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USA TODAY Sports’ Tom Pelissero analyzes top quarterback prospect Mitchell Trubisky from North Carolina.
USA TODAY Sports

In the days leading up to the 2017 NFL draft, USA TODAY Sports will take a closer look at the burning questions that will shape the event.

Our latest: How many QBs will be taken in the first round of the NFL draft?

The quarterback market for the upcoming NFL draft might spark an interesting economic study since, despite a heavy supply of generally pedestrian (and often flawed) prospects, their collective price tag may be steadily inflating anyway.

QBs are always heavily scrutinized and frequently overdrafted due to the position’s importance. Yet even though no one in this year’s crop even projects as especially ready to play as a rookie in 2017, suggestions have arisen that as many as five could be selected in Round 1 for the first time since 1999. (Since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002, four quarterbacks have gone in the first round four times.)

Why?

The best explanation could be that — in addition to teams that almost perennially search for franchise quarterbacks (namely the Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, Houston Texans and Buffalo Bills) — a changing of the guard is also afoot. It’s been one year since Peyton Manning retired after his skills crumbled at age 39. Tony Romo just exited stage left. Among longtime stalwarts like Tom Brady (39), Drew Brees (38), Carson Palmer (37), Eli Manning (36), Philip Rivers (35) and Ben Roethlisberger (35), some have already openly pondered their NFL mortality, and all are much closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. Only Brady’s New England Patriots currently have a viable succession plan, and even that’s tenuous with Jimmy Garoppolo ticketed for free agency in 2018 and already a frequent topic of trade rumors.

And other teams that may appear set — Jacksonville Jaguars? Kansas City Chiefs? — could be on the lookout for a future upgrade.

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That means quite a few potential openings for what is widely considered the most difficult job in sports. Factor in that using a first-round pick can allow a team to control a player’s contract for five years instead of four, and teams could have added incentive to spring for someone who will likely need a year (or even two) of development before he’s truly ready to play.

“I’m excited about the quarterback class. I know we’ve been down on them throughout the process, but I think five quarterbacks will go in the first round,” said NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks, a former scout for the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks.

“When you think about the teams that have these aging quarterbacks, all of them are sitting down at the bottom of the first round. These quarterbacks, most of them grade right around that borderline first-, second-round area. So if you have an opportunity to grab one of these quarterbacks with the extra option year, you’re talking about being able to develop them, let them sit behind (the starter) but still retain the value that you want.”

North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson look like the safest bets to be first rounders. Perhaps no one enters draft week with more momentum and buzz than Texas Tech’s rifle-armed Patrick Mahomes.

Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer seems to be losing steam but has also been mentioned as a potential Day 1 draftee. Pitt’s Nathan Peterman, Cal’s Davis Webb and Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs are more remote first-round possibilities.

Cleveland and Brees’ New Orleans Saints each have two first-round picks, potentially increasingly the likelihood they could take a quarterback. The Browns also own the top pick of the second round (33rd overall), which could give them enough currency to deal into position for Trubisky — whom ESPN recently reported is the team’s preference — without having to use the No. 1 overall choice to get him.

Former NFL coach Jon Gruden, now an ESPN analyst, worked with all of this year’s top prospects save Webb on his Gruden’s QB Camp series and is nearly as bullish as Brooks with his overall assessment.

“Interesting group — I think a very underestimated group of quarterbacks,” said Gruden. “I think we’re gonna see four of them go in the first round personally.”

He also contended that nearly all of them are “a year away” from playing but thinks Peterman, whom he compared to the Cincinnati Bengals’ Andy Dalton, is the most NFL-ready right now. Gruden predicts Trubisky, Watson and Mahomes will be picked on the draft’s opening night, but believes “a sleeper somewhere along the road” will join them, most likely Kizer or Peterman. He suggested many would have been “high” picks in 2018 with another year of college seasoning but subscribes to the idea of teams with established vets using the investment approach now.

“You have to start the developmental process quickly if you need one,” said Gruden. “When you look at some of these teams … wouldn’t it be wonderful to get one of these guys that we really like physically and put him in our program where they can watch a great player play for a year and then potentially take the keys and run with it?”

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Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis

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