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Finding your franchise quarterback in the draft is risky business

Texans coach Bill O’Brien calls it “one of the hardest things to do in sports.”

USC's Sam Darnold, left, and UCLA's Josh Rosen

USC's Sam Darnold, left, and UCLA's Josh Rosen after a 28-23 Trojan win at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Nov. 18, 2017. Photo Credit: Harry How / Getty Images

MOBILE, Ala. — Jets fans are starving for a franchise quarterback. Fans of other NFL teams may not be starving, but they’d like to have one. Giants fans have had one with Eli Manning, but now that he’s 37, they’re preparing for the inevitable. Some fans don’t know how good they have it.

In terms of being ready to take the next step, finding that franchise quarterback is a long process that either holds up a team or pushes it to the next level.

There are no easy answers why it’s so hard to find one.

“I think it’s one of the hardest things to do in sports,” Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien said this past week at the Senior Bowl. “It takes from a coaching and scouting standpoint a lot of work. A lot of time with the person one-on-one. Not just watching tape. There is so much more that goes into that position than what the guy does on film. I think you have to look at everything.”

Drafting a quarterback

The search for a franchise quarterback begins with the draft. From 2000-09, NFL teams drafted 130 quarterbacks, and 27 never played in a game. From 2010-17, 93 quarterbacks were selected, and 23 never played in a game.

The Jets and Giants have quarterbacks — Christian Hackenberg and Davis Webb, respectively — who were drafted in the last two years but have not played in a regular-season game.

And don’t believe that grabbing a quarterback with a high pick is a sure thing. Remember JaMarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf?

The Patriots’ Tom Brady was a 2000 sixth-round pick, the 199th selection of the draft. He has been to seven Super Bowls and won five titles — and he’ll be trying to extend that to eight and six when he plays in Super Bowl LII next Sunday. And at 40 years of age, he isn’t slowing down.

“It’s difficult, and I think everyone knows what it can do for you,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said. “Just watch New England play and all their success. I know it’s a lot more than that, but that guy [Brady] has had a huge impact on that. When you find one, it makes everybody better. Everyone is looking for one. A lot of people [at the Senior Bowl] are doing that. I’m just happy we’re not one of them right now.”

Actually, Lynch was one of the ones searching for a quarterback until a trade with the Patriots brought him Jimmy Garoppolo, Brady’s former backup. Before his first start, the 49ers were 1-10. Then Garoppolo went 5-0 to close the season.

Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate

In some ways, the college game has caused problems for NFL teams. Numerous teams run spread offenses in which quarterbacks very rarely take a snap under center. With the passing game more prevalent in the NFL, the ability to make second and third reads just isn’t there.

In some instances, college coaches have so much control that quarterbacks don’t make audibles based on what the defense is showing. Some college teams call the plays from the sideline, with the entire offensive unit staring at the coaches to get the play. If a college team has a mobile quarterback who runs the run-pass option, he can take off after a fake handoff instead of dropping back.

“Some of these kids coming out of college really don’t have Quarterback 101,” Giants general manager Dave Gettleman said. “Never taken a snap from center, never made a huddle call, they never ID the [middle linebacker], never called a protection. Never called an audible and never called a hot [route]. That’s six things. That’s Quarterback 101.’’

The 2018 draft class is heavy with quarterbacks with all sorts of positives and negatives.

Luke Falk played in a wide-open offense for Washington State and never took a snap under center. He worked on those techniques during Senior Bowl practices.

“We’re going to make the most of it,” said Falk, who said he didn’t take the ball under center much in high school, either. “People want to fault me for being in an air-raid system; that was the system that I played in. You can’t ask me to do anything else. When I get in a different system, I’m going to perfect that as well.”

Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield has an image problem from his arrest last year and a few on-the-field incidents during the 2017 season. His height, 6 feet, also has given some NFL teams pause.

Wyoming’s Josh Allen struggled with his accuracy, completing 56.3 percent of his passes in 2017. He attributes this to footwork and arm mechanics, but he does have a strong arm, which interests NFL teams.

USC’s Sam Darnold, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and UCLA’s Josh Rosen also are highly regarded quarterbacks. Darnold or Rosen might go 1-2 in the draft — but NFL teams can find fault with them, too.

Darnold had a high number of turnovers in 2017. Rosen might be ready physically, but his attitude seems to have raised concerns. Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, is a running quarterback, and some teams don’t believe he can throw from the pocket on a consistent basis.

“It’s a crapshoot,” said Richard Bartel, who lasted only two NFL seasons at quarterback, playing in two games for Arizona, and now works with college quarterbacks. “Everything about our evaluation process says it’s broken. The divorce rate is 50 percent . . . these guys got three months, at a shotgun rate, trying to figure out who their guy is. I think the whole process is broken, personally.”

There is hope

Plenty of quarterbacks exceed expectations, of course. The Eagles’ Carson Wentz, drafted second overall in 2016, earned a Pro Bowl berth in his second season. He was in the MVP conversation this season before hurting his knee.

With Wentz out, 2012 third-round pick Nick Foles won two playoff games and has his team a victory away from the Eagles’ first Super Bowl title.

Wentz offered advice to Allen about the NFL after the 2016 season. “He just told me, ‘You’re stepping into a locker room with 30-year-old guys. If you’re not mentally ready, it’s going to eat you alive,’ and I just took that into account,” Allen said of that conversation. “I felt that I couldn’t picture myself at 20 years old, going into a locker room, with starting only one season of college football, having those guys look at me and follow me and trust me. That’s why I decided to go back.”

NFL teams searching for the next franchise quarterback have tape of the 2017 season, the NFL Combine, college pro days and individual workouts to evaluate. The process is long and difficult.

One thing is clear about quarterback play in the NFL: “The style of game may evolve and change, but the basics don’t change in our league,” Gettleman said. “A quarterback has to make plays from the pocket, has to. If he can’t, he’s not going to be successful, plain and simple.”

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