Derek Carr might be draft's best QB

You know the Big Three.

You've heard all about them. Quarterbacks Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater will all be high draft picks come May. All three will likely be gone by the 10th pick. If your team needs a starting quarterback, those are the players to target in this draft. Get one, and you're good.

At least that is the conventional wisdom.

But by the time the draft hype machine gives way to the actual draft in five weeks, the Big Three could actually be the Big Four: Manziel, Bortles, Bridgewater and Derek Carr. And Fresno State's Carr could bounce to or near the top of that list.

Sound crazy? It is not.

The process of evaluating quarterbacks is complicated. In most cases, it is an inexact science. Andrew Luck was a can't-miss prospect, but what about JaMarcus Russell, Vince Young, Joey Harrington, Tim Couch or Ryan Leaf? Each was a top-three draft pick who turned into a colossal bust. Or what about the quarterbacks taken in the first round in 2011: Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder? Only Newton has a grip on a starting job entering 2014.

It is difficult to project how a quarterback will translate at the next level. There is plenty of guesswork involved, and often, given the pressure and the stakes and the very real prospect of being wrong, emotion creeps in. Gut feeling can usurp months of player evaluations and scouting. One quarterback might just feel right. He might have that unquantifiable "it" factor.

Rarely does a team know for sure what it will get from its pick.

That is why the discussion about the quarterbacks entering this upcoming draft has been all over the map. There is growing sentiment that none of the quarterbacks rank among the 32 best players in the draft, but at least four, Carr among them, probably will be taken in the first round because of teams' needs.

Carr is gaining steam because, unlike Manziel, Bortles and Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo, he ran a pro-style offense for a year in college. As a redshirt sophomore in 2011, Carr was a starter for then-Fresno State coach Pat Hill. He learned the skills a quarterback needs at the next level: timing, footwork, and accuracy, among them. He threw vertical routes with precision and displayed a strong arm.

Hill got fired after that season and was replaced by Tim DeRuyter, who implemented a spread offense. Carr adjusted.

But at his pro day last month, Carr did not throw a single bubble screen. He threw all vertical routes and afterward quipped that he dusted off the Pat Hill offense. It was smart. If teams want to evaluate him in context, they must look beyond 2013, when Carr played in a spread and threw for more yards and more touchdowns than any other quarterback in college football. They must look beyond 2012. They must go back and watch 2011.

"If you limit your exposure to just 2013 or 2012, you're missing the boat," said ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, the former director of pro personnel for the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins. "If you limit yourself to 2012, you are missing 2011, when he ran a quote-unquote pro-style offense, which at a young age I thought he showed excellent proficiency given where he was developmentally at that time.

"When you see him now in that type of system when he went to the Senior Bowl, during the practices, during the week, during the game, during his pro day, he was very comfortable with the footwork, timing, mechanics, accuracy that he's going to need at the NFL level. There are some people that are very, very, very impressed by what they think his skills are relative to an NFL projection. Conversely, when you look at Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Jimmy Garoppolo, your projection is more along the lines of a guess than it is a projection, because there's no context to go off of."

Which is why there's growing sentiment around the league that Cleveland could decide that Carr is its guy and use the fourth overall pick on him despite owning three picks in the top 35, including No. 26 overall.

At the NFL owners meeting last week, new Browns coach Mike Pettine talked about the positive attributes Bortles, Manziel, Bridgewater and Carr possess. He said Bortles has all the measurables, Bridgewater is "very cerebral" and Manziel is a "gifted playmaker." Pettine said Carr was "the best natural thrower as far as arm strength ... in the draft."

When asked about the characteristics he's looking for in a quarterback, Pettine said he is not locked into a specific type but that he's "looking for a guy that's got that 'it' factor.

"We are going to work out to see how they are physically," Pettine added, "but at the same time do a lot of homework from a background standpoint, talking to guys, people they've played with, coaches, just trying to see who has that 'it' factor. You see a lot of guys that have the physical talent to play, and there's just something missing."

With Carr, there doesn't seem to be much missing. His intangibles are off the chart. He has, according to ESPN's Scouts Inc., exceptional character and "eats, drinks, breathes football." That his older brother David, the first overall pick in 2002, got beatento a pulp during his five seasons in Houston should not adversely affect the younger Carr. If anything, David should be able to help Derek.

Conventional wisdom says the Big Three will come off the board first come draft day. But don't be surprised if Carr's name gets called much earlier than expected or even before one of the more heralded prospects.