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Will Leinart make leap?

Supplemental-draft rumor intrigues 49ers, rest of NFL

Posted: Monday February 28, 2005 10:14AM; Updated: Monday February 28, 2005 4:30PM
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Matt Leinart
Matt Leinart has led USC to back-to-back AP national championships.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- If I heard the idea once, I heard it 15 times at the NFL Scouting Combine: Now that offensive guru Norm Chow is out at Southern California, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart might enter the NFL through a supplemental draft sometime this summer.

Did this have any basis in fact? I kept asking around, and no one knew. But it was the kind of wildfire rumor you hear in the NFL from time to time, and what gave me an idea it might have a shred of truth was a long conversation I had with San Francisco coach Mike Nolan here late Friday night. He was putting some stock in the Leinart rumor, and he knew what a major impact this could have on the future of his team. He just didn't want to talk about it.

More about that in a minute, but I figured it was worth making a weekend phone call to USC coach Pete Carroll at least. As I was in the middle of running the rumor by him, Carroll interrupted me and said: "Matt has no intention of doing that. He knows the possibility. I talked to him about it a week or so ago because I'd heard this stuff floating around, and he said, 'No, I'm not doing that.'"

Carroll continued: "Matt's the freakin' king of L.A. right now. He's not leaving. Plus, he's got the tendinitis thing in his elbow, and he's not going to throw a football for three months. If he'd have come out into the draft this year, he'd have to be working out for the NFL teams and I'm not sure that thing ever would have gotten fixed. Now he can give it the time he needs, without pressure, to heal for our season.

"It's a good story. It's just not happening."

Leinart, of course, has had a phenomenal two-year run of national championship football at USC -- 71 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, completed 64.4 percent of his passes, the kind of numbers that would have made him a very high pick in this year's draft had he chosen to come out. He might have been taken by San Francisco as the top overall pick. But he chose to return for a third starting season and fourth year at USC overall. Then Chow (who went to Tennessee) and quarterback coach Carl Smith (Jacksonville) left for NFL jobs, replaced by Steve Sarkisian (quarterbacks) and new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Sarkisian coached USC quarterbacks during Leinart's first season, then left for a single, ill-fated year doing the same job with the Raiders last fall.

In a supplemental draft, a player who has either graduated from college after the NFL Draft or who has had illicit contact with a player agent can, if he has had three seasons at a school, choose to declare himself eligible for entry into the NFL Draft. At that time, the NFL picks a date and teams can use their selections in the following year's draft to bid on the player. Supplemental drafts are not that rare. That's how San Diego nose tackle Jamal Williams entered the NFL. And in 1990, Syracuse receiver Rob Moore came into the league that way. He even had a mini-scouting combine at the New York Jets' facility, with coaches and scouts from all over the league flying in to watch him work out. The Jets' offer of their first-round pick in '91 was the highest bid for Moore, and so the Jets acquired him. Good decision. Moore finished with 628 career catches.

Anyway, the reason the Leinart rumor is so intriguing to NFL teams is because of what it would mean to the 49ers, or to some team -- say Miami, Cleveland, Chicago or Tampa Bay -- that is very high in the current draft order. Say, Leinart graduated from USC this summer, which I'm told is possible given the course load he would have to take on. And, say, he declared for the draft. Assume, for a minute, that San Francisco solves its quarterback problem by picking one with the first overall choice in April. And let's say the Arizona Cardinals didn't take a quarterback high in the draft and need one ... or pick another team, perhaps a team Leinart would really want to play for -- Miami or Green Bay or Tampa Bay, whoever. Until the end of the current season, the supplemental draft order is based on the previous year's draft order. So San Francisco again would be on the clock. The team that wanted Leinart would go to the 49ers and try to pry the pick away. Depending on how many teams wanted him, maybe they'd be offered two No. 1 picks for him. Imagine the chance to get Arizona's next two No. 1 picks, in '06 and '07, for your first-round pick in '06. That's why San Francisco would be so intrigued if Leinart chose this path.

Which, evidently, he's not going to do. But I'm not sure, even with his strong statements in this column, this is the last Carroll has heard of this rumor.

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