An army of evaluators and draft gurus are scrutinizing the two quarterbacks - Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert - expected to be taken at the top of the first round. But the real action promises to be at the top of the second round as quarterback-needy teams jockey for the next-best passers.
This will be especially true if the labor impasse delays and curtails teams' offseason programs. Neither Newton nor Gabbert is considered close to being NFL-ready at this point. Both played in a spread system and both need intensive work on playing in a pro-style offense. When the Rams took Sam Bradford - another spread quarterback - No. 1 overall last year, they had him working with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur less than 24 hours after the selection.
That kind of cram session can't occur this year if there is no labor peace. And the speculation around the league is that it would make teams less inclined to spend a Top 10 draft pick on a quarterback and certainly more skittish about trading up and grabbing one. It might make more sense to take a developmental quarterback in the second round than burn a first rounder on one that might not be useful to you in 2011.
The other issue pointing to a second-round scramble is the sheer numbers. As many as seven teams picking in the top 10 need a quarterback and there are only two players considered Top 10 picks. Which means the five teams that go in a different direction in Round 1 will be more pressed to get a passer in Round 2.
My sense is that the 49ers - who have the 13th pick in the second round - would be willing to move up in that round, or even climb into the bottom of Round 1, to get the quarterback they desire. In previous years, when the 49ers were in rebuilding mode, they cherished every one of their picks. Now, however, there is a feeling that the overall roster is strong, especially if they use their No. 7 pick on a pass rusher like Von Miller or Robert Quinn or on a cornerback like Patrick Peterson or Prince Amukamara.
Furthermore, general manager Trent Baalke already has shown he's willing to trade up to get his man. He did so last year in order to land Rutgers offensive tackle Anthony Davis. So, if the 49ers target a second-round quarterback, who are we talking about? Some of the possibilities:
Jake Locker, Washington. It depends how far he falls in the first round. But if he's still lingering in the mid 20s, Jim Harbaugh might tell Baalke to pull the trigger on a trade.
Ryan Mallett, Arkansas. He's got a nice combination of size, accuracy and arm strength. Some serious off-the-field questions must be answered. He's another guy that might be taken at the end of the first.
Christian Ponder, FSU. He might be the most NFL-ready quarterback in the draft after playing in a mostly pro-style offense with the Seminoles. My guess is that Ponder is one of the guys the 49ers have circled in red ink.
Colin Kaepernick, Nevada. He might have the biggest upside of any other quarterback. He's steadily convincing teams he has a high enough "floor" as well.
Andy Dalton, TCU. He was a consistent winner with the Horned Frogs. Like Newton and Gabbert, he played in a spread offense in college. However, he doesn't have their arm strength or athleticism.
-- Matt Barrows