By Gerry Dulac Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
INDIANAPOLIS — Unlike last year, when they wanted to find a young backup for Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers do not have any plans to draft a quarterback in May.
And while the fourth-round selection of Landry Jones might have been a surprise to some, it was not considered a reach among the crop of quarterbacks available in the 2013 draft.
Not so this year.
Even though there are no sure-fire, can’t-miss prospects among the Class of 2014, there are at least three quarterbacks who could be among the top 10 picks in the NFL draft — with an outside chance of a fourth even jumping into the group.
And while it remains unclear in which order Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles will be taken early in the first round, do not confuse this crop with the Class of 2004 that featured Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Roethlisberger a decade earlier. Or the one-two tandem of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III in 2012.
“I don’t want to overanalyze them, but I can pick apart all three,” said draft expert Mike Mayock of the NFL Network. “I could not pick apart Andrew Luck.”
Teams tend to reach and over-evaluate quarterbacks in the NFL draft, hoping to unearth that player who will lead them to a Super Bowl championship. Most of those quarterbacks come from the first round. In the past nine Super Bowls, seven have been won by quarterbacks drafted in the first round — Roethlisberger (2), Eli Manning (2), Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco.
But, even though the most recent Super Bowl was won by quarterback drafted in the third round (Russell Wilson), that apparently won’t stop at least three NFL teams from jumping in and taking a quarterback before the draft is 10 picks old.
At least five of the top eight teams in the draft — Houston, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Oakland and Minnesota — could be looking for a quarterback. Never mind that the crop of throwers is more average than talent-rich, with as many potential busts as booms.
“Last year was the first time in years the quarterbacks got evaluated where they should have gone,” Mayock said. “Things stabilized last year. Here we go again. Are we going to push all three guys up there?”
At the top of list is Manziel, who won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman at Texas A&M and draws as much attention with his brash attitude off the field as he does on the field. Manziel, though, measured in at 5 feet 11¾, 207 pounds at the combine, and his penchant for scrambling and running around might be too much for some NFL teams, even though the league is seeing more and more quarterbacks who can do that.
The Houston Texans, who have the No. 1 pick in the draft, might be leaning more toward Bortles or Bridgewater rather than the home-state Manziel because either of those quarterbacks might be a better fit for new coach Bill O’Brien’s style of offense.
Even though he is not throwing at the combine, Manziel said he is looking forward to “showing up all the people that are saying that I’m just an improviser.” At least one NFL head coach doesn’t think that’s a problem.
Manziel was timed at 4.56 seconds in the 40-yard dash on Sunday. Bortles was clocked at 4.8. Bridgewater did not run.
“He’s 5-11 and Ben Roethlisberger is 6-6, but he lived that way early in his career,” said Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, a former Steelers offensive coordinator. “One, two … I’m going to create something. Ben did not make mistakes. As long as (Manziel) isn’t making mistakes, you can live with it.”
Bortles (6-5, 232), who threw three touchdowns for Central Florida against O’Brien’s Penn State team in 2013, could end up going to the Texans despite saying he has no problem sitting and learning for a year or two. He is big and physical and would give the Texans an option element because of his running ability.
“There’s no doubt I need coaching, I need help,” Bortles said.
“I think everybody in the game does. There are reasons why all these greats out there are continuing to play and continuing to work in the offseason and get coached.”
Bridgewater (6-2, 214) might be the most NFL-ready of the three quarterbacks because he played in a system at Louisville that had NFL route concepts and reading progressions. Bridgewater is a good thrower, but he does not have a strong arm like Fresno State’s Derek Carr, who could move into the first-round discussion as well.
It remains to be seen if NFL teams will rush to find a quarterback in the first round and reach into a crop that doesn’t have an elite talent or wait until the second and third rounds, hoping to find a Wilson or Colin Kaepernick. And there are a lot of possibilities, too, such as Carr, Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, Zach Mettenberger of LSU, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and even Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois.
“Are we going to force a quarterback at No. 8?” said general manager Rick Spielman of the Minnesota Vikings, who did just that when they drafted Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick in 2011. “We’re going to take the best player, unless we’re absolutely in love with a guy. There will be enough depth in this class where you can potentially get a quarterback maybe in the second round, third round, fourth round where that guy can potentially be a franchise guy for you.”