It was March 1983, and the buzz at the NFL meetings in Palm Springs, Calif., was all about the wondrous crop of quarterbacks in the upcoming draft. At least five were projected to go in the first round, just like this year. I was sitting poolside when Jim Finks, the Chicago Bears' general manager, pointed to my notebook and said, "Write this down: 'In 20 years there will be one quarterback from this draft who will be remembered above all the others: Tony Eason.' "
In my notebook I put a star next to Eason, who was on a list that included John Elway, Dan Marino, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly and, a little farther down, as another possible first-rounder, Ken O'Brien. Well, an NFL-record six quarterbacks went in that opening round, and they have combined for II Super Bowl appearances with two wins, both by Elway. Yes, Eason reached the Super Bowl, but he's best remembered for the 46-10 pasting his New England Patriots received at the hands of the Bears in the January 1986 title game. The message here: Greatness is in the eye of the beholder, at least come draft time, and no one can be certain which prospect will hit it big.
This year's bunch? Tim Couch of Kentucky and Akili Smith of Oregon are getting most of the attention, although Syracuse's Donovan McNabb could sneak in as the second pick. Then there are Central Florida's gigantic Daunte Culpepper, UCLA's Cade McNown and the sleeper, who could find a place at the bottom of the first round, Tulane's Shaun King. "Talk to 10 people," says Bob Ferguson, the Arizona Cardinals' player personnel director, "and you'll get 10 ways of lining them up."
"History tells us that two will make it big," says Cincinnati Bengals coach Bruce Coslet, "and one of those two will be a great player. Another two will be O.K., and two more will wash out. And somewhere down in the draft will be another guy who will be productive for 10 years. The trick is to figure out which one [of the quarterbacks] will do what."
"The irony of the draft process," says Smith's agent, Leigh Steinberg, "is that the luckiest quarterback could be the one picked the farthest down in the first round, because he's going to the best team."
McNabb could be part of only the second 1-2-3 quarterback draft in NFL history. Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning and Dan Pastorini were the top selections in 1971. Each started his career with a bad team—and each took a terrible beating early on. But there's something that sets this year's group apart. "They can all move," says Tom Modrak, director of operations for the Philadelphia Eagles, who have the second pick. "The mobility of these guys fits the era of zone blitzes and defensive overloads. Years ago quarterbacks didn't have that. Everyone was looking for the big guy who could stay in the pocket."
McNabb, at 6'2", 223 pounds, with a 4.6 time in the 40, is the most mobile and athletic of the bunch. "He doesn't just avoid the rush; he takes it downfield and makes things happen," says Bengals player personnel director Pete Brown, whose team will pick third. Adds Minnesota Vikings general manager Tim Connolly, "He's just a tremendous athlete. He played in an offense that was a mishmash—part drop-back, part option—but he ran it like he'd been in it for five or 10 years."
NFL personnel men and coaches were eager to see what would happen during Senior Bowl week in January, when McNabb came under the tutelage of Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden, who installed his short-pass offense. "Jon really overloaded him with reads," says Eagles coach Andy Reid. "At times he had three or four checks coming out of the huddle. He handled it all. His mind was rapid-fire; he was barking his signals and changeups like an auctioneer, Smarts, athletic ability, timing, ability to see and anticipate—this kid has it all."
Culpepper reminds people of, well, nobody else who has played the position. At the NFL scouting combine, he measured 6'3½", 255 pounds, and in private workouts at Central Florida, his 40 times were in the 4.5s. "Big horse; runs over people," Ferguson says. "Against Nebraska his junior year [a game that Central Florida led at the half], he kept his team in the game with his running. He just ran over people."
He also threw for 318 yards against the Cornhuskers in the offense of Central Florida coach Mike Kruczek, a former NFL quarterback. Kruczek's attack was part run-and-shoot with a lot of NFL-type elements. Scouts like Culpepper's arm, plus the fact that he has been playing in a pro-style offense. But is he really that fast? "The 4.5s he ran were in track spikes on a fast surface," one scout notes. "Against a really quick defense, like Auburn's, he didn't look faster than the opposition."