Thomas Dimitroff remembers the precise moment he realized his professional future likely lay in the passing hand of a rookie quarterback.
A little more than three years ago, the newly hired Atlanta Falcons general manager had led a small team contingent on a trip to Boston to meet with Matt Ryan(notes), the former Boston College quarterback. The night after dining with the prospective No. 3 overall selection at a Brookline steakhouse – and asking him some pointed questions about becoming the face of a franchise reeling from the Michael Vick(notes) dogfighting scandal and Bobby Petrino's ruinous reign as coach – Dimitroff watched excitedly as Ryan displayed his chops on a grease board in a meeting room at the B.C. football offices.
As Falcons coach Mike Smith, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave peppered Ryan with football-related questions, he repeatedly provided all the right answers, drawing up plays and formations with a black marker. Finally, Dimtroff recalls, "He flipped the dry-erase marker up in the air, caught it and looked around, like he was saying, 'You got anything else for me?' It was chilling. At that point, we all felt, 'This is a guy that can handle these challenging times ahead.' "
Dimitroff was right: Ryan, the NFL's 2008 offensive rookie of the year, led the Falcons to a surprising playoff appearance as a first-year starter and has since developed into a Pro Bowl passer. He's also the biggest reason why Dimitroff, a first-time GM, has twice been named the league's executive of the year – and why, during the NFL draft that begins Thursday night and continues through Saturday, rookie quarterbacks may be in huge demand.
With up to 11 teams desperate for help at the position and a litigious labor landscape that, at least for the moment, prevents the acquisition of veterans through trades or free agency – and in the wake of a recent run of rookie passers who've been proficient and successful from the start – this could become the Year of the Quarterback at Radio City Music Hall.
Two players, Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton of Auburn and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, are expected to go in the first few selections, and five others (Washington's Jake Locker, Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, TCU's Andy Dalton, Florida State's Christian Ponder and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick) have been talked up as prospective first- or second-round picks.
Depending on how things break, the record set in 1983 of six quarterbacks picked in the first round, a crop that included future Hall of Famers John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, could be threatened. Only three drafts since have even approached this total: In 1999, five quarterbacks went in the first round, and there were four passers selected in the 2003 and 2004 drafts, respectively.
Will Newton be the first one to shake Roger Goodell's hand Thursday?
Most NFL talent-evaluators agree that this year's draft isn't particularly quarterback-rich – "In another situation, maybe three of those guys would go in the first round," one general manager says – but a confluence of circumstances could create a panic-stricken frenzy that causes teams to trade up for fear of coming away empty.
"I believe people will be potentially more aggressive in going after a quarterback," says Dimitroff, whose team has the 27th overall selection. "As we all know, there's a sense of urgency to win in this league like never before, and there are a lot of teams that feel they need a quarterback. So some of these [rookies] may have issues, but I believe teams will table some of those issues in the hope that these quarterbacks will put their best foot forward early and help their teams win."
One front-office executive for an AFC team believes that if a couple of the "second-tier" quarterbacks (each of the aforementioned players besides Newton and Gabbert) come off the board earlier than expected, teams hoping to land a passer early in the second round may get antsy and try to trade up into the latter part of the first round. "I could see teams freaking out and doing whatever it takes not to get left out in the cold," he says. "Especially since they don't know when they're going to be able to trade for [the Philadelphia Eagles' Kevin] Kolb or another veteran, because of the labor stuff."
In the wake of Wednesday's decision by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Nelson not to stay her injunction enjoining the owners' lockout – and with the owners seeking a stay in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals pending their appeal of the injunction – it's unclear if and when the "league year" will begin, making player trades and free-agent signings possible.
If the league decides to do this on Thursday (which, unless the Eighth Circuit grants an immediate stay, would be the best way to avoid being held in contempt of court – veterans such as Kolb, the Cincinnati Bengals' Carson Palmer(notes), the Tennessee Titans' Vince Young(notes), the Washington Redskins' Donovan McNabb(notes), the Baltimore Ravens' Marc Bulger(notes) and others would theoretically be available.
But if trades still aren't allowed and free agency isn't instituted by Thursday night, uncertainty will reign – and I believe there'll be a natural tendency for decision-makers to try to address their teams' quarterback issues via the one order of business they can at least partially control. Since there's no guarantee a veteran can be landed via a trade or free agency, the only way to provide the illusion of immediate hope is to come away from the draft with a prospective franchise quarterback, even if the pick in question is somewhat forced.
As one prominent agent put it earlier this week, "Yeah, because they can't be sure they can get one later, they'll freak out over it and try to get one up high in the draft."
Locker (left) and Gabbert during the NFL scouting combine.
The question is, how high? Most of the teams with an obvious need at quarterback have picks in the upper half of the first round: Carolina (1), Buffalo (3), Cincinnati (4), Arizona (5), San Francisco (7), Tennessee (8), Washington (10), Minnesota (12), Miami (15) and Jacksonville (16). The only team in the bottom half that seems at least partially quarterback-needy is Seattle, which picks 25th.
In theory, some of the teams that don't take Newton or Gabbert will be in prime position to select one of the other five quarterbacks near the top of the second round. Friday, however, is a long way away, and as Thursday night's festivities drag on you might see some of these teams try to trade into the latter part of the first round to avoid another 20-plus hours of uncertainty.
If this doesn't happen, by the way, Bill Belichick – whose New England Patriots own the first pick of Friday's second round – is going to be a very happy man, as his pick can be shopped overnight to whichever of these teams haven't addressed their respective QB needs.
Of course, were it not for the success of Ryan and other prominent rookie passers over the last three seasons, decision-makers wouldn't view forcing a first- or second-round draft pick into immediate action as a viable strategy. Until the 2008 season, quarterbacks who played right away as rookies were almost universally destined to struggle, including future Hall of Famers Troy Aikman (0-11, with twice as many interceptions as touchdowns) and Peyton Manning(notes) (28 interceptions).
Marino's remarkable 1983 season for the Dolphins was considered an aberration; the former Pitt passer was an instant star. Players like Rick Mirer (Seahawks, 1993) and Young (Titans, 2006) did some nice things as rookies but struggled thereafter. Ben Roethlisberger(notes) was thrust into the Steelers' lineup after an early-season injury to Tommy Maddox in 2004 and helped take the team to the 2004 AFC championship game, but he was basically a caretaker for a highly simplified, run-oriented offense – albeit as a superstar-in-waiting.
Then came Ryan, along with another 2008 first-rounder, the Ravens' Joe Flacco(notes). Forced into the lineup during the preseason when Baltimore's incumbent passers went down with injury (Kyle Boller(notes)) and illness (Troy Smith(notes)), Flacco seized the job and performed capably as Baltimore reached the AFC championship game – and the Ravens have won at least one playoff game in each of his three seasons as a starter.
The following year, the trend continued, as Mark Sanchez(notes) quarterbacked the New York Jets to the first of two consecutive AFC title games and fellow first-round pick Josh Freeman(notes) began to demonstrate an obvious knack for late-game heroics for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Matthew Stafford(notes), the No. 1 overall pick, had some highly impressive moments for the Detroit Lions, but a series of injuries to his throwing shoulder have cast doubts upon his durability.
Last season, No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford(notes) earned NFL offensive rookie of the year honors while nearly leading the St. Louis Rams to a surprising NFC West title. Clearly, conventional wisdom has changed.
"I don't know what the generational shift was, how all of a sudden those first-year guys were able to get up to speed so quickly," the AFC front-office executive says. "I don't know if they were the exceptions, or if teams dumbed-down their offenses to facilitate the process. But something happened, and now everyone can dream."
Even after Ryan's histrionics at the grease board sold Dimitroff on the quarterback's NFL-readiness, riding with a rookie still seemed scary at the time.
Ryan (left) and Flacco have helped alter how teams view rookie passers.
"The 2007 season had been a tumultuous one for the Falcons, and we really wanted to kick off this new regime with a new quarterback," Dimitroff says. "We truly felt that if Matt was managed in the correct fashion, in a calculated and proper manner, and with a very adept running attack, he had a chance to be serviceable.
"Obviously, he was all of that and more. I believe 2008 was a benchmark draft year for quarterbacks, that Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco started to pave the way a little bit for teams to believe in a newer school of thought – and each draft since then has added momentum."
With so much uncertainty heading into Thursday's first round, it's tough to predict exactly how many rookies will get snapped up by teams anxious for a taste of the startling success the Falcons experienced with Ryan three years ago.
I have a feeling the number will surprise most analysts.