At the NFL scouting combine in February, two men badly in need of a quarterback, Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick and Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, bumped into each other outside the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. The Bengals have the first pick in the 2003 draft, and it has been expected all along that they will take a passer. "Don't sweat it, Bob," Billick said. "No matter which guy you take, it's 50-50 you'll be right—or wrong."
Recent history confirms that for every Peyton Manning, there's a Ryan Leaf. Five years after Manning and Leaf were drafted one-two, respectively, their careers are a testament to why the draft, particularly the selection of quarterbacks, is a crapshoot: Manning has laid the foundation for a Hall of Fame career, while Leaf will forever be the mayor of Bustville.
At least three quarterbacks, and perhaps as many as five, will be drafted in the first round this Saturday. Cincinnati was already negotiating with USC signal-caller Carson Palmer last week, offering him $15 million in guaranteed money, Bengals sources say, on the condition that he agrees to a predraft contract, while Marshall's Byron Leftwich and Cal's Kyle Boiler are almost certain to be among the first 15 selections as well.
Yet every member of this quarterback class of 2003 is flawed to the point that none can be labeled can't-miss. Before his Heisman-winning senior season, Palmer had been a marginal pro prospect for three-plus years. (He played three games as a sophomore in 1999 before being redshirted because of a broken collarbone.) Leftwich's lower left leg was fractured in each of the past two seasons. Boiler completed fewer than 50% of his throws in each of his first three seasons. The other two quarterbacks who could be drafted near the end of the first round, Texas' Chris Simms (can't win the big games) and Florida's Rex Grossman (at 6'1", too short), also have stigmas to overcome.
"I don't fear the flaws a player might have," new Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said last Thursday. "That's because I don't think there's ever been a slam-dunk player in any draft. Every one of them has to be coached. But I'm not wary of the pick, I'm not worried."
"Every guy presents some real risk," Billick said last month, after watching tape of those five passers. "Beauty's in the eye of the beholder this year."
In addition to Billick, SI asked three quarterback authorities—former San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell, San Francisco 49ers coach-turned-consultant Bill Walsh and former Bengals and New York Jets passer Boomer Esiason—to study videos of the five prospects. Each panelist viewed the same collection of 50 or so snaps for each quarterback, shown from sideline and end-zone angles. The analysis by Coryell, who developed Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, was particularly enlightening because he was seeing the college players for the first time and so was free of preconceptions. Here's how our panelists evaluated each quarterback.
It was clear after watching about 15 plays from last year's game at Stanford that the 6'5", 232-pound Palmer was in sync with his receivers. He threw a well-targeted ball, often before his receivers came out of their cuts. Billick said, "He throws not where the receiver is, but where he's going to be, which you have to do every play in the NFL." Coryell added, "I love the way he drops back, gets the ball off quickly and throws it where only his guy can catch it. This is NFL quarterbacking." Palmer was deft at throwing the ball on the run, even when going to his left. However Walsh said, "He's accurate, but he can't avoid the rush like Montana. You can see he's been schooled on his footwork, which he'd better be, because he has no natural quickness. Excellent touch, strong-enough arm, quick delivery." Esiason liked how Palmer "feels the blitz, never panics and makes good throws."
Finally showing all of his tools in 2002, Palmer is the most polished and accurate of the five prospects. But that doesn't mean he should play right away. Palmer should be meticulously prepped, the way the Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans) handled 1995 first-round choice Steve McNair, who didn't play regularly until late in his second season. The question is whether the Bengals can be that patient. Cincinnati, after all, has gone 12 years without a playoff appearance and hasn't had a winning season since 1990.