Coaching the South Team roster at the Senior Bowl last month Bills head coach Chan Gailey and his offensive staff had the luxury of getting a real feel for the senior signal callers in Mobile. They have a handle on the intangibles, leadership skills, ability to retain information and execute it on the field for prospects like Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder. But the task this week at the NFL combine is getting the answers they need on the highly touted junior quarterbacks like Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Mallett and Cam Newton.
"It's a different quarterback group," said Gailey. "These guys have been in a lot of different types of offenses. It's not your cut and dry pro style quarterbacks in this draft. So you're projecting a little bit more than you have in years past with this year's group."
"I think the quarterbacks at the top of my list have got to be figured out," said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. "That's the key to this draft as far as the marquee names. How do you figure these quarterbacks out, who are they and what are they? Who is going to be a boom guy and who is going to be a bust guy?"
Mayock has Missouri's Blaine Gabbert at the top of his list followed by Washington's Jake Locker, Auburn's Cam Newton, Arkansas' Ryan Mallett and TCU's Andy Dalton.
Mallett and Florida State's Christian Ponder have been in more pro-style schemes affording them an easier transition, which could boost their value for teams looking for a more NFL ready prospect. Gailey even thinks one-year starters in pro systems stand a better chance at succeeding sooner in the league.
"Developing the one-year guy is not as big as developing the guy that has not been in a typical pro style of offense," he said. "When you're trying to change a guy's thought process into a certain mode that's a little harder to me than it is to take a guy that's a one year guy that's been in a pro-type offense. To me he's going to understand and be a little further along than a guy that was a one-year (starter) that wasn't in a pro-style offense."
For prospects like Newton and Gabbert, who come from spread systems there are more questions.
"The last couple of years there are guys that haven't been under center very often," said Gailey. "How are they going to handle that? They might be able to handle that in shorts, but can you handle that when there are big guys on the other side about two yards away from you coming at you?"
"To me there are two questions to Cam Newton," said Mayock. "He comes out of a very simple pass offense at Auburn where it's one look and either the ball comes out or he comes out. Can he process and assimilate from a football IQ perspective a complicated NFL pass offense? Number two there's some baggage to the kid and you've got to figure that out."
The Bills intend to get those kinds of answers in the interviews with prospects this week at the NFL combine where 15 minutes can mean a lot to Buffalo's future at the position.
"What you find out is how much knowledge they have about the game," said Gailey of the interviews. "How much football does this guy know? Do they have confidence in what they know and what they're reading and understanding or are they guessing? You can figure that out in an interview. How much can he explain? If he can do it and explain it then he probably has the ability to be a leader, whether he is or not we don't know."
Gailey says the leadership intangible is gauged by being around a player in meetings and the practice setting on a daily basis, something the Bills head coach and his staff acquired with the senior prospects at the Senior Bowl. As for prospects like Gabbert and Newton, Buffalo's scouting department will have to make their best educated projections.
NFL clubs have been relatively successful the last few years in selecting quarterbacks in the first round with the likes of Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Josh Freeman, Mark Sanchez, Matt Stafford and Sam Bradford all entrenched as starters.
"If you talk to the personnel people they'll probably tell you they're doing a better job of looking and finding the flaws that keep guys from being not as successful as some other guys have been," Gailey said. "So probably the combination of doing a better job of finding out all the information that you need to find out about."
Gailey also points to the top flight defenses that Flacco and Sanchez have had in Baltimore and New York as aids to a successful start to their careers.
"There are lots of different things that have gone in to quarterbacks being successful the past few years," he said. "I think it makes everybody say let's not be so hard on that statistic from the last 15 (years) let's look at the last four or five."
The bottom line however, rarely changes. It's the combination of physical ability with the mental processing skills and work ethic required to make the right decisions in little more than an instant.
"The most important thing is having confidence that your quarterback can understand a very complicated NFL offense and know what defenses are trying to do to him in 1.2 seconds and be able to make the right decision," said Mayock. "I think in today's pressure-packed NFL defenses it helps if you have a guy with athletic feet and a good body, but more than anything you need the football IQ to make it all work.
"And you better figure out their work ethic and toughness and football IQ and I think therein lies the rub with the top end quarterbacks this year."