It's been a long time -- 2004, in fact -- since more than three quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
There were four first-round QB picks in '04 for the second lottery in a row (following three in 2002), but the opening rounds since then have averaged only 2.5 passers in six drafts. In half of those six years, including 2010, the first round of the draft produced only two quarterback prospects.
There haven't been three quarterbacks in the top half of the first round since Vince Young (No. 3 overall), Matt Leinart (10) and Jay Cutler (11) in 2006. Only twice in the past six drafts have the top 10 picks in the first round included two quarterbacks.
That first-round drought could end in nine months.
According to the scores assigned by National Football Scouting, Inc., one of the two major combine services to which most NFL franchises subscribe, there are two rising senior quarterbacks with first-round grades. Scouts might spend the next nine months debating the relative NFL worthiness of Jake Locker of Washington and Florida State's Christian Ponder. But at this early juncture of the evaluation process, there seems little doubt that Locker and Ponder, both of whom received scores of 6.7 on the 9.0-based grading system used by NFS, are solid, first-round possibilities.
Talent evaluators are precluded, by rule and common sense, from discussing the merits of draft-eligible players. But the consensus is that Locker is the superior athlete of the two, while Ponder, who already possesses his MBA and scored an impressive 34 out of 50 on the Wonderlic test, is an accurate passer and perhaps the better decision-maker.
"[But] unless they basically fall on their [faces], they're both going to be taken in the first round, it looks," one AFC general manager said.
Locker and Ponder both have offensive-oriented head coaches noted for developing quarterback prospects in Steve Sarkisian and Jimbo Fisher, respectively.
Chances are pretty good -- much of the likelihood depending on team needs, draft order and the decisions of underclassmen candidates -- Locker and Ponder will not be alone in the first round. ESPN's Chris Mortensen attended the recent annual camp conducted by Peyton Manning and Eli Manning, and he closely observed the prospects' throwing drills, so he has a superior view than this correspondent of the quarterback class for the '11 draft.
Based on conversations with league scouts and personnel directors, there could be four or five first-round prospects. The exact number could depend on the decisions by a pair of underclassmen passing standouts -- Ryan Mallett of Arkansas and Stanford's Andrew Luck, in particular -- and the development of rising seniors such as Texas A&M star Jerrod Johnson, Nathan Enderle of Idaho, among others.
But the AFC general manager said: "After a few pretty average years, it could be a really good class [of quarterbacks]."
Of course, the last time there were more than five first-round quarterbacks was the famous 1999 draft, when Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith went off the board 1-2-3, respectively. That draft, though, also magnified the dangers inherent in taking a quarterback so high.
Five of the first dozen choices that year were quarterbacks and, of that group, McNabb is the only player still in the league. In fact, McNabb is the only quarterback of the 13 selected in seven rounds of the '99 draft who is still in the NFL. On the flipside, 15 of the 27 first-round quarterbacks chosen in the 10-draft period from 2000-2009 are starters, and only JaMarcus Russell is out of the league.