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Blaine Gabbert Goes Pro; Where Do the Tigers Go?

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The high point of Blaine Gabbert's Mizzou career, and one of the few things in this world guaranteed to always cheer me up.
As we noted yesterday, Blaine Gabbert will not be returning for his senior season at Mizzou. The Tiger quarterback announced yesterday he will enter the 2011 NFL draft. 

First, I have to say I'm disappointed. Not heartbroken, but definitely disappointed. With Gabbert returning for his third season calling plays for Missouri the Tigers likely would have landed somewhere in the top ten or fifteen in preseason polls. Not that preseason polls mean much in the grand scheme of things, but being ranked highly coming into a season makes it a much easier climb to the top. (Not to mention the much lower likelihood of falling completely off the map following a loss.) Now, with Gabbert departing for the NFL, the Tigers' future is much cloudier. They should still come into 2011 ranked, but I would be willing to bet it will be a good ten spots lower than with Gabbert under center. 

It may fall on the Tigers' newly-vaunted defense to serve as the team's identity next season, which may not be the worst thing in the world. 

Second, I just can't find it in my heart to blame Gabbert at all for this decision. (You know, I never really thought of it before, but it's kind of a shame Blaine was so good, because Blame Gabbert would have made an excellent nickname if he had really fallen on his face after being so hyped coming in. Oh, well. I suppose winning football is better than a clever, snarky nickname.) We don't know exactly what sort of grade as far as draftability Gabbert received from the advisory board, but I don't think we really have to do much guessing. 

Blaine immediately joins the Big Four of quarterback prospects for the 2011 draft, along with Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Ryan Mallett. All four are underclassmen, but it's expected the three who have yet to declare will likely go pro as well. It isn't a lock Gabbert will be a first-round pick, but I would be willing to bet on it. Especially considering how many teams enter the draft with a need at QB, Blaine will almost surely hear his name called early on draft day. (He's been mentioned as high as third overall, to Buffalo, but I think that's probably a trifle high. He's more of a mid-first round pick in my eyes. Still, that's not too shabby.) 

We all saw what happened to Sam Bradford when he returned for his senior season at Oklahoma. It worked out fine for Sam, as he was able to come back from the shoulder injury he suffered early in the season and still went #1 overall, but things very well could have gone differently. Any time a player has a chance to go in the early rounds of the draft and get a huge bonus I find it difficult to find fault with him choosing not to go back to school. Football is a violent game, and there are no guarantees you're going to make it through unscathed. 

But really, I kind of don't care about Blaine Gabbert anymore. After all, he no longer plays for the college team I care about, and he isn't going to play for the pro team I care about (Hey, think the Rams should have taken Ndamukong Suh last year and waited on Blaine this year? Huh? Just kidding.). So while it will certainly be interesting to follow his career from here on, he's just another quarterback to me now. 

No, the bigger question for me is what this means for the Tigers going forward. Without Blaine Gabbert, Mizzou suddenly has a rather large question mark at the most important position on the field. How well they answer that question will likely be the biggest deciding factor in their success or failure in the coming season. 

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Franklin
Luckily, the future still looks bright for Mizzou, as James Franklin has the inside track currently on the quarterback spot. He'll have to contend with Blaine's little brother, Tyler Gabbert, and Ashton Glaser, a freshman out of Springdale, Arkansas. Both Glaser and Gabbert are interesting players, but both are also on the small side (both are lister at six foot even), and neither offer the same kind of dynamic, dual-threat playmaking ability Franklin brings to the table. Actually, Glaser has a little of that athleticism, but Franklin's position on the Missouri depth chart should tell you what the coaching staff think of his abilities. 

So what should we expect from James Franklin? He's more Brad Smith than Chase Daniel, but comes in as a more skilled passer than what Smith was his first year with the program, while lacking some of Smith's explosiveness. (Don't get me wrong, Franklin has the capacity to make big things happen with his legs, but there just aren't many players with Brad Smith's speed and elusiveness.) Franklin is a big kid, at 6'2" 225-230, and has very good speed, particularly for a quarterback. He is also possessed of a big arm, though not quite what we've seen from Gabbert the past couple years. 

As the first true dual-threat quarterback the Tigers have had since Brad Smith left (both Gabbert and Daniel were capable of running when the situation called for it, but were definitely pass-first players), it will be interesting to see how Gary Pinkel and his staff use Franklin's skillset. The Tigers have become increasingly reliant on the pass the last few seasons, to the point that it seems to have begun negatively impacting the offense. (Of course, having your top running back kicked out of school thanks to rape charges does have a way of damaging your efforts to balance the offense, but even so.) Between Henry Josey's explosiveness and Franklin's ability to make plays with his legs, the Missouri offense could look very different in 2011. Depending on the strength of the offensive line, think of something akin to what the Oregon Ducks currently run. Probably not that dominant, but at least in that vein. 

So how good could James Franklin turn out to be? Well, if you're hoping for a black-and-gold version of Taylor Martinez, you're probably going to be disappointed. Franklin isn't that guy. He's probably not the next Brad Smith, either. He could definitely be the next Corby Jones, though, which certainly wouldn't be a bad thing at all. 

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