Offenses could suffer early in 2011

If I'm right about what I'm feeling, the 2011 NFL season -- if it starts on time -- will get off to a slow start offensively.

The seven quarterbacks who may go in the first 1½ rounds of this month's draft figure to be more developmental than functional in their rookie seasons. Only two wide receivers and only one running back (and possibly no tight ends) project to go in the first round.

Rookie impact on offense might be minimal.

Offensive skill positions are being held hostage by the labor crisis to a point where teams are already making concessions. The 49ers will probably re-sign Alex Smith to be Jim Harbaugh's quarterback once signings are allowed. Ken Whisenhunt of the Cardinals would rather settle for a veteran such as Marc Bulger, Kevin Kolb or Kyle Orton than babysit a rookie quarterback from this class.

Then, to make matters worse, the ill-timed kickoff change -- moving kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35 -- could put drive-starts closer to the 20 than last year's average of the 27. Driving 73 yards for a score is tough. Driving 80 yards is really, really tough.

The scoring average in 2010 was 44.07 points a game, the highest since 1965. Although it's hard to predict exactly what that number will be in 2010, you have to figure scoring is going down. The longer the labor dispute goes on, the harder it will be for teams to boost their offenses using veteran options in free agency or in trades.

The hope is that the court-controlled mediation leads to some kind of a deal before the draft or soon after it. If the case goes to court and then gets appealed, the process will drag out and offenses will be at a distinct disadvantage early.

From the inbox

Q: What are the chances the Jags trade back in the draft? They need a pass-rusher, linebackers and secondary help. On offense, the Jags need to address the interior of the line and could use another playmaker (WR). They also have to think about a QB. I think Gene Smith is building a good roster, but I think the Jags could benefit from having more draft picks.

David in Orange Park, Fla.

A: I don't see much reason a team would trade up to the Jags' No. 16 spot. By No. 16, the top two quarterbacks and wide receivers will be taken, and there will be enough defensive ends and offensive linemen to carry through most of the first round. You're right about the Jaguars' abundance of needs, but in general manager Gene Smith, we trust. He's done a great job of drafting character players with good talent. Unfortunately for the Jags in the long term, this isn't the year they were going to draft the eventual replacement for quarterback David Garrard.

Q: Are you a proponent of trading down for multiple picks, or do you think teams are often too eager to move out of their original spot?

Bryan in Mount Airy, Md.

A: Sometimes teams get too cute in trading down. The chances of getting a player with Pro Bowl potential diminishes each time a team trades down several spots. Although it's great to get extra picks, sometimes a team trades away from potentially good players. That's the beauty of the draft. There is gambling. The Patriots do it right because Bill Belichick knows what he wants. The 49ers were good at doing it because of Bill Walsh. Not everyone is as good as them at trading down.

Q: Every year as the draft approaches, one thing I've always wondered is why centers and middle linebackers aren't typically considered worthy of first-round picks. If the center is considered the QB of the offensive line and the middle linebacker is considered the QB of the defense, why isn't there a higher priority placed on spending a first-round pick on those positions? Obviously, there are exceptions (Patrick Willis, Maurkice Pouncey, Jeff Faine, Brian Urlacher), but I've never understood why somebody who "quarterbacks" the O-line or the entire defense wouldn't be considered worthy of a high draft pick.

Chris in Los Angeles

A: Great question, Chris. The hardest and most costly positions to replace are quarterback, offensive tackle, defensive end or pass-rushing linebacker, wide receiver and cornerback. That's the unusual part about football. Baseball teams are built up the middle -- catcher, second base, shortstop and center field. Football teams are upgraded around the ends -- cornerback, pass-rusher, offensive tackle and wide receiver. You can cover for interior offensive linemen, middle linebackers and safeties. Sometimes, you get to fill those spots successfully with undrafted players. It's harder to find the players with the top athletic skills to fill those outside slots.

Q: Would it be a good idea for the Patriots to look at taking a QB like Ricky Stanzi late in the third round and maybe work on grooming him to take over for Tom Brady a few years down the road?

Shane in Des Moines, Iowa

A: I think there is much better chance of that than there is of the Patriots using a first- or a second-round choice on a quarterback. They still have too many specific needs with their first four selections in the first two rounds to take a quarterback that high. The danger of waiting for Stanzi, the Iowa QB, late in the third round is that he could be gone by then. It wouldn't surprise me, though, if they traded up for him in the third. That would make a lot of sense.

Q: People always attribute Aaron Rodgers' incredible progression (at least in comparison to Alex Smith's) with being able to sit behind Brett Favre for three seasons. But it's been well documented that Favre was very distant to Rodgers and saw him more as a threat than a protege. I believe the credit lies in Mike McCarthy's quarterback school. Combine that with Rodgers' study habits and natural ability and I believe you have the reason Rodgers is where he is now. Did not playing right away help him? Yes. Was it sitting behind Favre specifically that helped him? I don't think so.

Nate in Greenville, S.C.

A: I agree with you 100 percent. It doesn't hurt to sit behind a Hall of Fame quarterback, but what people don't realize is that it's rare for that quarterback to be a teacher. Sure, a veteran starting quarterback can help with the playbook and offer a little advice, but he's not going to coach a backup. That's the job of the coaches. McCarthy and his staff are great at that. McCarthy deserves the credit, as does Rodgers.

Q: Can you explain how teams script their early plays? I understand the concept, but struggle with understanding the specifics of how flexibility is built into the script based on down and distance.

Brett in Atlanta

A: Most offensive coaches script the first 15 play options based on studies of the defensive tape. They have a script based on down-and-distance situations and how they want to attack a scheme. Bill Walsh of the 49ers was the master of the script, and many coaches have followed. What's interesting is Mike McCarthy of the Packers doesn't use a script anymore. He used to use one. He won a Super Bowl by simply calling plays he thought worked.

Q: It's pretty obvious at this point that nobody is too sold on Blaine Gabbert becoming a dominant NFL quarterback. If pretty good is the ceiling for Gabbert, then why would anyone bother spending a first-round pick on the guy? A guy like Kyle Orton could be had for much less and is basically the player folks think Gabbert could become.

John in Dekalb, Ill.

A: Good is better than bad, and bad means people get fired. The Gabbert selection is no different than Mark Sanchez. Sure, the Jets may have overpriced his value by trading up to the No. 5 pick in the first round to get him, but he's been the quarterback on a team that has been to the conference championship twice. He's stabilized the position even though he hasn't knocked out the league with his stats. If Gabbert, the Missouri QB, is better than Ryan Fitzpatrick, you take him. If Gabbert is better than a "retired'' Carson Palmer, you take him. Let's go back to the Jets for a second. Would the Jets have been to two AFC title games with Kellen Clemens? My guess would be no.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.