KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In three of the next four weeks, the Chiefs will see evidence that taking a quarterback in the first round of the NFL draft can work.
This Sunday, they’ll face Carolina’s Cam Newton, the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. The next week, it will be Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden, a first-round pick in 2012, assuming he’s recovered from a concussion sustained in Sunday’s win over Pittsburgh.
And on Dec. 23, the Chiefs will go against the top overall pick of the 2012 draft, Andrew Luck of Indianapolis, who has helped turn a 2-14 team into a 7-4 club that is contending for an AFC playoff berth.
The Chiefs, at 1-10, would own the first pick in the 2013 draft if the season ended today, and unfortunately for them, there isn’t a quarterback of Newton’s and Luck’s quality available, and there may not be one worthy of a top-five or even top-10 pick. But it appears these college kids, whether taken at the top of the first round or even deep in the third round, are more prepared to take on the NFL than ever before.
“I’m going to be totally honest with you … I am absolutely blown away by quarterback play of these rookies this year,” said former NFL quarterback and longtime ESPN analyst Ron Jaworsksi. “Six rookies that we have starting is probably the most in the history of the NFL. These guys are so much more prepared to play in the NFL, I just can’t believe it.”
Besides Luck and Weeden, the 22nd overall pick, three other rookie quarterbacks have started since opening day. Robert Griffin III of Washington, the second overall pick, has his team in playoff contention; Miami’s Ryan Tannehill (eighth overall) has led Miami to a 5-6 record, one win shy of the Dolphins’ win total of last year; and Seattle’s Russell Wilson (third round) has Seattle in the NFC wild-card hunt.
Two other rookies, Philadelphia’s Nick Foles, a third-round pick, and Arizona’s Ryan Lindley, a sixth-rounder, are playing because of injuries to starters.
And the talk of the league right now is San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, a second-round pick in 2011, who beat Chicago and New Orleans in his first two NFL starts while Alex Smith sat out with a concussion and could very well be Wally Pipped despite a 20-6-1 record in the past two seasons.
“You’re watching the growth of Andrew Luck, Weeden, Wilson, Tannehill and Foles,” Jaworski said. “I was happy to be in the huddle 30 seconds (as a rookie), let alone to go out and execute the offense the way these guys are.
“It’s really a tribute to the way these guys are being coached not only at the NFL level, but also what’s happening at the college level. They’re throwing the football more, reading defenses more now in high school, with the summer camps, the seven-on-seven, all those things.”
A year ago as a rookie, Newton became the first player in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for at least 500 yards in a single season, and his 35 combined touchdowns (21 passing, 14 rushing), were the most by a rookie quarterback in NFL history.
As a team, Carolina has regressed this season, but Newton showed his multiple skills when he threw for 306 yards and two touchdowns and ran for two scores in a 30-22 win Monday night at Philadelphia.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the offensive coaches have tried to lighten the load on Newton by limiting his called running plays. Most of his 14 runs for 52 yards at Philadelphia came on scrambles.
“We put a lot on his plate early in the year, and we’ve taken some of it back,” Rivera told reporters after Monday night’s game. “We’re starting to find the balance that we need with him. He’s given us chances to win, and this is the first time we as a team took advantage of it.”
Of course, there’s no guarantee any quarterback the Chiefs select will become the next Newton or even Andy Dalton, a second-round pick who guided Cincinnati to the playoffs in his rookie season last year and beat the Chiefs 28-6 two weeks ago.
Former Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert, selected by Jacksonville with the 10th overall pick in the 2011 draft, was force-fed as a rookie when then thrust into the starting lineup by then-coach Jack Del Rio.
Gabbert, without the benefit of an offseason program and at 21 the youngest starting quarterback in the league, struggled mightily, and before he went on injured reserve because of a forearm injury and torn labrum earlier this month, his 5-19 record and .208 winning percentage is the lowest for any active player with more than 20 starts.
Two other quarterbacks taken in the first round of the 2011 draft, Tennessee’s Jake Locker and Minnesota’s Christian Ponder, haven’t lit it up either.
But the first round isn’t the only round to draft a quarterback. Wilson, who fell to the third round because he was considered undersized at 5 feet 11, beat out high-priced free agent Matt Flynn for the Seahawks starting job. Wilson has led Seattle to a 6-5 record and led the league with a 128.6 passer rating in November when he became the first rookie in NFL history to post a 125.0 or better passer rating in three straight games.
“These players now are mature beyond years,” Jaworski said. “They’ve thrown more passes, read more coverage. It shouldn’t be as surprising as it is that they’ve come to the NFL and played very well.”
Earlier this season, the Chiefs faced another first-round pick in Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman, the 17th overall pick in the 2009 draft out of Kansas State.
Freeman, who played at Grandview High School, became a starter midway through his rookie year, led Tampa Bay to 10 wins in 2010 and after a rugged season last year, is directing a high-powered offense for the Bucs, 6-5.
Starting with a 38-10 victory over the Chiefs on Oct. 14, the Bucs lead the NFC in scoring (32.6 points per game), while Freeman has thrown 16 touchdown passes with three interceptions for a 104.1 passer rating.
“Josh Freeman is playing phenomenal football,” Jaworski said. “I thought last year he really struggled with his accuracy. Two years ago I thought he was really coming on … I’m seeing that superstar potential now. He’s in a very balanced offense. They run the football. They use the play action, and he has been absolutely phenomenal in the red zone.
“The NFL is now a red zone league. If you settle for field goals, you’re going to lose.”
Clearly, Freeman is on his way to becoming a superstar in this league. He’s got all the attributes you would want in a quarterback.”
Attributes the Chiefs are desperately seeking.