Evaluating top QB draft prospects


The top five quarterback prospects in this year's NFL draft have a lot of talent, a lot of personality and a lot of potential to succeed at the next level. But how will they respond to a little bit of in-depth criticism from a former coach?

That's what I spent the last month and a half finding out. From March 2 to April 12, I hosted Cam Newton, Ryan Mallett, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Andy Dalton at my office in Tampa, where I put them through intense four-hour film sessions, followed by an hour of on-field work at the University of South Florida practice facility.

We try to be as extensive as we can because at the end of the day, the players really appreciate that you've looked at just about everything there is to possibly see. A lot of these guys never got to see their last year of film because right after the season, they were gone. So they appreciate the time that you put into it.

Here is what I learned about each of them:

Cam Newton

Cam Newton is one of the most exciting guys I've ever studied. He has come out of nowhere. I hadn't ever heard of Cam Newton until this season. He exploded on the scene and just took over college football with a rare physical approach to playing quarterback. This guy was a tailback at times at Auburn. He just takes the ball out of the shotgun and runs for 1,473 yards -- and these are designed power off-tackle runs that Bo Jackson and Cadillac Williams carried in their careers. He ran for 20 touchdowns in the Southeastern Conference. He threw for 30 touchdowns and he even caught a touchdown pass against tight coverage.

Newton was responsible for 51 touchdowns, a Heisman Trophy and a national championship in his first year playing FBS football. He has rare ability, rare physical traits -- big, fast, strong, tough and clutch. He's at his best when the game is on the line. If you looked at his statistics when the game was tied or Auburn was behind in the fourth quarter, you'd see that this guy's a gamer. And that's a trait that everybody admires because there are a lot of tight football games at the next level.

The biggest challenge for Cam is to get into a more conventional style of offense, where you're going to get in the huddle and call more plays. Not everything comes from the sidelines in the no-huddle scheme. You're playing with a different tempo. Everything they did at Auburn was high-voltage, great velocity, up-and-at-'em every snap. In pro football, it's a little bit more calculated because you're getting in the huddle, calling plays, giving alerts, previewing audibles and things of that nature. You're going to have to take more snaps from center and you're going to have to rework some of your fundamentals in throwing the football. You're also going to have to learn to read defenses because people play you differently when you play the style that you played at Auburn. I think he's going to have some transition learning a new offense. He doesn't have a lot of playing experience in his background, but I think he's got real ambition, talent and rare physical traits.

Newton reminds me of Donovan McNabb. Donovan ran the freeze option at Syracuse and, with a year as an understudy, he was able to use his lower-body strength and exceptional athletic ability to dominate in Philadelphia for over a decade.

Ryan Mallett

Mallett is a junior pocket passer with a very good arm. He can hum it. He has physical traits that are rare -- almost 6-foot-7 with a big frame. He throws with touch, anticipation and accuracy. The strength of his game is throwing the football. He's a good play-action quarterback and ball handler and he's played in a pro-style offense under Bobby Petrino. You see Mallett under center and in the shotgun. He can even make audibles. He's asked to do a lot, to execute a lot of football much like he will be asked in the NFL. But I know he's going to be coachable because Petrino is hard on his quarterbacks and very demanding, rightfully so. I like the environment this guy is coming from.

At times, Mallett is erratic in his decision-making. There are some throws I think he wants back and he needs to become a premier decision-maker at all times. I also think he needs to know more about protections and blitzes than any guy in this draft because he's going to make his living in the pocket. He's got to be a specialist at understanding pass protections, hot receivers, etc., because he isn't going to be the most elusive guy in this league or in this draft. He's going to really have to rely on his preparation and how each protection works.

There are not very many guys I can compare Mallett to, but Elvis Grbac has crossed my mind. He had some great years in Kansas City -- a big guy who has functional movement and can really throw the football. In fact, Grbac was a Pro Bowler for the Chiefs at one time.

Blaine Gabbert

Like Mallet, this is another junior who has prototypical size -- close to 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds. Gabbert is a finance major. In other words, he's a smart kid. He's an eager worker and very confident. There's a lot of upside because he has a strong arm and a quick, accurate throwing motion. He can also run and get out of trouble. He ran as well as anybody at the combine at the quarterback position at 235 pounds, so he's going to be able to keep plays alive for you and create some offense. His intelligence is going to allow him to learn quickly and be a good system quarterback. He's going to be a good passer in tight windows because he has a quick, compact delivery and he can really hum it when he has to.

The offense that he's coming from at Missouri is kind of exclusive to them with that no-back, no-huddle spread. It's like what Newton is coming from at Auburn, only with a different approach because it's pass first and run second at Missouri and more run first at Auburn. If you are looking for a young quarterback to develop, you're looking for a guy like Gabbert.

It's hard to compare Gabbert to anyone because it's a catch-and-throw offense. It's a strange attack where there's rarely a back in the backfield. There are also not many conventional plays at Missouri, but Gabbert is an outstanding prospect and a quick study who has all the physical attributes you're looking for in an NFL quarterback.

Jake Locker

Locker is very experienced. He's played a lot of football and he's a very good athlete -- big and fast. He is as tough as any guy in this draft. He's withstood a lot of punishment and I think he's got good football smarts. The game is really important to him. When you get an athlete -- a guy who's tough, who can learn, and a guy who loves it, that's important. Locker has shown he can carry a team to a bowl game. On the big stage, this guy has had some phenomenal individual performances (Southern Cal last year, and the Oregon State game). He's capable of taking your team to a win. He played for Steve Sarkisian so there's some West Coast background with the pro-style nature of their offense. I like the fact that he went back for his senior year and finished what he set out to accomplish. He completed his goals, which is rare these days. He's a very good passer on the move and a hard guy to tackle, and he's one of these guys who can will your team to victory.

The area where Locker has to improve is his overall accuracy. He's got to refocus on his fundamentals a little bit and improve his location. He'll admit that he missed some throws he should hit, but the guy has a lot of talent.

Locker lives dangerously. He doesn't get out of bounds; he gets knocked out of bounds. He looks for punishment and at times he delivers it. He needs to protect the top of his head and his throwing shoulder a little bit better. He can't be as reckless in the NFL. He needs to be there in the fourth quarter and for 16 weeks for his team. But there's some Rich Gannon in Locker in that he is a fierce competitor and a very good athlete and has a tremendous passion for the game.

Andy Dalton

Andy Dalton is one of the best-kept secrets in this draft. As a college quarterback, he won as many games as any guy ever has other than Texas' Colt McCoy. He's had tremendous production in, for the most part, a spread attack. This is a diverse offense. It's almost as ambitious an offense as I've seen in college football. They run no-back sets. They'll be in the pistol formation. They have designed quarterback runs. They have some "check with me's." They do a lot of good stuff at TCU and Dalton is the leader of that attack. I think they should build a statue of him and coach Gary Patterson in Fort Worth.

Dalton also has great touch and is very accurate. He's in control of every situation, whether it be goal line, red zone, short yardage, backed up or two-minute. He's had tremendous poise and command, and I really admire that about him. He's not a JUGS machine or an explosive scramble guy. He's a guy who's going to function in a diverse system where they ask him to do a lot. Above the neck, this is a real strong quarterback. Do you wish he ran 4.6? Do you wish he was 6-foot-4? Yes. But when you watch his body of work, there is a lot of consistency and a lot of positives. I think you are getting a steady guy -- very mature and very serious about proving he can do this.

Former NFL coach Jon Gruden is an analyst on ESPN's "Monday Night Football."