The first pick in next April's draft will almost certainly be a quarterback, but there's growing sentiment in NFL scouting circles that it might not be Tennessee's Peyton Manning. Once considered a shoo-in as the top pick, Manning might slip behind Washington State junior Ryan Leaf, who is likely to declare for the draft after the college season. While Manning has had a good season, Leaf has made meteoric progress. A 55% passer with a better touchdown-to-interception margin (29-8) than Heisman-favorite Manning (23-7), Leaf has the stronger arm of the two but isn't as polished.
One scout on a team looking to select a quarterback high in the draft thinks Leaf has better tools than Manning but needs to learn to control his emotions. What if his team had to pick between the two today? "Leaf has a much stronger arm than Manning does," he says. "Leaf can throw the passes you have to throw to be successful in the NFL—the comeback, the deep out—and he's got tremendous upside."
Former Colts linebacker Trev Alberts, now a CNN/SI analyst, criticizes Manning, saying the Tennessee quarterback "has happy feet, like [the Saints'] Heath Shuler." Broncos director of college scouting Ted Sundquist adds, "All the tools are there. Manning sees the field and is smart. But for whatever reason, he has a tendency to force things. At times he may get a little flustered by pressure. Has Leaf passed Peyton? No. Will it create some debate? Yeah."
Nice Investment, Al
Raiders owner Al Davis was so eager to sign Super Bowl MVP Desmond Howard that he agreed to the biggest contract ever for an NFL return man—four years, $6 million, including $2.2 million in signing bonus and salary this year—hoping that Howard would also develop into the quality receiver that he had failed to become with the Redskins, the Jaguars and the Packers.
The results? Brutal. Howard is 20th in the league in kickoff returns (22.8-yard average) and 20th in punt returns (8.8 yards). "We're two blocks away [from breaking it] or sometimes one," Howard says. Of course, two blocks on returns are a lot. As a receiver? Howard is the team's fifth wideout and didn't catch his first pass until a Nov. 2 game against the Panthers.
For the Packers last year, Howard returned 58 punts for a league-record 875 yards (a 15.1 average) and had only 16 fair catches. This season, through 10 games, he has returned 21 punts for 185 yards, with 16 fair catches.
The numbers aren't so much an indictment of Howard's ability as they are of the Raiders' special teams, of Davis's foolish spending and of the organization's scouting reports, which said Howard could be a threat as a receiver even though offensive-minded coaches Joe Gibbs, Norv Turner, Tom Coughlin and Mike Holmgren had failed to make him one.
Though Jerry Rice is hoping to return on Dec. 15, the 49ers think it's virtually impossible that their star wideout, who underwent reconstructive knee surgery on Sept. 2, will play this season. But as club president Carmen Policy says, " Jerry Rice is not of this earth, so we don't judge him by mortal or earthly standards."... With their initiative for a new stadium crushed by a 58% to 42% margin in their home county, the Steelers may trigger a clause in their Three Rivers Stadium contract that allows them to break the lease two years after giving notice.
The End Zone
The name of the New Jersey judge who will preside over a hearing for Eagles center Steve Everitt, who faces charges of speeding, drunken driving and possession of drug paraphernalia, is John Madden.