Vetting quarterbacks as No. 1 overall picks

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Let's run through a logic exercise to help clarify the top of the NFL draft. Ready?

Quarterback is the most important position in football.

Detroit needs a quarterback. (And the Lions have needed one for about, oh, 50 years.)

The best quarterback in the draft is Georgia's Matthew Stafford.

The Lions have the No. 1 overall pick.

Stafford is the choice.

The path seems reasonable and straightforward, and yet similar logic trains have too often derailed. Recent history suggests that taking a quarterback with the top pick in the draft is at best a 50-50 proposition. And in fact, the habit of identifying a draft's best quarterback as the top player has hindered as many teams as it has rewarded.

The dynamic has particular applications for 2009. The Detroit Lions are unabashedly searching for a franchise quarterback, but Stafford's aptitude in that role remains a fierce debate with the draft 10 days away. Scouts Inc. rates him as the eighth-best prospect this year amid concerns about his accuracy and decision-making, and there are whispers that some teams favor USC quarterback Mark Sanchez instead.

Detroit officials are attempting to separate their evaluation of Stafford from their obvious need at the position, an impossible task for some teams who have been in a similar situation in recent years.

"We need to find a quarterback," new Lions coach Jim Schwartz said.

"I've been on the record saying a quarterback is the most important position on the team. But there are a lot of different ways to get that quarterback. Peyton Manning was drafted No. 1 overall. Kurt Warner, a Super Bowl champion, was an undrafted free agent. There's a lot of different ways to get that quarterback.

"You need to find that guy. There are a lot of different ways to skin that cat, though."

Hit or miss
The Lions are pondering their options in an era of unprecedented ambition to find a franchise quarterback.

Since the 1970 merger, 16 quarterbacks have been taken No. 1 overall.

Half of that total have come since 1998.

Yes, a quarterback has been the top pick in eight of the past 11 drafts. That intensity has lowered the batting average considerably, as evidenced by the chart below.

For every Peyton Manning, there has been an Alex Smith. For every Carson Palmer, there has been a David Carr or Tim Couch. In hindsight, you could argue that four of the eight decisions were misguided relative to other players selected in the top five of that draft.

Indianapolis president Bill Polian, whose selection of Manning in 1998 started the recent craze, attributes the urgency to what he termed the "eternal verities" of football.

"The two most important commodities in the game are pass-rusher and quarterbacks," Polian said. "If you've identified one that you think can win for you, you have to pull the trigger. The big difficulty is trying to identify one that can win for you. That's a hard job. In our case, it was not as hard as it might be in other cases because Peyton was such a stick-out. If either of those two commodities [is] available to you, you should take them because they are hard to come by and they do change the game. And you can't really win big without either one of them."

Separating the cream
In 2005, San Francisco hired a new coach in Mike Nolan and set out to clean up the quarterback mess left behind by the departure of Jeff Garcia two years before. Although it was a relatively weak year for quarterbacks, the 49ers bore down on two candidates: Utah's Alex Smith and Cal's Aaron Rodgers.

Their choice remained a mystery until draft day, when they tapped Smith. Most of the league passed on Rodgers, who tumbled to Green Bay at No. 24 overall. It's unknown whether Smith would have faced the same fate, but in retrospect it seems clear the 49ers reached for him at No. 1.

Smith showed progress in 2006 under offensive coordinator Norv Turner, but his career tanked after Turner's departure. Turner, now the head coach in San Diego, said recently that he believes Smith can resurrect his career but noted that "every situation is different."

"When you go through a draft, you've got to rate the players," Turner said. "A guy might be the top quarterback, but he might be graded as the 18th-best player. You always have to look for that balance: Your needs versus the best player available to you."

How do you prevent such reaches? Rick Spielman, Minnesota's vice president of player personnel, runs his drafts based on groupings rather than a specific order of players. When the Vikings' turn arrives, Spielman picks the player best suited for his team from a group of similarly graded players.

"Say there are five top players in the draft, and they're all equal in ability at their positions," Spielman said. "The hardest position to find is quarterback. So if you believe strongly that he belongs in that top group, you go for it. As long as they deserve to be in that group, you protect yourself. At the same time, you have to have the discipline to pass if the quarterback's value isn't equal to where you're picking. But everybody's philosophies are different."

The book on Stafford
Every potential No. 1 pick faces public scrutiny, but Stafford has encountered unusually vocal opposition from some well-regarded draft analysts. ESPN's Todd McShay and NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock have been two of his most vocal critics. Both note his rifle arm but say Stafford presents enough deficiencies to question his value at No. 1 overall.

During an appearance on Dan Patrick's syndicated radio show last month, Mayock said Stafford had "elite-level talent" but was too inconsistent at Georgia to merit the No. 1 commitment.

"I look at [Stafford] and I go, 'I just don't get it,'" Mayock said.

"Sometimes he looks like an All-Pro quarterback, and other times he looks very pedestrian. ... You put the tape on and he looks like two different kids too often. And if your talent level is at a certain point, it should be a much more consistent level of play."

Steve Muench, who works with McShay at Scouts Inc., believes one of Stafford's biggest problems is the inevitable comparisons to Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. The Falcons drafted Ryan with the No. 3 overall pick last year and watched as he earned NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

"Matthew Stafford is not Matt Ryan," Muench said. "Matt Ryan was clearly NFL-ready. A lot of us thought that last year and we said so.

"He was polished and ready to go with the total package from a mental standpoint. Stafford is by far the best quarterback prospect available this year, but it's going to take him longer to develop. That means there are more variables and it'll take more time when teams don't really have time anymore. He has all the physical tools, but I don't think people believe he can step in and do what Matt Ryan did. Hence the questions."

The Lions' roaring d

Mayock suggests the Lions should take linebacker Aaron Curry or tackle Jason Smith rather than risk their future on Stafford. Many consider Curry the best defensive playmaker in the draft, and Smith could solidify the left tackle spot for the next 10 years.

But neither of those routes is risk-free from the Lions' perspective.

Because they have established starters at both outside linebacker spots, Curry would have to play out of position as a middle linebacker in their 4-3 scheme. And Smith might not make as much sense for the Lions as tackle Jake Long made for Miami last year at No. 1 overall, according to Muench.

"Jake Long is the greatest example of addressing the left tackle position before addressing anything else," Muench said. "He just makes everyone better. But one of the things that's interesting about this year's draft is that there is a drop-off in top talent overall from last year. There is no Jake Long. Jason Smith is not Jake Long. He still has a chance to be a franchise left tackle, but he's not in that category. So that's another thing the Lions have to think about."

With no obvious decision to be made, the Lions will return to the central question: How badly do they need -- or want -- a franchise quarterback in this draft?

Last year, new Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh benefited from his team's decision to draft quarterback Joe Flacco with the No. 18 overall pick.

All things equal, Harbaugh said, it makes sense to identify and draft your quarterback in the first year of a new coaching regime.

"When you have the quarterback in place, it really becomes clear and evident what else you need," Harbaugh said. "If your quarterback is not in place, it's just kind of murky. What kind of receivers do you need? What kind of running backs? How are you going to build your offense? It all kind of muddles. When you get the quarterback, it just seems it's easier to define. We had good fortune that there was a guy available our first year. There are plenty of times that you can go into the first round wanting a quarterback and he's just not there.

"In that case, you just have to wait."

Which is exactly what Schwartz is planning to do if Stafford -- or Sanchez, for that matter -- doesn't measure up. The Lions have met with both quarterbacks multiple times and put them through individual workouts, all in search of a flaw that might push their search in another direction.

"[W]hen you talk about the No. 1 pick, everything's important," Schwartz said. "If the player fails to jump through any of those hoops, so to speak, you're not going to be comfortable. Particularly at No. 1, you need to be comfortable with everything about that player. When you draft a player in the seventh round, you can overlook some things. Now you're saying, 'What positives does he have? OK, well, he might not have this, but he does have this. OK, we can take him.' ...

"When you're talking about the No. 1 pick, you better be comfortable with every facet."

It's only logical.