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Not all may be gunning for Gabbert

Blaine Gabbert did well running Missouri’s spread offense, but can he succeed taking snaps under center in the NFL? Blaine Gabbert did well running Missouri’s spread offense, but can he succeed taking snaps under center in the NFL? (L.G. Patterson/Associated Press)
By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / April 24, 2011

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Teams with franchise-type quarterbacks win a lot more than they lose in the NFL. Those that struggle at the position are facing an uphill battle to make the playoffs.

The Dolphins consistently have missed the postseason since Dan Marino retired, with Chad Henne the latest in a string of underachievers. The Browns missed by picking Brady Quinn in 2007, and are still looking. Ditto the Titans after taking Vince Young in ’06, and the 49ers in ’05 with Alex Smith.

It’s not an easy chore.

“I tell you, it’s a good thing we have [Sam] Bradford because I’d feel a little silly [talking about it] after some of the quarterbacks I’ve been involved with,’’ said Rams general manager Billy Devaney, who was with the Chargers when they infamously whiffed on Ryan Leaf in 1998. “But we do have Bradford.’’

Yes, they do. And the Rams actually got right the quarterback question with the hardest degree of difficulty: projecting players who ran the spread offense in college to the pros.

That has made the art of picking the franchise quarterback even more difficult, and it will be off the charts this year as the two top QBs, Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton, rarely have taken a snap from under center.

“I think you really have to do your homework on the quarterback position based on the way they play offense in college and the way we would be presenting our offense with the Dolphins,’’ Miami GM Jeff Ireland said. “I think it’s a really tough position to evaluate. You’ve really got to do your homework. Obviously, the more similar offense to yours that maybe the college player plays presents an advantage, but there are so many spread offenses out there and so many variables of the spread offense in college.’’

Newton played just one season at Auburn, so his mechanics could be altered more quickly.

Gabbert spent three seasons at Missouri in one of the purest forms of the spread offense, in which the QB often lines up 7 yards behind the center. In the NFL it’s 5 yards, and the spread is used much less frequently.

“For the most part, NFL offenses aren’t spread-type offenses, but that’s our problem to do those types of evaluations,’’ said Steelers director of personnel Kevin Colbert. “The colleges have to do what they feel they have to do for their teams to win. It’s our job to take the evaluations from them and try to project. Sure, if we could line everybody up in standard NFL offenses and defenses in college, it would be great. But that’s not going to happen.’’

To help his draft stock, Gabbert has been working extensively with former NFL quarterbacks coach Terry Shea. He has said that Gabbert has performed just as well as former Shea pupils and successful NFL converts Josh Freeman, Matthew Stafford, and Bradford.

“He’s done a wonderful job with me so far,’’ Gabbert said. “And I know he’s made those guys better quarterbacks as well. That was a big part of this whole workout process, firming up my technique and drops from under center.’’

There’s also the issue of adapting to more complicated NFL offenses. Some spread offenses have only a few receiving options on each play.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that the reads are different,’’ Gabbert said. “We’re not really a one-side read offense. We have three-, four-progression reads. Of course the footwork is different. We’re in the shotgun about 98 percent of the time. So that’s what I’ve been working on. That’s what I focused on.’’

It’s not only the offense from Missouri that bothers some scouts about Gabbert, it was his performance.

He was never mentioned for the Heisman Trophy or any other prestigious awards while compiling an 18-8 record as a starter. He only completed 58.9 percent of his passes as a sophomore. And although he improved to 63.4 percent last season, that left a bit to be desired in such a QB-friendly system.

One big red flag for scouts was Gabbert’s 18-for-42 performance against Nebraska, which features a pro-style defense with man coverage from the cornerbacks.

“He had a couple of bad games,’’ said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. “I think [Nebraska] was just a bad game. But if you put the tape on, you realize the kid didn’t have a second to throw the football. Nebraska’s getting home with three and four defensive linemen. Didn’t even have to blitz. They were killing him.

“So you’ve got to take with a grain of salt some of the poor performances of Gabbert. And I’ve probably seen at least seven of his games purely on tape. He reminds me of the guys that have done well the last couple of years. He reminds me of Bradford. He reminds me of Matt Ryan.’’

There’s no question Gabbert looks the part of a franchise quarterback. He’s 6 feet 4 1/2 inches and 234 pounds and runs 4.63 in the 40-yard dash. He’s got a strong arm, can make some tough throws, and is very smart.

“I do think Blaine Gabbert is a top-10 pick,’’ said former NFL coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden. “All you have to do is see the ball come out of his hand. He’s got a very quick, strong arm, prototype size. You know he has intelligence. He has speed. I mean, Gabbert ran very well at the combine. He’s elusive back there. His scrambling and playmaking ability I think will be very enticing.

“Once again, here’s a junior quarterback that comes from a very unique, different style of spread offense at Missouri where he’s been in the no-back set, and the shotgun predominantly. But I think his physical talents are very noticeable to everybody.’’

That’s the thing about the quarterback position in the NFL: physical tools don’t make a franchise. A player does. And they’re getting harder and harder to discern.

“You’re projecting a little bit more maybe than we have in years past on this group,’’ said Bills coach Chan Gailey, who may have a chance to take Gabbert with the third overall pick. “Just like in the last couple years, there’s guys that haven’t been under center very often. How are they going to react? How are they going to be able to handle that? You can handle it in shorts. But can you handle it when there’s big guys on the other side about 2 yards away coming at you?’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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