DraftWatch2011: The top four quarterbacks

On Friday, we opened our discussion on the Minnesota Vikings' difficult task this offseason: Finding a quarterback to take them through the next decade. One of my points was that the Vikings haven't had many opportunities to draft a blue-chip quarterback in recent years, short of trading up to grab a prospect. And based on the buzz at the NFL scouting combine over the past few days, they are in the same position again this year.

I spent some time speaking with ESPN analyst Todd McShay, who feels certain that the draft's top two quarterbacks -- Missouri's Blaine Gabbert and Auburn's Cam Newton -- will be off the board when the Vikings' No. 12 overall pick arrives. That means the Vikings will need to trade up to draft one of them. Otherwise, they must decide whether they like one of two other quarterbacks -- Washington's Jake Locker and Arkansas' Ryan Mallett -- enough either to take them at No. 12 or grab them later via a trade-down.

McShay listed his top four quarterbacks as Gabbert, Newton, Locker and Mallett, in that order. He has Mallett as a second-round value. His second tier includes: TCU's Andy Dalton, Iowa's Ricky Stanzi, Nevada's Colin Kaepernick and Florida State's Christian Ponder.

As a means for pushing forward the discussion, I'll pass along McShay's thoughts on that first tier below.

Player: Missouri's Blaine Gabbert.

McShay: "I think Gabbert should be the first quarterback. I won't change on that. Every game I've watched, I'm convinced. He's safer. That's not necessarily a reason to take him. But that [spread] system, I know they catch a lot of flak. But he has to make reads. He has to get rid of the ball quickly. His mechanics are good for the most part. He's accurate throwing in the face off pressure. People who say his completion percentage [was low before last season], they didn't watch. He's got guys in his face all the time. He's making accurate throws that guys are dropping. ... He just needs a little bit of time coming from that system. He'll be good. He's going to be a really good starter."

Bottom line: Gabbert didn't throw at the combine but proved athletic with a 4.62 time in the 40-yard dash. He'll throw at his March 17 pro day and has no character issues that have surfaced. The Vikings would be wise to study his every move over the next few months.

Player: Auburn's Cam Newton

McShay: "He is actually pretty accurate for a guy whose footwork is terrible. He opens one way, and throws [another], but he's putting it on guys. ... The only way he's available for the Vikings is if enough teams start to get really scared about Cam Newton the mental makeup."

Bottom line: Newton would probably generate the most excitement in Minnesota, and he would have more skill players around him there than in most places he might land. But any team that drafts Newton knows they're getting more than a quarterback. It's obvious he is determined to become a marketing brand of his own. Are the Vikings OK with that?

Player: Washington's Jake Locker

McShay: "Love, love Jake Locker the competitor. Love the physical tools. Tremendous athlete, obviously. He wants it. He makes accurate throws at times. He just hasn't put it together. I've taken a lot of heat for it, and I stuck with [him] because I thought it was going to click. And it hasn't. It just hasn't. At some point, you have to be honest with yourself. That point was three or four weeks ago for me. I was able to go back and watch the coaches' copy tape and watch the seven games. He just didn't improve at all [last year]. Injuries were a little bit of a setback, but ultimately his mind is going too fast. ... It's all in his head. Maybe one day it becomes a nice smooth process. But you can't risk a high draft pick on a player [with that history]. The most important thing you have to do is be accurate. He's not accurate now and he's not showing signs over the last year of becoming more accurate."

Bottom line: There are exceptions to every rule. But historically, quarterbacks don't improve their accuracy when they move from college to the NFL. They are what they are, and Locker was a 55.4 percent passer last season. The Vikings couldn't find a better leader than Locker, and his 4.59 speed is intriguing. That should all count for something. Perhaps the Vikings could coach him into being an exception.

Player: Arkansas' Ryan Mallett

McShay: "He is immature. And there are a lot of questions about his leadership and the consistency of his emotional level, and how he just carries himself. And there is also some off-the-field stuff that he is going to have to answer, that won't come out in [public] but will definitely be asked in closed doors. ... There is no question he has the strongest arm in this class. But he can't re-set his feet in the pocket. He's like Drew Bledsoe almost. Once teams catch on to that, how to stop him, they can really limit his effectiveness. It's not to say he can't be good quarterback. But put a ceiling on that. And if you add an attitude problem and immaturity, then you have a potential bust on your hands if you spent a first-round pick."

Bottom line: It's just as easy to get excited about Mallett's powerful arm as it is his snarling personality. But perhaps the biggest concern is his mobility. No modern-day NFL quarterback can succeed without an ability to move in the pocket. You can't use your golden arm if you're on the ground.