For the last two years, there was no debate at this point in April about the first two picks in the NFL draft. They would be quarterbacks. The marquee players in both drafts played the league's marquee position.
With the draft in Philadelphia this year, that's not the case. This is not considered as top-heavy of a quarterback class as the past two years, when Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota went Nos. 1 and 2 in 2015 and Jared Goff and Carson Wentz did the same in 2016. Teams can always take quarterbacks earlier than expected because of the position's value, but there's no consensus on whether any of the quarterbacks will go in the top 10 picks this year.
"It's just going to make the documentary and the story in five, 10 years even better whenever they start talking good about us," said Clemson's Deshaun Watson, a projected first-round pick who led the Tigers to the national championship last season.
The quarterbacks atop the class are Watson, North Carolina's Mitch Trubisky, Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer and Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes II. The first three will attend the draft at the Art Museum next week.
Draft analysts differ on how they view this class. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. predicts that Trubisky will be the first quarterback taken at No. 6, while colleague Todd McShay projects Watson going at No. 7 before Trubisky. The NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah, a former Eagles scout, doesn't have a quarterback ranked among his top 25 players in the draft.
"I know there's been a lot of shots taken at this class," said NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks, a former NFL player and scout. "But I do believe there's some young developmental players at the position that are intriguing prospects. Even the guys that will come off the board at the top of the board, they will be picked apart, kind of talked about how they're not ready to play. But I do believe in time that one or two of these guys can emerge as stars at the position, kind of carry the torch from some of the old guard that will be kind of fading in the next two or three years and become stars in this league."
Much will depend on the situation the quarterback enters. The Cleveland Browns still need a solution at quarterback after passing on selecting Wentz last year. The Browns have the Nos. 1 and 12 selections — fertile spots to pick a passer.
They can choose Trubisky, a one-year starter for the Tar Heels who grew up in the Cleveland area and would welcome the chance to play for his hometown team. They can take Watson, whose pedigree for the Tigers includes 28 wins and two national championship appearances in the last two years, and the game-winning touchdown pass against Alabama to secure the title in January. But his interceptions increased last season, and he is left answering questions about how he'll transition from Clemson's spread attack to a pro-style offense.
Kizer and Mahomes are not as heralded — and neither led his team to a winning record last season — but they still entered the draft as underclassmen with tools that could make a team want to invest because of the long-term potential.
The New York Jets and Houston Texans both could have competition for starting spots in 2017, but even teams with established quarterbacks such as the New Orleans Saints, Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Chargers, and Kansas City Chiefs could enter the quarterback mix because of the down-the-road outlook at the position.
Trubisky, who is 6-foot-2 and 222 pounds with a 4.67-second 40-yard dash, threw 30 touchdowns and only six interceptions last season while completing 68 percent of his passes and averaging 288 yards per game. He also rushed for five touchdowns. But he spent his first two eligible years at North Carolina as a reserve, leaving only 13 starts for teams to evaluate.
"That's a question everybody's asking," Trubisky said of his lack of experience. "I think I definitely have enough experience. I only have 13 starts but I played in 30 games. ... I'm a student of the game and I've seen a lot of defenses, and I think that's going to help me. And just my abilities, I feel like I'm in a really good spot right now to take my game to the next level and I feel really confident."
Watson doesn't have that problem. He started 35 career games and accumulated 10,168 yards, 90 touchdowns and 32 interceptions while completing 67.4 percent of his passes. He also rushed for 1,934 yards and 26 touchdowns. That experience is what Watson believes sets him apart in this class.
"Everyone works hard, everyone is motivated to be the guy in that franchise," Watson said. "I'd just say my past history, starting back in high school, the way I was raised, coming from the projects home and being able to get out of that. Being the face of college football for two years, handling the success, handling all the criticism and the adversity. And then being 48-8 in high school and winning a state championship and then going to the collegiate level and being 33-3, so one thing that translates from college to the NFL is winners, and I think being a quarterback, that's the biggest thing being recognized, winning games. That's all I've been doing."
So why isn't he thought to be the likely No. 1 pick? Watson said the "biggest question" he's hearing from team officials is whether he can change protections, run a pro offense, and recognize defensive coverages. The interceptions are also a blemish. So he must show that his skill set can translate to the NFL.
"They know that I'm not just some other quarterback that's running a spread offense," Watson said. "That [I'm a] guy that can operate, make good decisions and recognize what the defense is doing and be successful doing it."
When the quarterbacks go off the board will be one of the biggest stories in Philadelphia next week. This class is historically deep at other positions, but drafts are often headlined by the quarterbacks. Watson, Trubisky, and Kizer have a chance to make their walk on the Rocky steps an image remembered for years to come if they can prove that the criticism of this year's class is incorrect.
"Who's to say this quarterback class can't be one of the best? Only the future will tell," Trubisky said. "I think there's a lot of talented guys here and that's what we're here to show, and hopefully it will throughout our careers."
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