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Steelers

Quarterbacks set to hog spotlight at NFL Draft

Joe Rutter
| Saturday, April 14, 2018, 3:27 p.m.

NFL teams seeking to add a franchise quarterback in the first round of the draft, please move to the head of the class.

Cleveland Browns, take your spot at the front of the line. As usual.

New York Giants, you haven't made up your mind? OK, but you're running out of time. Hey, New York Jets, no more cutting the line. You did it once, now please be patient until it's your turn.

Anyone else? Nice to see Denver, Miami and Buffalo stretching their legs. Arizona and Baltimore, don't by shy, there might be room for you. Jacksonville, too, but do Steeler Nation a favor and tell Pittsburgh to sit down and wait till next year.

Quarterbacks will command center stage when the draft commences April 26 with at least 25 percent of NFL teams — and possibly one-third — in the market for a quarterback of the future, if not the present.

How many quarterbacks are selected on opening night, and where they land in the football version of musical chairs, will be the storyline that overshadows all others in Round 1.

Six quarterbacks have first-round grades, led by juniors Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen. Baker Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy winner, sits in the second tier, followed by Lamar Jackson, the 2016 Heisman winner, and Mason Rudolph.

“There's an awful lot of talent in this class,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said.

Because of that talent, this year's group could join the 1983 Year of the Quarterback class as the only ones to produce six first-rounders. Three Hall of Famers were taken in the first round that year: John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino.

More likely, five quarterbacks could be picked in the first round, matching the 1999 group that produced solid starters in Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper but also duds in Tim Couch, Akili Smith and Cade McNown.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has all six going in the first round, starting with four of the first five picks. Colleague Todd McShay has all but Rudolph going in the first, with the quintet spread throughout the round.

“I think this is going to be a very, very wild ride when it comes to draft night,” said NFL Network's Bucky Brooks, a former NFL cornerback. “When you look at this draft, the fascination and need for quarterback will really drive the draft. We talk about seeing five or even six quarterbacks that may come off the board in the first round just because they're brand names, because so many teams are in desperate need of a quarterback.

“That will really reshape the draft, particularly if there's a run on quarterbacks very, very early in the draft like many of us expect.”

First to the podium will be the Browns, who famously bypassed taking Carson Wentz two years ago and have used numerous first-round picks on quarterbacks who turned into busts, Couch being the most prominent.

USC's Darnold and Wyoming's Allen are the names most associated with the Browns, who traded for veteran Tyrod Taylor in the offseason.

“I've been on record for a long time saying I think Sam Darnold should be the pick for the Cleveland Browns,” said NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former college quarterback and NFL scout. “I think he's the right guy there. I personally think he's the best quarterback in his class. And I think he's, at 20 years old, just scratching the surface of what he can do.”

Kiper predicts the Browns will take Allen, but he doesn't think they could go wrong with either quarterback.

“It's like Affirmed and Alydar coming down the stretch,” he said.

The Giants, with the No. 2 overall pick, could throw the draft into flux. Eli Manning, from the vaunted Class of 2004 that produced four quarterbacks in the first round, including the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, is in the twilight of his career. A new coaching staff might be willing to find his successor sooner than later.

“If you fall in love with a quarterback at No. 2 and think he's the guy for the next 10 years, you probably have to take him,” Mayock said.

The Giants also could take prized Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or N.C. State defensive lineman Bradley Chubb. Or the Giants could trade down with another quarterback-hungry team.

The Jets sit at No. 3 after trading up three spots with the Colts and are assured of getting one of the big three. Perhaps that will be Rosen, whom Mayock has compared to Sam Bradford.

“He's as advertised,” Mayock said.

After the Browns pick again, the Broncos could pounce on a player they hope is the next Elway at No. 5.

Darnold, Rosen, Allen and Mayfield are options depending on what unfolds before Denver takes the podium.

Mayfield's height — he has been measured between 6-foot and 6-1 — could scare away some teams that don't see him as the next Drew Brees. He also carries some baggage from his days at Oklahoma.

“Accuracy isn't an issue, but can he pass through passing lanes and not have passes batted down?” Kiper said. “There have been very few quarterbacks his size that have made it in the NFL, but some have.”

Miami, at No. 11, and Buffalo, picking No. 12, could be in the market for a quarterback depending which players remain. Jackson, who refused to work out as a wide receiver at the NFL Combine, could go in the top half of the round. Arizona, with the No. 15 pick, could be a destination.

“I think he's the most fascinating athlete in this draft,” Mayock said.

Rudolph's ceiling is the back half of the opening round, although some draft analysts think he could wait until the second or third round to hear his name called. Jacksonville, coming off a conference championship game appearance, could be in the market for a quarterback to develop behind Blake Bortles.

Anything and everything is possible on the opening night of the draft. Even the Steelers have kicked the tires on finding Roethlisberger's successor, meeting with Jackson and Rudolph at their school's pro days

“We'll see teams going for quarterbacks and teams that may have veteran quarterbacks that have to make a decision on whether to get a quarterback of the future or take another player that can help an established quarterback,” Brooks said. “I think the fascination for me will be, what do teams do to put themselves in position to get a quarterback? What blue-chip players find themselves in a bit of a free fall because these quarterbacks come off the board?”

It has happened before — as recently as 2011, when four quarterbacks were selected in the first 12 picks. Cam Newton headlined that group that included regrettable choices in Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder.

“I think these guys are a much better crop of quarterbacks,” Jeremiah said.

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

Quarterback Sam Darnold looks to throw a pass March 21, 2018, during USC Pro Day in Los Angeles.
Quarterback Sam Darnold looks to throw a pass March 21, 2018, during USC Pro Day in Los Angeles.
Sam Darnold of the USC Trojans looks to throw against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the first half of the 82nd Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic between USC and Ohio State at AT&T Stadium on December 29, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Sam Darnold of the USC Trojans looks to throw against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the first half of the 82nd Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic between USC and Ohio State at AT&T Stadium on December 29, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
Josh Rosen of UCLA runs upfield during the second half against Texas A&M on Sep. 3, 2017 in Pasadena, Calif.
Getty Images
Josh Rosen of UCLA runs upfield during the second half against Texas A&M on Sep. 3, 2017 in Pasadena, Calif.
Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen (17) passes the ball during the second half against Boise State in Boise, Idaho, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. Boise State won 24-14.
Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen (17) passes the ball during the second half against Boise State in Boise, Idaho, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. Boise State won 24-14.
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