If you’re a team in need of a quarterback with a pick within the top 10 selections of the 2011 NFL Draft, then your scouts and coaches are grappling with the following questions:
Who is the best quarterback in the draft: Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert? And who is a better fit for what we do?
Although the first question would certainly include Washington’s Jake Locker and Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett as part of a general discussion surrounding the top quarterbacks in the draft, the debate happening within the war rooms of the Panthers, Bills, Bengals, Cardinals, 49ers, Titans and Redskins is certainly focused on the talent and potential of Newton and Gabbert.
In taking a closer look at their games, it is important to note that both directed spread offensive attacks in college.
Newton ran a spread option offense at Auburn that featured him as a dual-threat player. He ran a series of zone-read plays which often left him as the primary ball carrier based on the reaction of the defense. As a result, he finished the season with 264 rushing attempts (for 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns) and averaged of 5.6 yards per carry. While Newton’s running skills were featured in the offense, he also was a pretty good passer. He completed more than 66 percent of his passes for 2,854 yards with 30 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. Most impressively, he averaged 10.2 yards per attempt, which indicates the explosive nature of the Tigers’ offensive attack under his direction.
Gabbert was just as impressive guiding Missouri’s wide-open, spread offense. As the director of an offense that extensively featured four- and five-receiver sets from the shotgun formation, he finished his career with back-to-back 3,000-yard seasons while tossing 40 touchdowns during that span. His completion percentage improved from 58.9 percent as a sophomore to 63.4 as a junior, and he finished his career with 10 300-yard games. Although Missouri’s version of the spread didn’t prominently feature the zone-read, Gabbert still tallied more than 100 rushing attempts during his final two seasons and finished with eight rushing touchdowns in his three-year career.
While the statistical analysis of the each player will have an impact on the evaluation process, scouts and coaches have been pouring over the game film to examine the differences between the two.
In looking at the tape, Newton is best described as a big, athletic quarterback with outstanding running skills. He is nifty and elusive on the perimeter and runs like a tailback with the ball in his hands. His strength and power are remarkable for a quarterback, and defenders of all sizes had problems taking him to the ground. As a passer, he is unrefined but has outstanding natural tools. His arm strength is off the charts, and his passes have plenty of zip and velocity. He has the ability to make all of the pro throws from the pocket or on the move, but his accuracy is inconsistent due to issues with his footwork. Newton relies extensively on his natural arm strength when throwing, and his failure to incorporate his lower body leads to passes sailing from time to time. However, when he plays with balance and body control in the pocket, his accuracy improves significantly on throws of all ranges.
Gabbert’s game tape reveals a pure pocket passer with sound throwing mechanics. He throws the ball with excellent zip and velocity, and his arm strength is on par with some of the best passers in the game. Gabbert is capable of making all of the throws from the pocket with zip or touch, and he shows an uncanny ability to squeeze the ball into tight areas. His timing and anticipation on short and intermediate throws are outstanding and he shows good awareness by leading receivers into open areas. Although he gets sloppy with his footwork and fundamentals at times, Gabbert’s natural arm strength allows him to muscle throws from unorthodox positions.
Looking at Gabbert’s flaws, his deep ball accuracy and decision-making under pressure stand out. He has problems connecting on deep throws beyond 30 yards, and showed inconsistency with his placement on throws outside the numbers. While some of this can be cleaned up with better attention to detail with his footwork and fundamentals, it appears often enough on tape to merit further investigation (coaches and scouts will put him through the paces in private workouts to see if it is a trend). Gabbert’s decision-making only comes into question when he is pressured heavily in the pocket. He will throw the ball into traffic under duress, and those errant throws have resulted in interceptions. Though his courage is not in question, Gabbert must display better poise when the pocket collapses.
Impressions gathered from the interview room are also factored in as part of the debate that takes place between coaches and scouts. Evaluators will recount their conversations with each prospect and begin to forecast which player is a better fit within the locker room.
I talked to several scouts from teams that are interested in a quarterback early in the draft who had talked with both quarterbacks at the Scouting Combine. The vast majority came away impressed with Gabbert’s poise, demeanor and football awareness. He had a clear grasp of his offensive system, and was able to articulate the various adjustments that he would make against an assortment of complex blitz and/or coverage schemes. These scouts viewed him as a good face of a franchise, and his strong interview skills made team personnel comfortable that he could command the respect of the locker room.
Newton also garnered favorable reviews following his interviews. Scouts talked about his charisma, poise and leadership skills. I’m told he entered the room with a presence that conveyed the confidence of a proven winner. When the conversation turned to football, Newton expressed sound knowledge of his offensive system, but appeared inexperienced diagnosing complex coverage. While some of that could be attributed to facing run-heavy defenses geared to defend Auburn’s version of the spread, it is a something that will continue to be evaluated when Newton is interviewed during private workouts and team visits.
The final part of the debate that will be waged in war rooms involves the intangibles. While these traits are difficult to quantify, teams want to know that the player manning the quarterback position has the “it” factor to produce wins in big moments.
In searching for that answer, scouts and coaches will look at how well each player performed in big games. They could include rivalry games as well as conference championship or national title games because they simulate the intensity and urgency of pro games.
Gabbert’s history suggests he has been a bit inconsistent in big game. While he did lead Missouri to wins against Oklahoma and Texas A&M, he completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in six of Missouri’s eight losses during his career. He also tossed 10 of his 19 career interceptions in those games.
It is important to note, however, that Gabbert guided Missouri to its fourth 10-win season in the school’s history this season and won 18 games during his two seasons as a starter.
Newton led his teams to national championships in consecutive years (Blinn College to the 2009 NJCAA National Championship and Auburn to the 2011 BCS National Championship) and amassed a 25-1 record over those two seasons. Although he did most of his damage in big games with his legs, he completed 61 percent of his passes for 816 yards with nine touchdowns and only one interception during a three-game stretch against Alabama, South Carolina and Oregon to close the 2010 season.
The decision between Newton and Gabbert will ultimately come down to the factors of fit within scheme and a team’s comfort with skill set. Newton is best suited to play in a run-heavy offense with vertical routes as a complement on the outside. Gabbert is a better fit in a wide-open offense that operates under a pass-first premise.
If we were to assign the best system fits for each player, Carolina and Cincinnati look like good fits for Newton. Gabbert would appear to be a better match for Tennessee, San Francisco and Washington. Buffalo could be a good fit for both quarterbacks, given the version of the spread offense Chan Gailey ran in Kansas City.
With about six weeks remaining before draft day, it will interesting to see how the debate turns out in the respective war rooms.