Jaguars' Johnson a Hot Commodity
He has thrown only 34 passes in his three-year NFL career, and he's not even going to be a free agent after this season. Nevertheless, the Jaguars' Rob Johnson will be the most coveted quarterback on the off-season market. Aside from Tennessee's Peyton Manning and Washington State's Ryan Leaf (assuming the latter bypasses his senior season), no blue-chippers are in the draft, and free agency will produce the weakest crop of quarterbacks since the unrestricted system began in 1993.
The biggest name is the Dolphins' Craig Erickson, but don't expect him to go anywhere. Miami coach Jimmy Johnson will probably persuade Erickson to stay put by guaranteeing him that he'll be Dan Marino's heir as early as sometime next season. Other available signal-callers include the Cardinals' Kent Graham, the Eagles' Ty Detmer and Rodney Peete, the Chargers' Jim Everett (coming off elbow surgery), the Falcons' Jim Miller, the Rams' Mark Rypien and the Saints' Doug Nussmeier. (Another player to watch is the Jets' Neil O'Donnell, who, because of the emergence of Glenn Foley, is no longer the clear-cut No. 1 in New York. If O'Donnell is still on the roster on Feb. 20, he'll be due $2.75 million.)
With as many as 12 teams looking for long-term quarterback solutions, Johnson will be in demand. He has completed 70% of his preseason passes in three years, and in his only regular-season start, in the '97 opener against the Ravens, he completed 20 of 24 attempts and led Jacksonville to a 28-27 win despite playing most of the second half with a severely sprained left ankle. Johnson is signed through 1998, but the Jaguars are comfortable with Mark Brunell and could try to trade their backup rather than risk losing him in free agency. Brunell was a year away from restricted free agency when Jacksonville got him from the Packers in 1995 for third- and fifth-round draft picks, but because of the current dearth of marquee quarterbacks, Johnson could fetch much more. Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin says only, "You need two quarterbacks in today's football. We'll look at that after the season."
Look at it this way: If you can trade a very good backup for, say, a mid-first-round pick and use that selection to get something you desperately need, like a cover cornerback (North Carolina's Dre' Bly?), the decision is not a difficult one.
Speaking of Ryan...
Leaf, the 6'5" junior who guided Washington State to its first Rose Bowl berth in 67 years, says he consults with one of his predecessors, the Patriots' Drew Bledsoe, almost weekly. Bledsoe left the Cougars a year early, in '93, and was the first pick in the draft. Leaf, too, is expected to forgo his senior season. He would probably be among the top three picks, along with Manning and Florida State defensive end Andre Wadsworth.
Leaf says he won't pull a John Elway and refuse to report to certain teams. "I'm not going to be selfish," he said last Saturday from his parents' home in Great Falls, Mont. "If it's the Colts, Bears, whoever, I'll be unbelievably happy. I hope I can bring a lot to the table."
Thurman's New Role
For one afternoon, at least, it seemed like old times in Buffalo. On Sunday at Rich Stadium, in a cold and driving rain, Thurman Thomas led the Bills to a 20-10 upset of the Jets. A week after quietly conceding his role as the team's featured ballcarrier by sitting out the second half of a loss to the Oilers, the 31-year-old running back showed he isn't ready to call it a career. "My job now," Thomas said after the Jets game, "is to let the younger players know there's no quit in the Buffalo Bills."