplete.
Blaine Gabbert (10th pick, Jacksonville Jaguars) – The NFL’s version of Sunshine from Remember the Titans, Gabbert got the call at the end of Week 2 and started the final 14 games of the season. He finished the season completing just 210 of 413 passes for 2,214 yards with 12 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. His passer rating of 65.4 was the lowest of any quarterback with enough passes to qualify in the league stats column. He also proved to be very immobile or aware in the pocket, getting sacked 40 times and rushing 48 times for just 96 yards – a dismal two-yard average. He won only four games as a starter, with two of those being against Indianapolis and another coming vs. Tampa Bay. He never threw for 225 yards in any of his 14 starts, had less than 150 yards in eight of them and less than 100 in three of them (including two of his wins). He was viewed as an unqualified bust and was as big a reason as any that the Jaguars had the worst passing attack in the NFL last year. The drafting of Justin Blackmon is clear sign of the intent of the Jaguars to give Gabbert the weapons he needs to succeed, but, for the time being, Sunshine has been a nightmare and has taken more than his share of lumps. GRADE: D+
Christian Ponder (12th pick, Minnesota Vikings) – Ponder wasn’t intended to be the starter last year. Had Donovan McNabb recreated even a fraction of the Brett Favre magic in 2009, Ponder likely would have remained on the bench. Instead, McNabb was brutal and, after just six games, the call came. Ponder finished the season completing 158 of 291 passes for 1,853 yards with 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He also proved elusive in the pocket, scrambling 28 times for 219 yards (a 7.8-yard average). However, he was routinely beaten, being sacked 30 times, drilled often as he released the ball and running for his life on scrambles at least a couple times every game. His progress was hindered by a makeshift offensive line that struggled badly at times. He showed flashes of big-play ability and field vision, but has a long way to go to be viewed as the kind of quarterback that can carry the franchise – not like Fran Tarkenton, but like Tommy Kramer or Daunte Culpepper both did for several years. With an improved O-line and the addition of WR Jerome Simpson and TE John Carlson, there is reason for optimism that Ponder can take the next step in his maturation as an NFL quarterback. GRADE: C+
Andy Dalton (35th pick, Cincinnati Bengals) – Of the rookie class from 2011, nobody was a bigger (and more pleasant) surprise than Dalton. Taken in the second round after the Bengals opted out of the QB run early in the first round to take WR A.J. Green, Dalton was viewed more as a project type who would learn from veteran Carson Palmer. But Palmer felt slighted by the drafting of Dalton and things broke down to the point that he announced his retirement – only later to be the key in a lopsided trade made by the Bengals to get a first- and second-round pick out of the Raiders for a player who vowed never to play for Cincinnati again. Dalton was thrown into the fire and led the Bengals to the playoffs, completing 300 of 516 passes for 3,398 yards with 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He posted a solid passer rating of 80.4 and, while not a huge difference-maker, he was an excellent game manager who didn’t cost his team games at critical times. He doesn’t have the upside of the four guys taken in the first round, but, other than Newton, nobody had a more positive impact. GRADE: B+
Colin Kaepernick (36th pick, San Francisco 49ers) – Taken just one pick after the Bengals took Dalton, Kaepernick was expected to be pushing starter Alex Smith for a starting job at some point if Smith struggled. But the 49ers got out of the gate strong and never looked back. Kaepernick finished the season throwing just five passes, completing three for 35 yards and no touchdowns. Given the strong push the 49ers made for Peyton Manning and the subsequent fence-mending done with Smith, it would appear that Kaepernick went from an endangered species to being upgraded as a deep backup with little to no chance of starting in 2012 barring injury. GRADE: D
The final grades likely won’t be fully fleshed out until the end of the 2014 season, when all six quarterbacks from the Class of 2011 will have three full seasons to prove what they can (or can’t) do as an NFL starter. But, one season in, it would look as though Ponder is in the mix to follow Newton and, to a lesser extent, Dalton as the next breakout star in the 2011 class of quarterbacks.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for 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.