Commentary

With rookie QBs, when do you know?

How good can Christian Ponder, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and Blaine Gabbert be?

Originally Published: November 13, 2011
By Trent Dilfer | ESPN Insider
Ponder/NewtonUS PresswireChristian Ponder and Cam Newton have both been impressive as rookies this year.

I admit it. You don't have to rewind the tape. When the Minnesota Vikings drafted Christian Ponder No. 12 overall in April, I made some pretty harsh statements about the choice.

It's not because Ponder doesn't have the talent. Watching the tape on him before the draft, I loved the physical traits, the zip on the throws, the mechanics. He's smooth; he has the look. There's plenty to like, and I'd say on an evaluation, 85 percent of it was positive on Ponder. But I saw some things that made me think he was too big of a risk to go that high.

The tape showed that Ponder really struggled to throw accurately when, in the simplest way of saying it, people were around him. He also tightened up on throws in clutch moments. The two often go hand and hand -- teams find ways to disrupt a quarterback's rhythm on key downs and in red zone situations. That's a standard in the NFL.

So with Ponder off to a good start in which he's been great on third down, good at seeing pressure, moving well and throwing on the run and, at the very least, looking like a clearly better option for the Vikings than Donovan McNabb had been, at what point do I say I was wrong?

At what point in a rookie or young quarterback's career, do you just know he's going to be good? Before we consider where each of the NFL's four rookie quarterbacks stand, let's outline what I consider the stages of progression from competent to greatness in the NFL.

Stage 1: Executing and understanding your own offense
This seems basic, but a lot of memorization goes into it. And a reason many rookies struggle is they don't know offense enough to utilize plays that fit every situation. Knowing your own scheme is the first step; it's the starting point.

Stage 2: Reading defenses and adjusting
When you know your own scheme and where to get people lined up, you can start thinking about just executing, and start to consider what a defense is attempting to do. Knowing your motives is great, but you can't be good in this league until you recognize the motives of the opposition.

Stage 3: Maximizing the play when the options are limited
You start to see greatness when you see quarterbacks who don't just know their own scheme, but also the opposition's, and can improvise, move people around and turn bad situations into big plays. It starts with being able to effectively manipulate the pocket as things break down around you. Tom Brady doesn't go running in the face of the blitz, he often steps into the pocket, a different, but less threatening, source of pressure. Knowing where the greatest threats are in a multiple-threat situation is a big skill.


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Former Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer is an analyst for a variety of ESPN programs including NFL Live, NFL PrimeTime and SportsCenter (Sunday and Monday nights during the NFL season). He also contributes to Monday Night Countdown, ESPN Radio programs, and ESPN's annual Super Bowl week and NFL Draft coverage.