KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert's timing couldn't have been better.
Gabbert's decision to declare for the NFL draft after his junior season has put him on the verge of becoming a top-five, if not the first overall pick in this month's NFL Draft, thanks in part to some timely coincidences:
Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, generally acknowledged as the No. 1 overall pick, elected to remain in school.
At least 10 NFL teams are in need of a starting quarterback in the immediate future.
Because of the NFL lockout, teams are unable to sign free agents or trade for veteran quarterbacks, making the draft their only current option.
The success of first-round picks Sam Bradford, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan and Mark Sanchez as rookies the past three seasons has emboldened teams to play quarterbacks early.
Questions about the character of Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton of Auburn have made it a coin flip between Newton and Gabbert as the top quarterback in the draft.
"There's no question I'm ecstatic," Gabbert said of the way things have worked out for him. "It's a once in a lifetime chance, and I'm going to make the most of it."
Gabbert, a strapping 6-foot-5 3/8, 234 pounds, is far from a finished product. He made just 26 starts in three college seasons, going 18-8 while completing 61 percent of his passes for 6,822 yards, 40 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.
And he played in a spread offense, taking about 98 percent of his snaps from the shotgun, so he's spent the offseason working with former Chiefs quarterbacks coach Terry Shea on the footwork and mechanics needed to play in a pro system.
"You see guys like Joe Flacco, Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow ... I could go on and on and on about these spread quarterbacks who've had early success in their careers in the NFL," Gabbert said at the NFL combine.
"The knock on Tebow was he was a 100 percent shotgun quarterback. And he started the last few games at Denver, had success. Sam ... same way. He was in the shotgun a lot in college. Colt McCoy, same way. These guys have had all success in their rookie seasons, so I really don't see the problem with being a spread quarterback in college, because if you're good, you're good, and you're going to play wherever.
"And the best thing about me is: I love the game of football. That's been my goal -- to only do football. And I'm going to be in the film room; going to be in the weight room just preparing as hard as possible."
Newton also operated out of a spread offense in leading the Southeastern Conference in rushing and total offense while taking Auburn to the national championship. How does Gabbert feel he measures up to Newton?
"Cam's an explosive athlete," Gabbert said. "You've seen what he has done at the college level. He's won a juco national championship, won the national championship at the Division I level. He's been extremely successful, so he has all the talent in the world. But we're going to compete and fight it out -- and may the best man win."
Carolina, which has the first overall pick in the draft, and Buffalo, with the third, are in the process of choosing between Newton and Gabbert -- unless they go with a defensive player. Denver, with the second pick, has invited Gabbert in for a visit. There's little chance Gabbert would slip past Cincinnati, where Carson Palmer wants out, or Arizona, which has the fifth pick and the likes of John Skelton and Max Hall at quarterback.
"People talk about what a good athlete Cam is, which he is, but this guy is a very similar athlete," Bills general manager Buddy Nix told a Buffalo radio station after Gabbert's visit. "He's really a big, fast athlete. He's a smart guy. He's a little like Cam in that he hasn't played a lot. ... He played three games his senior year in high school. He didn't play any as a freshman except in a mop-up role and then started two years."
Carolina first-year coach Ron Rivera inherited Jimmy Clausen, a second-round pick last year who struggled without many weapons on offense, and the Panthers might see Newton or Gabbert as the face of the franchise.
Gabbert did not lead the Tigers to a Big 12 championship. He was not an all-conference selection. He lost both of his mid-level bowl games, capped by an untimely interception against Iowa in last year's Insight Bowl.
So does Gabbert, who played through some injuries at Missouri, have what it takes to become the highest-drafted player from Mizzou since defensive end Justin Smith went fourth overall to Cincinnati in 2001 and the first Tigers quarterback taken in the first round since Steve Pisarkiewicz went to St. Louis with the 19th pick in 1977?
Some draft experts are wary of Gabbert's completion ratio on third down -- only 44.3 percent with six touchdowns and five interceptions. Also, Gabbert completed only 38 percent of throws of 15 yards and longer last season, though his receiving corps might not have been as talented as it was in 2009, when he had Danario Alexander.
Former NFL general manager Charley Casserly, now with NFL Network, said he would rate Bradford, Matthew Stafford, the first overall pick in 2009, and Ryan, the third overall pick in 2008, ahead of Gabbert but thinks Gabbert is more advanced than Sanchez the fifth overall pick in 2009.
"Gabbert can do everything Newton can do as far as throwing and making plays," Casserly said. "He's shown the ability to read defenses, even in the spread. There is a transition he's going to have to make. The guy warrants a top five pick. "
Gabbert just wants the chance to get started.
"Everybody has their own strengths and weaknesses," he said. "Everybody's going to have a strong arm; they're going to be accurate. If we didn't have these characteristics, we wouldn't be in this position to play right now.
"Anything can happen on draft day. Trades are likely to happen. People are going to fall. So you really don't know until you really get your name called in New York."