Tuesday, April 13, 2004

2004 draft rich in quarterbacks

Florida Today

One is considered money. Two put on quite a show. Three is probably the most ready. But on draft day, which way will NFL teams go?

In sizing up this year's NFL Draft quarterback class, it's not too tough to figure out who the top three candidates are. But picking between Mississippi's Eli Manning, Miami of Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger and North Carolina State's Philip Rivers is all about a matter of taste as much as it is about risk and reward.

"The thing I find unique about it is every one of those guys is different," said San Diego Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer. "Ben Roethlisberger is a giant of a guy, a terrific athlete. Reminds me of a (Daunte) Culpepper or a (Steve) McNair. He just has a rocket of an arm and had a terrific workout. Eli is very cerebral and has a very natural, fluid motion. Philip Rivers has a demeanor about him, a presence.

"History and statistics tell you they can't all be really good players in this league. But this may be like the draft of '83."

Wow, that didn't take long. The draft of 1983 is what all NFL quarterback classes will be forever compared to. It produced three of the all-time greats - Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly.

But don't forget, there were three other quarterbacks taken in that first round. And Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason and Ken O'Brien will have to pay their way into the Hall of Fame to visit.

As much of a crapshoot as any draft pick can be, it's especially true at the game's sexiest position. For every Peyton Manning, there's a Ryan Leaf. And the men who make the wrong choice can often find themselves in the unemployment line.

While Schottenheimer's Chargers have the No. 1 pick in the draft, they are hardly the only team in the market for a quarterback. The New York Giants have talked to San Diego about a trade for the No. 1 pick and the Pittsburgh Steelers are likely to take a quarterback at No. 11. Buffalo and Green Bay could also take a signal caller if the right guy falls to them. And who's to say the Oakland Raiders at No. 2 or the Arizona Cardinals at No. 3 might not decide they can't pass up a top-flight quarterback?

"I don't think there is (a big risk) if you pick the right guy," said New Orleans coach Jim Haslett. "I don't know how San Diego cannot pick Eli. Just knowing his background, his family background, his football background, you cannot not pick a guy like that.

"He loves the game. He's got successful parents. His brother is the best player in the NFL. He's got all the same qualities."

Manning's the man

When it comes to NFL quarterbacks, there is no bigger money name in the draft than a Manning. And Eli certainly has the tools to become a star if put in the right situation.

The youngest member of the family has more mobility than his slow-footed brother and has an arm that, at worst, rivals that of the NFL's co-MVP (9,860 yards and 79 TD passes in his Mississipppi career). As similar as they are in that regard, though, Peyton is clearly the more outgoing of the two, which may lead scouts to wonder what kind of a leader Eli will make.

"I've spent time with Eli and I know Peyton," Schottenheimer said. "People say they're different and yet, people will also say don't be misled by Eli's apparent calm demeanor, because he's got a fire in his belly and it manifests itself at appropriate times."

Another question about Manning will be how well he handles the instant pressure that will be on him the moment he steps on an NFL field. He'll be expected to be every bit as good as his brother is now, which is quite a bit to ask. Then again, Manning has been dealing with that his entire life and he's clearly the safest pick in his class.

Schottenheimer and the Chargers have certainly done their homework, spending a day with each of the top three quarterbacks and even sending them a playbook ahead of their visits to measure how much each man was able to absorb in a short amount of time.

Big Ben

One reason why San Diego might be willing to trade with New York and drop down to the No. 4 pick is the belief that it will get Roethlisberger, who put on a show for scouts at his workout with his arm strength and mobility for a guy who is 6-foot-5 and weighs 242 pounds. Schottenheimer is also familiar with Roethlisberger because his daughter went to school at Miami (Ohio).

"The one thing about him is he played very well late," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "You watch him play, down the stretch he played very well. He's a big, strong guy - fast, good athlete, probably a lot of upside to this kid. I think he's a very solid quarterback."

The biggest question about Roethlisberger may be the level of competition he faced in the Mid-American Conference. But Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich came from the MAC and both have proven they have what it takes.

Of the top three players in this class, Roethlisberger has a stronger arm than Manning -- with his classic over-the-top delivery -- and Rivers, whose sidearm style has been widely questioned.

Roethlisberger completed 69.1 percent (342 of 495) of his passes for 4,486 yards and 37 touchdowns as a senior, all single-season school records. He joins Pennington and Leftwich as the only MAC quarterbacks to pass for 3,000 or more yards in three separate seasons.

"The thing that jumps out first with Ben: his arm strength," Schottenheimer said. "I seldom use the word 'rare,' but it's what I would call rare. And everybody talks about the delivery of Philip. I don't really know that that's an issue. We had him at the Senior Bowl and he showed the ability to make the throws you have to make."

Rivers ready

Rivers, who has made the biggest jump up the draft boards of the three, is probably the most ready to step in and play right away after setting 10 ACC career passing records for the Wolfpack.

Mobility may be a question mark, but Rivers has also shown the knack for making big plays. Several coaches raved about his leadership qualities and, like Schottenheimer, didn't seem to be in a rush to change his delivery, which is as quick as it is funky. The 6-5, 236-pound Rivers is, after all, the second-leading passer in NCAA history with 13,484 career yards.

"When you're younger, I thought I could change the world," Seattle coach Mike Holmgren said. "But I believe now, and have for years, you can mess with his feet, you can get his mind right - you can do all those things. But the actual throwing motion, how he throws, if you tinker with that too much, you have a better chance of hurting him."

If there's a fourth quarterback in this mix, it's Tulane's J.P. Losman, who showed plenty of toughness last season while playing behind a shaky offensive line that allowed defenses to beat him up. Losman has a strong arm, but he won't be a top 15 pick like Manning, Roethlisberger and Rivers have the chance to be.

But the recent trend of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks is that they came from the middle to late rounds, or in the case of Kurt Warner, didn't get drafted at all. But there is no more high-profile position in the NFL than quarterback and in this year's top three, there is plenty to be excited about - if not a little worried about, too.

"You look at Leaf and (Peyton) Manning. Some people liked Manning, some liked the potential of Leaf," Cowher said. "People are saying now, 'Is Roethlisberger another Ryan Leaf?' That's where people can get a little gun-shy and are afraid of pulling the trigger because there's a little bit of a risk factor.

"You're afraid of failing, afraid of taking that chance. But there's chances with all of them, there really are. You have to be able to look at a guy, talk to a guy and see how he fits what you're trying to do with him."

Ranking the top 10 quarterbacks heading into the NFL Draft

1. Eli Manning, Mississippi (6-5, 216). The son of Archie and brother of Peyton has all the tools to be a big star in the NFL. He's more mobile and has as strong an arm - if not stronger - than his brother. But does he have the same intensity? And talk about pressure. He'll be expected to throw for 4,000 yards the first full season he starts.

2. Ben Roethlisberger, Miami (Ohio) (6-5, 242). Blew away coaches and scouts at his Pro Day workout with his arm strength and ability to throw on the run. His release isn't super fast, and he'll have to overcome questions about the competition level he faced in college. But he easily has the most upside of the top three QBs.

3. Philip Rivers, N.C. State (6-5, 236). The most capable of stepping in and playing right away because of his maturity and leadership ability. He was a borderline first-round pick until he stole the show at the Senior Bowl. Doesn't have quick feet, and his sidearm delivery has been questioned, but talk to scouts and they'll tell you the guy's a winner.

4. J.P. Losman, Tulane (6-2, 217). Could have been ranked higher if he didn't play behind an offensive line that wouldn't have satisfied most high school coaches. He has a strong arm, a quick release and can throw on the run. He's a tough kid, considering the beating he took last season. That could help him or hurt him. He could slide into the first round, but is probably looking at a second-round selection.

5. Matt Schaub, Virginia (6-6, 243). Another prospect on the rise, he has the size and the smarts that NFL scouts love. Led the ACC in TD passes, completion percentage, completions and attempts as a junior, but had a little dropoff as a senior. He doesn't have great arm strength, but given time to develop, he could become a viable NFL starter.

6. Josh Harris, Bowling Green (6-1, 234). Ideal arm strength, but needs to polish his mechanics and improve his throwing touch. Was MVP of the Motor City Bowl, completing 38 passes for 386 yards and three TDs. Also ran for one. He's a playmaker who could come off the bench and provide a spark. But he's also a project that needs time to develop.

7. John Navarre, Michigan (6-6, 246). Follows in the Michigan tradition of Tom Brady, Brian Griese and Elvis Grbac. A proven winner who has played in pressure-packed conditions in front of big crowds. That should tempt a team to take a flyer on him in the middle to late rounds. But he doesn't have the arm strength, the accuracy or the mobility that most NFL teams want.

8. Jeff Smoker, Michigan State (6-3, 225). Would have been ranked higher were it not for some off-the-field issues that forced him to miss much of the 2002 season. Came back as a senior to throw for more than 300 yards six times and re-establish himself as one of the better QBs in the Big Ten. Has good arm strength, but he'll have to prove to NFL teams that his past troubles are behind him.

9. Luke McCown, Louisiana Tech (6-4, 205). Comes from a pass-happy offense, in which he finished with a school-record 99 total TDs. Has a big arm and playmaking ability, but needs to add weight and strength. His completion percentage went down in each of his last three seasons and he threw 14 interceptions as a senior. A late-round pick at best.

10. Jared Lorenzen, Kentucky (6-3, 280). OK, so the guy's built more like a tight end than a QB. But he can throw the football 75 yards without much effort and zip it into a receiver like a Roger Clemens fastball. He'll have to drop some weight to stick around in the pros, but he's certainly an intriguing prospect.

Best of the rest

Cody Pickett, Washington; Casey Clausen, Tennessee; Craig Krenzel, Ohio State; B.J. Symons, Texas Tech; Matt Mauck, LSU; Bradlee Van Pelt, Colorado State; Ryan Dinwiddie, Boise State.

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