Although greatly overshadowed at present by the NFL's ongoing labor limbo, the widespread uncertainty at the all-important QB position is pretty hard to ignore.
It's bad enough that the lockout threatens to significantly shrink the precious man hours numerous teams will need this offseason to incorporate major schematic changes on both sides of the ball - especially the eight teams with new head coaches (counting Jason Garrett and Leslie Frazier, who got a bit of a head start in interim capacities in Dallas and Minnesota, respectively).
What would seem to make matters much worse are the major QB question marks hovering over no fewer than 11 teams (by PFW's count), which is one-third of the league.
What follows is a closer look at QB quandaries of these teams, listed in alphabetical order:
Team insiders believe it's highly unlikely any of the four quarterbacks who failed to distinguish themselves as starters in 2010 (Derek Anderson, Max Hall, John Skelton and Richard Bartel) will be doing so in the desert in 2011.
That makes either selecting a new starting QB with the fifth overall pick or picking up one via free agency or trade much more likely alternatives. The smart money seems to be on the Cardinals adding both a veteran QB and a rookie QB in 2011. But neither GM Rod Graves nor head coach Ken Whisenhunt, who gambled and lost big-time on Anderson, is tipping his hand.
With the Cardinals also having a lot of other major needs, Graves was asked at the NFL Scouting Combine if the team could afford to use the fifth overall pick on a quarterback who maybe wouldn't contribute for a year or two.
"That's a fair question, and one I don't think we're prepared to answer right now," Graves said. "We've got to look at it in its totality. While it's not an assurance that every player at any position will be able to do that, we are concerned that we need to have an immediate impact."
Whisenhunt, meanwhile, said he "wouldn't rule anything out," but a lot of league talent evaluators agree Arizona would be making a big mistake if it did not select Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert, if by chance he was still available at No. 5.
"The Cardinals desperately need a quarterback," said one pro evaluator. "And if Blaine Gabbert falls to five, there should be a sprint to the podium."
Like Arizona, the Bills are in a prime position to draft a new starter under center should they so desire with the third pick overall. Unlike Arizona, however, they at least have what a growing number of league observers believe is a very serviceable starting QB already on board in Harvard product Ryan Fitzpatrick, who did a decent job this past season replacing the ineffective Trent Edwards.
"But it appears they consider Fitzpatrick more of a caretaker QB and might be thinking (Cam) Newton or (Blaine) Gabbert could be a franchise-type QB," said one team observer.
The close interest the Bills have shown recently in both Newton and Gabbert would seem to back up that assertion. In the meantime, Bills head coach Chan Gailey gave Fitzpatrick lukewarm backing at the Combine.
"I've said all along I am extremely confident in Ryan Fitzpatrick," Gailey said. "I think he played well enough till he got to the very end - the-next-to-last game he was in when he got banged up. ... I've been to the playoffs a couple times with guys that haven't performed as well as Ryan has."
The big question, however, is: How many playoff games did those guys win?
"The reason the Bills are picking third is because Fitz is their quarterback," one pro evaluator told PFW. "The goal in the NFL is to win, and there's one guy that has shown he can change a franchise and win right away (Newton).
"I don't know that Buffalo is the right fit for Cam Newton, but he has to be a consideration at No. 3."
New head coach Ron Rivera acknowledges the need for a franchise-type QB to propel the sagging Panthers back to relevance in the NFC South, where Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and fast-rising Josh Freeman set a lofty standard.
"We do believe we have to have a franchise quarterback to lead the team for the next six, seven, eight years," Rivera told PFW at the Combine. "We certainly believe that. Do you have to take that guy, or is he on our roster right now? That's all part of our evaluation process.
"We've gone through it in terms of our guys, and we're going through it with guys potentially out there in the draft, and we'll address it in free agency when that time comes. As we go through each month, the elimination process will go on for us."
The way we hear it, the key figure in the Panthers' QB scenario is holdover Jimmy Clausen, who reportedly continues to have at least one strong supporter in GM Marty Hurney.
"A big part of the equation is going to come down to how good the Panthers feel about Jimmy Clausen," said one source close to the scene. "He didn't have any help last season. The offensive line and backfield were decimated by injuries, and the receivers were all young. If they put some more players around him, he's got a chance. The big question is whether he can win the locker room."
Another factor is whether Rivera already might have his heart set on Auburn's Cam Newton.
"Look at the type of quarterbacks that have been drafted," Rivera said at the Combine. "Look at the size of these guys. They are all big men. Look at Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco.
"Cam has got those types of physical attributes. He's a tall, powerful young man. He's got great athletic ability. He might be the best athlete of all of them. Again, the one thing he does have is a great arm and he's a winner. Go back to junior college and his college days, and you can't pass that up, either.
"Again, we've got to explore. There are eight, nine, 10 guys we're looking at, and we have to explore all avenues with everybody."
It's pretty simple in Cincy. Carson Palmer has made it crystal clear that he no longer wants to be a Bengal - and there doesn't appear much that team owner Mike Brown can do about it.
"The Bengals have to draft a quarterback (at No. 4 overall), don't they?" said one GM. "Carson Palmer has dug his heels in. He's not coming back."
If Palmer indeed is not coming back, the Bengals "could be in worse shape than anybody," according to one team observer, who quickly mentioned Jordan Palmer and Dan LeFevour as the only replacements currently on the Bengals' roster.
That's why the rumors we're hearing of the Bengals having a huge interest in Cam Newton make perfect sense.
While Colt McCoy showed enough last season when thrust into a starting role to warrant fairly strong front-runner status at present, team president Mike Holmgren's 24/7 addiction with quarterbacks in all shapes and sizes makes Cleveland's QB situation far from clear-cut.
The way we hear it, there is a strong difference of opinion inside the Browns' building regarding McCoy's long-term potential.
New Browns head coach Pat Shurmur, however, has had his eye on McCoy for a while, dating back to the close evaluation Shurmur made of all the QBs available in the draft a year ago at this time in advance of the Rams' first-round selection of Sam Bradford.
"I'm very excited that I'm gonna have an opportunity to work with him," Shurmur said at the Combine of McCoy. "I have a high appreciation for what he is as a person and as a player, and I'm looking forward to putting that into play."
Broncos new executive VP of football operations John Elway, who knows a thing or two about quarterbacks, said at the Combine that Kyle Orton would be the starting QB if the season were to start tomorrow. If that were indeed the case, a growing number of Broncos fans who have taken a liking to 2010 first-rounder Tim Tebow could be feeling a genuine Rocky Mountain low.
However, it appears new Broncos head coach John Fox is far from making up his mind between Orton, who has been widely mentioned as attractive trade bait, and Tebow.
''I don't think we'll really figure it out until we start competing," Fox said at the Combine. "It's a group of three I think are very capable. Right now, I think Kyle Orton's our starter. We've got a very young guy, a high draft pick in Tim Tebow, who got his feet wet last year toward the end of the season. He did an outstanding job. He's got some of the intangibles you're looking for.
"And then, shoot, Brady Quinn I'm looking forward to seeing play. I've watched him play a little bit in Cleveland. He's a young guy that's got about 13 starts under his belt.
"So, we'll see."
Said one close observer: "Orton should still be the guy. John Fox won with Jake Delhomme. He could win with Orton if he can fix the defense."
Sources close to the team tell us that, like the Cardinals, the Vikings have their sights set on a veteran and a rookie as possibilities for the starting QB job finally vacated by Brett Favre.
"We're going to try to be as thorough as we can be," head coach Leslie Frazier said when PFW asked him how the team would proceed under center. "I don't know if you can put a finite number on it. We're going to try to find the right guy. As you know, there are guys who have been free agents, who weren't even signed to teams, who end up starting in the National Football League. We know one in New England who was a sixth-round pick (Tom Brady) who has done some good things in our league.
"We're going to take a look at every draft-eligible guy and those that aren't draft-eligible. Even some potential veteran NFL quarterbacks to try to determine which guy best fits our situation."
We keep hearing that Niners new head coach Jim Harbaugh could be serious about keeping free agent Alex Smith around as the starting quarterback, even though the Niners' fan base would appear to have had its fill of the disappointing former first-round draft pick.
"This is my first time going through this, and I'm sure not going to make the mistake of tipping our hand about what we're going to do," a very coy Harbaugh said at the Combine. "But (we're) thinking about it a lot."
The way we hear it, Harbaugh would have to come up with quite a sales job to convince Smith, who is ready for a change of scenery, one source close to him tells us.
"Don't rule him out," said another source of Smith. "He has shown he cannot stay healthy, but he did have his best season under Norv Turner and has another coach in the building now who can maximize his talent.
"There are greater needs on every level of the defense to address that are every bit as pressing as the QB situation. A veteran like Carson Palmer or Kevin Kolb could still factor into the equation once the labor situation is resolved."
One more thing worth noting: David Dunn, the agent for disgruntled Bengals QB Carson Palmer, also represents Harbaugh.
Once the free-agent and trade wheels start turning again, there's strong reason to believe the Seahawks, who made more than 280 roster moves last season, could begin wheeling and dealing in a big way again, with their sights set directly on Eagles QB Kevin Kolb, who has reportedly been made expendable, for the right price, by Michael Vick.
We hear that could be one reason why the Seahawks have not yet re-signed veteran free-agent QB Matt Hasselbeck, a move that head coach Pete Carroll had indicated was a top priority shortly after the season ended. Another reason could be that Hasselbeck is coming to grips with what could be his relatively attractive market value in free agency.
Adding more intrigue in Seattle is Washington QB Jake Locker, whom Carroll has taken a keen interest in for some time now. "Carroll loved Jake Locker in high school," said one league insider. "Carroll told (University of Washington head coach) Steve Sarkisian that Locker's presence alone would guarantee six wins, and Locker beat the Trojans the last two years almost single-handedly.
"It's difficult to believe Pete would not be intrigued, and Locker could fall as low as 25."
Memo to Mike Munchak, not that he needs one: The Titans' QB situation is a mess of major proportions.
"The one team with a very clear need at quarterback is the Titans," said one league talent evaluator. "Vince Young is not a leader and has not figured out what it means to work. Kerry Collins is a stopgap solution ideally suited as a backup. Mike Munchak needs to find a new face of the franchise."
The picks of the first-round litter at quarterback could be gone by the time Tennessee makes the eighth selection in the first round, which could force the Titans to wait until the second or third round to draft a quarterback.
But very much like the Vikings, you can expect the Titans to actively pursue every manner of option via free agency or trade.
Much like Browns president Mike Holmgren, Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan is fixated on quarterbacks. And we've heard for months now how fascinated Shanahan seems to be in Cam Newton, who might prove irresistible if he's still on the board at No. 10.
But the way we hear it, the exit of Donovan McNabb is far from a foregone conclusion, his embarrassing demotion last season in favor of Rex Grossman notwithstanding.
"I had a chance to talk to (McNabb's agent) Fletcher Smith, and we talked for about an hour and a half. I thought I had a great conversation with him," Shanahan said at the Combine. "Obviously, we had a lot of quotes that were out there over the course of the season.
"I was able to address questions he had, and I thought the conversation went well. I think over the next few weeks we'll get the chance to talk again, and then we'll make a decision right after the draft of the direction we'll go."
Shanahan also spoke glowingly of Newton in Indy.
"I've watched a lot of film on Cam, and he's an unbelievable athlete," Shanahan said. "He can make all the throws and is what you want in a quarterback. I think a lot of people will spend some time and ask, 'What kind of a guy are we dealing with?'
"Is it a one-year guy, or is he going to take you to the next level? Obviously, he has all the skill you'd want in a quarterback."
Before signing off, there are a few other QB situations around the league that, while a lot clearer than the 11 we've chosen to single out, are far from being stable.
In Miami, Chad Henne has his share of detractors. In Detroit, Matthew Stafford has been unable to stay healthy. In Chicago, Jay Cutler faces huge pressure after his shaky swan song in the NFC title game, which caused such an instant stir.
Clearly, the NFL's QB signals are more than a little mixed with the end of March fast approaching.