Notebook: Who's the top quarterback prospect?

After Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert both had their pro days, which one looked more natural and who had pro fundamentals? And the second-tier quarterbacks could see a rise in draft value too.

The debate over whether Cam Newton of Auburn or Missouri's Blaine Gabbert will be the highest-rated quarterback prospect in the draft, and perhaps the top player overall, likely will continue for several more weeks. But there appears to be a consensus of sorts, at least among the people to whom we have spoken and who saw each of the quarterbacks in their respective pro day auditions, about who looks to be less awkward working from under center as opposed to the "Pistol" formation used by each in the spread set in college.

That's Gabbert at this point of the evaluation process. At his pro day Wednesday, Gabbert made it a point to take every snap in the traditional center-quarterback exchange and was said to have exhibited solid footwork in his pass-drops.

Why is that so important? Well, just ask San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith, the top overall choice in the 2005 draft, and a guy who worked from the spread at Utah. Six seasons into his NFL career, and Smith still appears uncomfortable at times when under center.

Notable is that Smith and Gabbert share an agent, Tom Condon, and the well-known player rep seems to have learned from Smith the importance of mastering the center snap. Gabbert might not have the overall pocket poise that Newton does, some scouts noted, and that could hurt him. But in terms of finding a comfort zone in the traditional center-snap, he apparently has an edge.

Ponder-ing the possibilities: By all accounts, former Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder enjoyed an excellent pro day session earlier this week, and at least catapulted himself into the discussion for first-round prospects. Whether or not Ponder sneaks into the opening stanza might depend on if there is a run at the position early in the round, but the consensus now is that Ponder, who seems to have overcome shoulder and arm problems, will go off the board in the second round.

There are, though, a lot of teams with quarterback needs and, if Newton, Gabbert, Ryan Mallett (Arkansas) and perhaps Jake Locker (Washington) all are chosen in the top 20, some team could take a flier on Ponder in the bottom part of the first round. The other beneficiary of an early run on quarterbacks could be Nevada's Colin Kaepernick, who also has some admirers.

The conventional wisdom is that there are a lot of second-round quarterbacks, but historically, that hasn't been the case. Just twice in the last 11 drafts have there been more than two quarterbacks chosen in the second round. Not since 1999, when quarterbacks were the first three overall picks, and five went in the first round, have there been more than four first-round quarterbacks.

Safety net: The safety position for the 2011 draft is so thin that there might not be a first-rounder at the position. So teams may have to improvise a bit - choosing a safety in the middle rounds, moving a young cornerback inside, opting for a veteran to fill a need - at the inside secondary spot.

Two veterans whose teams have at least discussed moving them are Ronde Barber of Tampa Bay and Cleveland's Sheldon Brown. The likelihood is that neither player will make the switch in 2011, but after that, it's a possibility, if the veterans are still in the league.

Barber, 35, recently signed a one-year contract with the Bucs, and this could be his last season. Like Brown, there are some questions about whether or not he is physical enough to move to safety, but the 14-year pro has played so much slot corner in his career, that it seems like a natural move from a coverage standpoint.

And there's little doubt that Brown, 31, and a nine-year veteran, possesses the football smarts to play safety. Brown has certainly lost a step at cornerback, and was exploited at times in 2010, and even with the emergence of Joe Haden, the Browns might still need him at cornerback. But there are a lot of folks around the NFL, and a few in Cleveland, who have suggested that Brown can extend his career by bumping inside to safety.

Hole in the middle: Safety might not be the only position that possesses a dearth of first-round talent in the draft. The disappointing pro day workout of Illinois' Martez Wilson further magnified the difficulty of unearthing middle linebacker prospects for the 4-3 defensive front. While he clocked an eye-opening 40-yard time at the combine last month (4.49), Wilson apparently was fairly unimpressive in drills at his pro day and, according to scouts present for the audition, seemed to lack solid movement skills in position-specific work.

The propensity of 3-4 fronts in the NFL these days, combined with the fact so few colleges align in a straight 4-3, has dramatically reduced the need for 4-3 middle 'backers, and there are simply fewer players available the past several years to immediately step in and play the position. The last seven drafts have produced only two 4-3 middle linebackers in the first round, Rolando McClain (Oakland) in 2010 and Jonathan Vilma (New York Jets) in 2004. There was some feeling, before his pro day, that Wilson would be the third. But that might not be the case now.

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