How good is New Orleans Saints backup quarterback Tyler Palko? This seemingly irrelevant question might influence the 2008 NFL Draft.
Palko was a three-year starter for the University of Pittsburgh from 2004-06. Behind Palko on Pittsburgh's depth chart was a standout high school signal caller, University of Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco. In search of playing time, Flacco transferred to Delaware after his sophomore year. Flacco sat out the 2005 season because of NCAA rules, but as a junior in 2006 he started all 11 games for the Fightin' Blue Hens, who went 5-6. He completed 264-of-417 passes (63.3 percent) for 2,783 yards, 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Flacco also ran for five touchdowns and was sacked 23 times.
Flacco's senior season was a gem: He started all 15 games and connected on 331-of-521 passes (63.5 percent) for 4,263 yards, 23 touchdowns and only five interceptions. He ran for four touchdowns and was sacked 25 times. Moreover, Delaware (11-4) made it to the finals of the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA), losing 49-21 to the three-time defending champion Appalachian State Mountaineers.
Flacco opened eyes with his size and athleticism. At the 2008 NFL Scouting Combine, he was the top quarterback in the three-cone drill. He placed second in the 20-yard shuttle, fifth in the vertical jump and sixth in the broad jump. Moreover, Flacco measured 6-foot-6 3/8 and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.84 seconds. Along with his superb senior season, these numbers explain why Flacco is likely to be one of the first four quarterbacks selected in the draft. The irony is that Palko went undrafted in 2007. He made the Saints as a free agent.
There's little to criticize about Flacco's throwing. He is accurate on deep outs, slants, midrange patterns and shorter routes. He throws bullets, both on the move and with feet planted. His release is quick, more like a wrist snap than a windup. Flacco also displays a subtle touch, hitting receivers in stride and only using his fastball when necessary. In fact, he excels at putting just the right amount of zip on the ball, for both medium and long-range tosses. In short, Flacco looks to be the rare prospect that can, indeed, make all the throws, with whatever mix of touch and velocity the situation requires.
Few dispute he has the best arm in the draft. Combined with his height and measurable athleticism, Flacco embodies the cliché of upside. Then there's his durability: Flacco started 26 of 26 contests over the past two seasons despite enduring 48 sacks in that time. True, those starts were at Delaware, but there is less of a stigma about small college quarterbacks than there used to be.
Flacco has excellent field vision (helped once again by his height) and is adept at finding the open receiver when given the time to stand in and scan the field. He boasts good presence in the pocket, always keeping his eyes downfield while still being able to side-step oncoming defenders. While not exactly elusive, he has exhibited solid speed once he gets going and has the ability to make positive yardage when nothing opens up in the passing game. He has earned the respect of his teammates and doesn't fold his tent in high-pressure situations.
Relative to his draft class, Flacco has played in the minors. While his 26 starts at Delaware are nothing to sneeze at, his track record doesn't compare to that of quarterbacks Matt Ryan (34 starts at Boston College), Brian Brohm (33 starts at the University of Louisville) and Chad Henne (47 starts at the University of Michigan). It is fair to ask: If Flacco is so gifted, why did he sit behind Palko and only succeed in the Subdivision? In the 2008 Senior Bowl in January, Flacco completed just 2-of-7 for 22 yards and an interception, which makes questions about the level of competition he has faced all the more valid.
Flacco's decision-making also warrants skepticism. His 48 sacks in 26 games suggest that he holds the ball too long and locks onto primary targets. Those are hard tendencies to break, and NFL prospects often sink or swim because of them. These habits are particularly disturbing when you consider Flacco isn't slow-footed, and he operated primarily out of the shotgun at Delaware. If he had trouble scrambling and getting rid of the ball against Subdivision competition out of the shotgun, how will he fair under center against NFL defensive linemen? Flacco is already 23 years old, having sat out one year. Yet his footwork as a drop-back passer is untested. He didn't need ideal mechanics to excel at Delaware, but at the pro level a lack of foot fundamentals could hurt him.
Expected Draft Placement
The retirement of quarterback Steve McNair makes the 38th overall spot a potential landing point for Flacco with the Baltimore Ravens. Another possible placement for Flacco is the Carolina Panthers in Round 2, picking 12th. With starting quarterback Jake Delhomme in the fold, the Panthers can afford to groom a small-school prospect. Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears, picking next, have needed a quarterback forever. They too might be tempted to draft a high-ceiling project without spending first-round money. Of course, these teams may also decide Henne or Brohm have more promise than Flacco does.
The Miami Dolphins, who have both the first and 26th pick of the second round, might also draft Flacco. It probably depends on whether new management is pleased with its current quarterback prospect, 26-year-old John Beck. Another possibility is the Atlanta Falcons, who pick third, sixth and 17th in round two. The Falcons could select Flacco if they pass on Ryan with the third overall pick. The same rationale applies to the Kansas City Chiefs, who pick fifth overall. If the Chiefs don't nab Ryan in round one, then they could use the fourth pick of the second round on Flacco. The Green Bay Packers could also give Flacco a long look as they have a pair of second-round picks and are in need of a backup to quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Then, there still remains the chance that Flacco could slide right out of Round 2 and on into Round 3, though if he does fall that far in the proceedings look for him to find a home quickly on Day 2.