The case for Zach Mettenberger

Zach Mettenberger threw for 3,082 yards and 22 touchdowns for LSU last season. Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

If you listened to Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians last week at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, all is right in the world of the team's quarterbacks.

The Cardinals have their starter in Carson Palmer. And if Palmer goes down, Arians believes Drew Stanton can step in to lead Arizona to a division title.

"If something, God forbid, happened to Carson, I've got all the confidence in Drew taking over and us winning the division or the championship," Arians said. "He's been [in the system] two years now, he's smart, tough. That's all you want. He's a guy who can step in the game and doesn't need any reps. He reminds me a lot of Kelly Holcomb."

None of those comments came as a surprise. Arians loved Stanton when he was signed last offseason as the starter ... until Palmer was acquired in a trade and named the starter. It has worked out well so far. Palmer threw for a career best in yards while leading the Cardinals to 10 wins and the brink of the playoffs -- all of which helped Arizona overlook Palmer's career-worst 22 interceptions.

Arians believes Palmer can play until he’s "36, 37 -- easily." But that means Palmer will have to be re-signed before next February because the last year of his current three-year deal voids five days after the next Super Bowl. Palmer will be 35, probably still slinging it like the cowboy he is while playing in the wild, wild West of all places.

But Palmer isn't the Cardinals' long-term answer. Neither is Stanton. Neither is third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley.

Sure, Palmer could play for another two seasons. But at what point do the Cardinals look toward the future? It needs to happen this year and former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger is the place to start.

The Cardinals don't need to draft a quarterback in the first or even the second round. It's not that high of a priority, but Arizona needs to select a quarterback who it can mold into what Arians wants. Someone who they can give time to learn the offense.

"You go into every draft looking for the young franchise quarterback," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim told SiriusXM NFL Radio from the combine. "Although, Carson gives you the luxury of not having to force [a pick]. Sometimes, when you don't have one, you get into a situation where you have to force a pick and that sets you back two to three years.

"Carson gives us some stability, but at the same time we'll always be aggressive in our approach and in our mindset that you're always looking for the next young quarterback."

There are few NFL-ready quarterbacks in this year's draft and even fewer who'll be sitting around on the second or third day. But Mettenberger has the physical traits Arians likes. He's 6-foot-5, 224 pounds with a big arm and already knows how to play in an NFL scheme. His offensive coordinator at LSU was former NFL coach Cam Cameron.

Mettenberger threw for 3,082 yards, 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2013 before tearing his ACL in the Tigers' regular-season finale. He wasn't able to do any of the drills at the combine, which could make his stock drop -- right into the Cardinals' lap.

"Without the injury, I still don't think he's going to be a first- or second-round pick," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. "I think what he is ‑‑ and what worries me a little bit on tape is I think he stares down some of his intended receivers, I think the ball comes out late sometimes. He's not a guy that I think can start Day 1 in the NFL anyway.

"So, if you ask me how much it would impact him, the injury, I don't think quite as much as you might think on the surface, because I do believe he's got a lot of learning to do. I like his size, I like his ability and I like his arm strength. It's more just a matter of his footwork, being more consistent with the ball, his feet being lined up, getting the ball out and some of the reads he makes. I think he just doesn't get the ball out quickly enough and I think that's something that a young quarterback has got to develop."

Mettenberger sounds like the perfect project for quarterback guru Tom Moore. Mettenberger likely won't be ready for training camp and may not even be 100 percent for Week 1. But then again, the Cards don't need him to be.

They can place him on the injured reserve/non-football injury list, which would allow Mettenberger to be activated at some point during the second half of the season. By November, Mettenberger's knee would likely be healed -- ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter said last week that Mettenberger's recovery is progressing faster than expected -- and he can start taking reps in practice.

Even though Keim said at the combine that he's always looking for a quarterback, he also has said, according to the team website, that the only way a quarterback can mature is by playing.

"The only way to grow as a player is to get those full-speed reps," Keim said. "You don’t get those in practice. You have to learn on the job. Obviously [Green Bay quarterback] Aaron Rodgers was a different circumstance, and it's not a bad circumstance to be in, but at the same time, if you want to win now and you want significant improvement early in their career, I think it's in their best interest to play early."

Arians shared a similar philosophy.

"I don’t believe in drafting quarterbacks thinking they can learn a damn thing holding a clipboard," Arians said, according to the team site.

But holding a clipboard is exactly what Stanton has done for the past three seasons, two of which have been spent learning Arians' scheme. He hasn't thrown a regular-season pass since 2010. Yet, Arians still believes he's capable of coming in, if needed, and leading the Cardinals to a division title?

While Rodgers is the ultimate example of what a quarterback can do after learning for few seasons behind the starter, Palmer isn't far behind. He was drafted No. 1 overall in 2003 and didn’t play a down his rookie season, learning behind starter Jon Kitna. And Palmer has turned out all right. What better player to mentor Mettenberger than a guy who went through the same thing?

Which is why the Cardinals would be better off long term if they drafted a quarterback like Mettenberger and let him learn from Moore, Arians and offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin and then let him take over in 2015.

The future will be here before Arizona knows it and it looks like Zach Mettenberger.