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Roll of the dice

Teams take calculated risks on late-round quarterbacks

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Cody Pickett
As a junior, Cody Pickett became the first QB in Pac-10 history to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season.
Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and J.P. Losman got the lion's share of the spotlight in last weekend's NFL Draft, as first-round quarterbacks always do.

Here's hoping they enjoyed it, because if history is any guide, it'll be another passer taken lower in this year's draft -- or somebody who wasn't even selected at all -- who becomes the first Super Bowl-winning quarterback from the Class of 2004.

No offense to the fab four and their gaudy resumes, but those are the facts. They'll get their seven-figure signing bonuses. They just might not get a ring any time soon. Dallas' Troy Aikman was the most recent first-round quarterback to win a Super Bowl for the team that drafted him, and that was eight seasons ago, in January 1996.

All told, since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, Aikman is one of only four first-round quarterbacks to win a championship with his original team, joining Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw, Chicago's Jim McMahon and the Giants' Phil Simms.

Maybe that's why the quest to uncover the next Tom Brady (sixth round, 2000), Brad Johnson (ninth round, 1992) or Kurt Warner (undrafted free agent) seemed particularly acute this year, with so many quarterbacks flying off the draft board in the late rounds.

With that threesome, along with veteran re-tread Trent Dilfer, accounting for the past five Super Bowl titles, there's more reason than ever to believe that quarterbacks don't have to be pampered, high-profile prima donnas to wind up as proven and productive stars. Teams have long since woken up to the reality that you can save yourself a lot of money on franchise saviors if you hit on a mid to late-round quarterback.

Which is exactly what a bunch of NFL folks tried to do this year, with fingers crossed and their pair of lucky dice rolled. The following numbers seem more than just a passing fad:

• There were 17 quarterbacks drafted last weekend, the most since 1992, when 20 passers were chosen in the final year of the NFL's 12-round draft. There were eight rounds in 1993 and the current seven-round format began in 1994.

• The 12 quarterbacks taken on the draft's second day, from Round 4 on, tied for the most ever selected in the seven-round format, along with 2002, when a dozen of the 16 quarterbacks drafted went after the third round.

• In the past three years, 46 quarterbacks have been drafted: 17 in 2004, 13 in 2003 and 16 in 2002. That's an average of 15.3 per year, compared to the previous six years, when just 63 quarterbacks were selected, or 10.5 per year.

• Of this year's 17 drafted quarterbacks, 10 were of the flyer variety, taken in the sixth or seventh rounds, the most ever since the advent of the seven-round draft. The previous high had been eight in 2000, when 12 quarterbacks were selected overall.

All these figures reflect the growing league-wide emphasis on discovering the next hidden gem at the game's most pivotal position, such as St. Louis's Marc Bulger (sixth round, 2000, by New Orleans), or Carolina's Jake Delhomme (signed as an undrafted free agent by New Orleans in 1997).

In today's salary cap era, when quarterback decisions seemingly get dictated by economic factors as much as anything, teams need to keep identifying young, cheap alternatives. Those kind of factors have played into the development and rise of quarterbacking prospects like Tim Hasselbeck (sixth round, 1998, Green Bay), Tim Rattay (seventh round, 2000, San Francisco), Aaron Brooks (fourth round, 1999, Green Bay) and A.J. Feeley (fifth round, 2001, Philadelphia) in recent years.

And it's a trend that's here to stay, especially with the league voting this spring to increase practice squads from five to eight players on a one-year trial basis, allowing even more room to carry quarterback prospects.

"What is now becoming a common practice by a lot of teams, if the situation presents itself, is that you draft a quarterback even if you don't need one,'' said Baltimore head coach Brian Billick, whose Ravens selected Bowling Green QB Josh Harris in the sixth round, despite having taken Cal's Kyle Boller in last year's first round.

"In our position, it was a no-brainer. We were looking for a third quarterback [behind backup Anthony Wright] and we knew we were going to sign a collegiate free agent too (Western Carolina's Brian Gaithers was acquired this week). But if you take a quarterback on the second day, and you don't hit, and he's not the guy, you're not particularly vulnerable.

"On the other hand, if you happen to find a Tom Brady or a Mark Brunell, and he becomes somebody who can play for you, at the very least he becomes an asset who you can get something in trade for. If you can afford to take one the second day, you take one. And if you hit on him, life's good.''

Of course, for every Tom Brady, there's a Giovanni Carmazzi, San Francisco's bust of a 2000 third-round pick, who went about 150 slots ahead of Rattay, the 49ers' seventh-round selection the same year. And for every Marc Bulger somebody stumbles upon, there are your Spergon Wynns that you have to wade through. Hey, they don't call it an inexact science for nothing.

Will there be any revelations in this year's crop of non-first round quarterbacks? Or just a bunch of training camp fodder and future clipboard holders? Here's a quick peek at some of the prospects who were not judged the best and the brightest of this draft season, but made it to the NFL any way:

• Matt Schaub, Atlanta, third round: In the 84 picks between Losman's selection by Buffalo at No. 22, and the Browns tapping Luke McCown at No. 106 in the fourth round, the only quarterback to come off the board was Schaub, the former Virginia star, who went late in the third round. The Falcons like him enough already that they released 2002 fifth-round pick Kirk Kittner almost immediately, basically handing Schaub the No. 3 quarterback slot behind Michael Vick and veteran backup Ty Detmer.

The way Atlanta figures it, almost anyone and anything is better than what Doug Johnson and Kittner were able to muster last season when Vick went down with a broken fibula. Schaub is a big (6-foot-5 5/8, 243 pounds), accurate, pocket passer who makes up for his lack of great arm strength with smart play and solid instincts. Some teams, like the Rams, thought he had low first-round value.

• Luke McCown, Cleveland, fourth round: The brother of Cardinals starter Josh McCown is an intriguing prospect who the Browns hope can take over for veteran Jeff Garcia in a couple of years. For now, he'll serve as the team's No. 3, behind Garcia and backup Kelly Holcomb. His arrival slammed the door on any chance of Tim Couch hanging around in Cleveland.

Playing for Louisiana Tech as a true freshman, McCown once threw 72 passes in a game against Butch Davis' Miami Hurricanes at the Orange Bowl. Davis still sees that game in his nightmares. "I saw where he threw for over 12,000 yards [in his career],'' Davis said. "I thought he got all 12,000 that night.'' McCown is a little light at 208 pounds, but he's a remarkable athlete who was in the top two among quarterbacks in almost all the key measurable categories at the Combine. He's going to get every chance to learn for a couple years and take over the starting job in 2006.

• Craig Krenzel, Chicago, fifth round: Taking Krenzel could be viewed as the Bears hedging their bets a bit on last year's first-rounder, Rex Grossman, and that wouldn't be completely inaccurate. But then again, with veterans Chris Chandler and Kordell Stewart both sent packing this offseason, the Bears had an opening for a No. 3. Veteran Jonathan Quinn, he of the three career starts in six seasons, is currently the graybeard of Chicago's quarterbacks. He's expected to back up Grossman.

The Bears like Krenzel's intelligence -- he's put off a medical career because he wants to play quarterback rather than doctor -- and believe that in their offense he could show off more of his passing skills than he was allowed to do at Ohio State. He's going to need some development, but Chicago is hoping that Krenzel gives them something to think about in four years when he's eligible for free agency.

• Andy Hall, Philadelphia, sixth round: Meet the new A.J. Feeley. The Eagles plucked Hall from their backyard -- he starred just down the road at Delaware, helping the Blue Hens win the I-AA national championship last year -- and unless he has a disastrous preseason, they expect him to take over as their No. 3, replacing the departed Feeley. Hall doesn't have the big arm, but he's mobile, throws really well on the run, and rushed for more than 800 yards in 2003.

At the very least, he should be able to do a dandy Donovan McNabb impersonation while running the scout team. He's a tad short, at 6-1 and change, but he Eagles are high on his brains and say the former Georgia Tech transfer is a good fit for their brand of West Coast offense. It doesn't hurt that Eagles head coach Andy Reid sat next to him at the Maxwell Club awards dinner and bonded with the kid.

• Josh Harris, Baltimore, sixth round: The Ravens have a new hobby. They're collecting young, athletic quarterbacks who can move around and make plays on the run. "Kyle and Anthony are both athletic, and so is Josh,'' Billick said. "He fit our profile of what our team looks like. He's not a pure, drop-back passer, but that's not who we are right now.'' Harris is a shotgun specialist who set Bowling Green records for rushing touchdowns (43) and total TDs (47).

Harris is such a two-way threat that he is one of only two players in NCAA history to both run and throw for at least 40 career touchdowns. The Ravens plan to get him as much preseason playing time as possible, but it'll be tough given Boller's need for snaps. For now, pencil him in as Baltimore's No. 3, with a touch of Slash/secret weapon mystery surrounding him.

• Jeff Smoker, St. Louis, sixth round: Some day soon, Smoker will be the answer to a rather mournful trivia question in St. Looouie, namely: Who was responsible for pushing two-time MVP Kurt Warner off the Rams roster? Head coach Mike Martz would be an acceptable answer, but technically it was Smoker's selection on Sunday that put the final nail in Warner's coffin. Some time after June 1, Warner will be cut loose or maybe traded for, and Smoker officially will be installed as the Rams' No. 3 passer, behind Bulger and veteran journeyman Chandler.

The plan is for Smoker to get a year or two of apprenticeship in the Rams system, and then replace the aging Chandler as the No. 2 guy. Which isn't a bad gig in St. Louis, since the backup has a habit of becoming the Rams starter (See Warner for Trent Green, see Bulger for Warner). St. Louis wanted Matt Schaub in the third round, but the Falcons got to him first. Smoker's off-field troubles at Michigan State could be another land mine for the Rams to navigate, but Martz came away impressed after the two met before the draft.

• John Navarre, Arizona, seventh round: Like every other team, the Cardinals didn't do a great job of projecting Brady as the NFL's next big thing, so maybe they're trying to make up for it by taking a flyer on Navarre, the latest Michigan quarterback to enter the league. Cardinals head coach Dennis Green said he has believes Wolverine quarterbacks have been underrated in recent years, and he cited Brady and Brian Griese. That means he's half right.

Navarre walks into camp as the favorite for the No. 3 job, behind starter Josh McCown and new backup Shaun King. The guy he has to beat out is current No. 3 Preston Parsons, a former Northern Arizona collegiate free agent who has yet to take a snap in his first two NFL seasons. The smart money is on Navarre, who won a lot of games in college but was never accused of looking all that good doing it.

• Cody Pickett, San Francisco, seventh round: With a pretty good record of production in a big-time program that plays in a big-time conference, Pickett has a chance to make the translation to the big leagues. But you have to wonder if fate wasn't unkind, in that he landed with the 49ers, who already have two young quarterbacks ahead of him in starter Rattay and backup Ken Dorsey, himself a seventh-round pick in 2003.

The good news may be that it's a very short trip from No. 3 to No. 1 on San Francisco's quarterback depth chart. And don't forget, if this football thing doesn't work out, Pickett can always go back to the family practice. He and his father are both accomplished rodeo performers.

Don Banks covers pro football for SI.com.

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