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Risky Business
Peter King
April 23, 2001
Snakebitten San Diego will likely cast its lot with Michael Vick, who's making a perilous leap from college sophomore to No. 1 pick in the NFL draft
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April 23, 2001

Risky Business

Snakebitten San Diego will likely cast its lot with Michael Vick, who's making a perilous leap from college sophomore to No. 1 pick in the NFL draft

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Over the past month SI asked five of pro football's most respected offensive tacticians to watch a videotape of Michael Vick and analyze the game of the electrifying Virginia Tech quarterback. When you're scrutinizing a raw 20-year-old who played only 22 college games, there is plenty to pick apart. That's why the San Diego Chargers, who hold the first selection in the two-day draft that kicks off on Saturday, have a potentially franchise-haunting decision to make just three years after drafting quarterback Ryan Leaf, a colossal first-round flop who's still causing them salary-cap nightmares.

On the tape were all of Vick's snaps from three victories last season—one of his better passing games, against Clemson in the Gator Bowl; one of his typical all-around performances, against Virginia; and one game in which he struggled, against Boston College. SI's expert panel consisted of Baltimore Ravens director of pro personnel and former NFL quarterback James Harris, Chargers coach Mike Riley, CBS analyst and former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh and recently retired Niners quarterback Steve Young. While the experts found much to like about Vick, they did find three major flaws in the underdeveloped passer's game:

?Although the 6-foot, 215-pound Vick has an especially strong arm, he is too often inaccurate. After watching him miss one wide-open receiver after another on the tape, Simms, the former Super Bowl MVP, said, "It doesn't seem like he had one easy completion in those three games."

?Overly eager to run with the ball, Vick repeatedly exposes himself to injury. "You can't get hit this much," said Riley, after seeing Vick get nailed so hard by three Virginia defenders that his helmet flew off. "You won't last."

?If his primary receiver is covered, Vick is too quick to abandon the pass and take off. "There's no progression through his reads," Walsh said after seeing about half the tape. "That'll take extensive training to fix."

Before the 1998 draft Walsh said he liked Michigan quarterback Brian Griese—the 91st selection that year—over Leaf, who went No. 2 after Peyton Manning. Last week Griese re-signed with the Denver Broncos for $39 million over six years; Leaf is trying to start over as a Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup. This time Walsh would take Purdue's Drew Brees, 22, over Vick, who led Virginia Tech to 20 victories in his 22 starts. " Vick is not ready to be an NFL quarterback," Walsh says. "He has more potential than Brees, but I don't see how he'll be able to play regularly until his third year. I hope those coaches in San Diego are secure in their jobs. They'll need to be to see this kid through."

Still, the Chargers have almost no choice but to take Vick. San Diego, which signed 38-year-old free agent Doug Flutie to be its starter next fall, badly needs a quarterback for the long term, and Vick has the best upside of any passer in this draft. What's more, with the draft less than a week away, San Diego had not received a single trade offer for the top pick, so the club has opened contract negotiations with Vick. What's inhibiting the trade market is the fact that, after Vick, no one in the draft has much sizzle. The second player picked could be Gerard Warren, a defensive tackle from Florida who, arguably, would be the most unheralded No. 2 of all time. On the other hand the team that gets Vick might someday strike it rich. "He could well become one of the greatest play-makers in NFL history," says Harris.

"You don't want to be the Portland Trail Blazers, who passed up Michael Jordan to take Sam Bowie," Riley says. In this draft there isn't even a Sam Bowie to cloud the issue. After Vick there are just a bunch of Mel Turpins.

"The real question you have to ask yourself," says Simms, "is whether any person in this draft can change your franchise. There's one: Michael Vick."

At the height of his career Young was as close to a model for what Vick might become as the NFL has produced. "This brings back memories," Young said wistfully as he watched the tape last week between charity appearances at Disney World. "It's so much fun to watch. I feel like I've seen all these plays before." That's because Young—the best combination of a winner, an efficient passer and a running quarterback ever to play in the league—made many such plays himself. If Vick becomes as poised and polished as Young was, the Chargers will be set for a generation.

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