Drafting a QB can be simple ... but also tricky

Matt Ryan is the top QB on the 2008 draft board, but that doesn't mean he should go first overall. Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- Since 1990, there has been only one draft -- the Donovan McNabb draft of 1999 -- in which six quarterbacks were selected in the first two rounds.

This spring, six quarterbacks -- Matt Ryan, Brian Brohm, Chad Henne, Joe Flacco, Andre' Woodson and John David Booty -- are grading out as first- and second-round talents. Yet none of the six has exploded off the draft charts as a sure-bet franchise starter.

Having spent the weekend at the NFL combine watching the quarterbacks and listening to the chatter about them, I'm worried that teams in need of quarterbacks will once again misfire as they try to solidify the highest-profile position in football.

In a league in which success is dictated by quarterback play, the mission statement should be simple: Need a quarterback, draft a quarterback. After all, great veteran quarterbacks don't hit the free-agent market unless they have injury concerns or are close to retirement.

But, because a bad decision on an unproven commodity can prove more costly than a cheaper alternative with experience, teams are becoming gun-shy when it comes to drafting quarterbacks.

Take the Bears. During the weekend, after canvassing the draft lists and trade scenarios, they decided to take a $3 million chance that Rex Grossman can regain his Super Bowl spark without further riling fans who want to run him out of town.

That doesn't mean the Bears won't draft a quarterback in the first round. But it's less likely.

On Sunday, the combine bosses allowed approximately three dozen reporters to slip over to the RCA Dome to watch the quarterbacks throw. No one really lit it up. Brohm did OK. Flacco, the former Pitt recruit who transferred to Delaware, clearly has the strongest arm.

I drew the Woodson-Ryan group and neither participated in drills, which is disappointing but won't really affect their draft status. Both did everything for scouts at the Senior Bowl and even got competitive in an ESPN college skills challenge taped before the Super Bowl. They aren't hiding anything.

Sitting in the RCA Dome for an hour watching Ryan chat with other draft prospects and Woodson walking around in flip flops, I had time to reflect on the state of quarterbacks. Thanks to increased usage of spread offenses and shotgun formations, colleges are producing NFL-quality quarterback prospects in high volumes, but too many teams either pick the wrong guy or opt to not to pick one at all.

To me, the story of the draft is Ryan, the Boston College quarterback with the flare for the dramatic comeback. He's the safest quarterback to select, but you get the feeling the two teams most in need of a quarterback -- Miami and Atlanta -- will probably pass on him.

Would that be a mistake? Well, you could argue that Ryan, by himself, won't be able to turn around either team. The Dolphins let themselves get too old, and now they need help in a multitude of areas, while the Falcons have a reconstruction sign on their roster that will take years to remove.

Ryan couldn't have been more honest when asked if he could be the quarterback to ease the pain of football fans in Atlanta.

"I don't think one person will be the cause of the change down there, but I certainly think that I can help," Ryan said. "I think that community is something that's important to me. It was important to me at Boston College. I think I'd be a good fit. It may work out. It may not. We'll have to see in the next couple of weeks."

Let's face it -- the Dolphins, drafting first, and the Falcons, drafting third, are in tough spots. If they draft Ryan and he's not great, they've blown a $60 million investment and pushed their franchise back for years. More than likely, both teams will pass on Ryan ... and that's when things will get interesting.

If Ryan falls to Baltimore at No. 8, it would be as perfect a fit as Ben Roethlisberger's falling to the Steelers at No. 11 in 2004. Of course, if Ryan slips past the fifth pick, don't be surprised if the Carolina Panthers -- drafting 13th -- make a phone call to the Patriots to inquire about trading up to the No. 7 pick in hopes of getting the heir to Jake Delhomme's starting job.

And despite the Bears' signing of Grossman, it wouldn't be the worst thing if they tried to trade up from No. 14 to get the consensus top quarterback in the draft.

The Ravens, Panthers and Bears would be better fits for Ryan than the Dolphins and Falcons. They have better rosters. They have the running game. And they have the patience to not rush Ryan until he's ready.

As much as Ryan would like to play as a rookie, he understands what lies ahead of him.

"There has been a bunch of different ways for quarterbacks to come into the league and have success," Ryan said. "Carson Palmer sat for an entire year. Peyton Manning played the first snap and played the first year.

"I don't think there is a right or a wrong way. ... But in my opinion and what I'm going to try to do next year is go in and compete and try and win the starting job and make the decision as difficult as possible for the organization."

Should the Dolphins and Falcons pass on Ryan, that doesn't mean they can't solve their quarterback dilemma. They could pinpoint which of the other top quarterbacks they like, and then do everything in the world to get him.

That's what the Browns did a year ago -- and now general manager Phil Savage looks like a genius.

No franchise was more desperate for a quarterback as the Browns, who failed with Tim Couch as the top pick in 1999 and have suffered ever since. In the view of scouts, Brady Quinn -- much like Ryan -- wasn't the best pick in the 2007 draft.

So Savage drafted left tackle Joe Thomas and received a Pro Bowl season. Then he traded away a 2008 first-rounder and got Quinn. And of course, he got lucky when Derek Anderson, claimed off waivers after he was released by the Ravens in 2005, also developed into a Pro Bowler.

Savage fully understood the risks and rewards of quarterbacks, and now the Browns are set.

"I think the expectations really are high for all the high picks, but particularly for the quarterbacks," Savage said. "It can be overwhelming.

I think where players and teams run into problems is when you take a quarterback who's had great success throughout his whole career -- high school and college -- and has won a lot of games. It's almost come easy and generally teams picking at the top aren't coming off good years and they're in the rebuilding mode. So the quarterbacks go to those teams and the team isn't prepared to be able to handle a rookie quarterback in terms of having a line or the skilled players around him.

"So I think the expectations are way up there and in reality, they should be lowered.''

Thus, to the Dolphins and Falcons, I offer the Cleveland Quarterback Scenario as the solution to the problem. It's the best and safest way to pass on Ryan and still come up with the right quarterback for the future.

I think the expectations are way up there and in reality, they should be lowered.

-- Browns GM Phil Savage on drafting QBs

The Dolphins can select tackle Jake Long or defensive end Chris Long or trade down if the right offer is there. The Falcons can take a position player.

As soon as those selections are made, both teams need to identify which of the remaining quarterbacks -- Brohm, Henne, Flacco, Woodson or Booty -- they like, and then move up from the top of the second round in a trade to get him.

But the key is making sure you get that second quarterback on your draft board and avoid making a panic move by taking one of the other guys that you don't really want.

Last year in Miami, Cam Cameron tried to be cute by passing on Quinn and taking John Beck in the second round. Cameron's no longer the head coach, and Beck isn't exactly getting warm hugs as the next Dolphins quarterback.

The last second-round quarterback to establish himself as a franchise quarterback was Drew Brees, and that was seven drafts ago. Second-rounders Tarvaris Jackson of the Vikings and Kellen Clemens of the Jets have yet to show they are franchise quarterbacks.

Unless they want to remain at the bottom of the league, the Dolphins and Falcons need to take Savage's approach -- draft the sure thing early, then trade back up late in the first round to get the quarterback you want.

And if you happen to pick up a young quarterback with Pro Bowl potential off waivers, that'll work too.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.