Just two years ago, a half-dozen NFL teams -- nearly 20 percent of the league -- stepped to their draft boards and selected quarterbacks they hoped would lead their franchise to better days. The group included one Heisman Trophy winner, along with five others of more debatable renown, and their arrival marked the second time in modern league history that six quarterbacks had been drafted among the first 36 picks.
Now, to varying degrees of severity and consequence, all six are entering important third seasons. Only two have winning records as starters. At least three and probably four are facing an "or else" season and it must be remembered that even the star of the group -- the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick -- has made only seven regular-season starts.
So with the 2013 season kickoff just eight days away, it seems appropriate to recognize that a cross-section of the league will be impacted by the performance of the 2011 quarterback class. It will drive four division races -- the NFC West, AFC South, NFC North and AFC North -- and could shape the rush for what initially appears to be a strong 2014 draft class of passers.
The chart below provides a career snapshot not only for Kaepernick but also Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton. They don't all represent flashy NFL franchises, and you haven't heard as much about them this summer as perhaps the New York Jets, Tim Tebow and Robert Griffin III. But league outcomes aren't influenced by popularity and off-field drama, and the smart observer knows the fortunes of the Carolina Panthers, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals are just as impactful as the Jets, the 49ers, the Washington Redskins and everyone else.
This class could determine the winner of Super Bowl XLVIII, and it will certainly steer much of what the league's final standings look like four months from now.
"This is a pivotal year for a lot of those guys," said Matt Williamson, who scouts the NFL for ESPN.com. "There's no doubt about that."
Kaepernick and Newton bracketed the class two years ago and clearly are the best of the lot. Despite his limited body of work, Williamson said of Kaepernick: "If I were starting a team, there are very few people I would pick ahead of him. That's how well-rounded his game is."
Newton has generated more polarizing analysis from the public, due mostly to a 13-19 record that has overshadowed his two-year totals of 7,290 passing yards and 1,447 rushing yards. But Williamson said: "He can be great. He can be Ben Roethlisberger if he wants. That's how much ability he has."
That's more than we can say about Gabbert, Locker, Ponder and Dalton -- all of whom could play themselves out of their jobs this season. Let's move through a quick rundown, courtesy Williamson's analysis:
Gabbert: "He actually looked good in the preseason. They're really stressing getting the ball out of his hands. He handles the rush so poorly. [He has taken 62 sacks in 25 NFL games]. The scheme looks better for him. They're not going to give the defense time to get there. I'm not saying he's a success story, but they were smart to put him in this kind of scheme. I would say this is as best as he's ever looked." (Note: Gabbert is dealing with a hairline fracture of his right thumb this summer, which has caused him to miss one preseason game and likely another.)
Locker: "The key with him is his supporting cast is really good now. They had all kinds of interior offensive line problems last year. He got a lot of pressure up the gut. They're really good at guard and center now and have a lot of young weapons. But of all the guys, he seems to be the one that's out of excuses. I know he hasn't played much, but his accuracy is just really poor. He's one of those guys that can make every throw and is as gifted as anyone out there. He runs really well and he just misses guys. He just flat-out misses or his ball placement in tight windows isn't very good. He was like that coming out of school, just reckless in everything he did. He doesn't have a great feel for the pocket. His footwork is so-so, and he really needs coaching. He is far away."
Ponder: "He has had a lot of ability. I wonder about coaching there. The biggest thing with that offense is they don't throw the ball downfield. There is no verticality in that offense at all. With Adrian Peterson back there, you should be throwing play-action bombs. If you're a Ponder apologist, you say the coaches aren't calling them. Who is he going to throw deep to? There is no Randy Moss. But he seems like a checkdown king, too. He seems unwilling to throw downfield. Now, this year, I think Greg Jennings is a little more vertical, and Cordarrelle Patterson can really fly. That will be a real telling thing for Ponder, if he can't do any better downfield. To have his kind of production with Adrian Peterson back there, that's totally unacceptable."
Dalton: "I've been really critical of the Bengals for trying to go the route of just putting more people around him. He has won there, but I don't think he's good enough to win that division consistently or be a Super Bowl contender. … If you don't have great physical attributes, and he doesn't, then you've got to be on time and on target with everything. Timing has to be perfect, accuracy has to be perfect; and his just aren't. He relies on A.J. Green a lot to do the work. They were smart to realize he can't bring in all the throws, so they drafted two guys to help him with shorter passes. Drafting Giovani Bernard, he is a good receiver. Same with Tyler Eifert. Dalton can make the short passes to them. They did make some Andy Dalton-friendly draft picks, but still. …"
So what if they fail? In its preseason evaluations of college quarterbacks, Scouts Inc. has given nine first-, second- or third-round grades, according to ESPN scout Steve Muench. The list is topped by Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Miami's Stephen Morris, but it also includes a slew of strong-armed passers who have demonstrated nimble feet at a time when the league treasures that attribute more than ever.
Players such as Clemson's Tajh Boyd, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Oregon's Marcus Mariota "all have deficiencies as passers," Muench said, "but they have played in big stages, they have the arm talent and there is no question they can make plays with their feet. Other quarterbacks to keep an eye on this season are Alabama's A.J. McCarron, Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas and Ohio State's Braxton Miller."
Come April, at least a few teams will be lining up their draft boards and looking for a quarterback to lead their franchise to better days. A few could be repeat shoppers from 2011. Consider it the circle of (NFL) life.
Related: The rest of the 2011 draft class is exceptionally talented, according to Bill Barnwell of Grantland.com.