The best athletes have a rare combination of qualities—skill, poise and the kind of moxie that says, When the game's on the line, I'll make the play to win it. NFL teams pay scouts to find players who have this gift, particularly when teams are evaluating the most important position on the field. � "There's an it factor for quarterbacks," says New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, who, as G.M. of the Baltimore Colts and the Cleveland Browns, drafted John Elway and Bernie Kosar, respectively, because he thought each passer had the gift. "You know when your guy has it, and you know when he doesn't. When I came into the NFL with Baltimore [in 1970], I was around the ultimate it guy, Johnny Unitas. Guys like that are natural leaders and play so well that you say, 'We'll win with this guy.' "
This winter, when NFL coaches and scouts analyzed game tape and the workouts of North Carolina State's Philip Rivers, who started more games (51) than any other quarterback in NCAA Division I history, they saw a passer with a three-quarter throwing motion, an average deep arm and little mobility. So why might Rivers go as high as fourth in the NFL draft this Saturday? Simply put, he has it. "He's so mature, so talented," says Accorsi, who with coach Tom Coughlin led a Giants delegation that worked out Rivers in Raleigh on April 5. "When I walked off the field after the workout, I told Tom, 'This guy will succeed in our league.' "
But this weekend's NFL draft is shaping up as a particularly unpredictable one. The San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders, picking first and second, respectively, could move down for a package of draft picks and/or players. Selecting third, the Arizona Cardinals appear set on taking a wide receiver, and the Giants, at No. 4, would love to move up for a shot at Mississippi quarterback Eli Manning or Iowa tackle Robert Gallery. The Washington Redskins, picking fifth, have great interest in Gallery (box, page 58). Because six potential offensive standouts are available—Manning, Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger of Miami ( Ohio) at quarterback, Kellen Winslow Jr. of Miami ( Fla.) at tight end and Larry Fitzgerald of Pitt and Roy Williams of Texas at wide receiver—teams needing a boost on offense, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers (picking 11th), the Buffalo Bills (13th) and the Denver Broncos (17th), may also try to move into the top 10.
For teams in need of defensive help, there's not much marquee talent. Ends Kenechi Udeze of USC and Will Smith of Ohio State are the best pass rushers, while in the secondary cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall of Virginia Tech and Dunta Robinson of South Carolina and safety Sean Taylor of Miami ( Fla.) are likely first-round selections.
The deep-talent position is wide receiver, with as many as seven going in the first round. And though there probably won't be any premier players left after the top dozen picks, as Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz says, "There's tremendous value this year in the second, third and fourth rounds."
That bodes well for teams who have stockpiled picks, such as the Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots, who have two selections in the first round and a total of six in the first four. The Pats have never been shy about dealing for additional picks—in the last three drafts run by coach Bill Belichick and vice president Scott Pioli, New England has made 16 trades, including six last year—but don't expect them to move up very far, if at all, from their 21st and 32nd spots in the first round. The depth on their roster comes from mining the middle rounds.
The 22-year-old Rivers, who grew up in Athens, Ala., as the son of a high school coach, is 6'5" and a lean 232 pounds, with a Southern drawl and Wally Cleaver politeness. Second in Division I history with 13,484 passing yards, Rivers played for three offensive coordinators and three quarterback coaches at N.C. State. Others might have seen that as a hindrance, but Rivers viewed it as a positive. His plus-61 career touchdown-to-interception margin (95 to 34) was better than those of Manning (plus 46) and Roethlisberger (plus 50). Rivers also completed 63.6% of his throws in an offense that featured more intermediate passes than the dink-and-dunk variety.
He started as a freshman, and in his first game—at home against Arkansas State-the Wolfpack trailed by three with 2:18 left. Before taking the field for a drive that would start at his own 11, the young quarterback railed at his offense, "We can quit right now and lose to this sorry bunch, or we can suck it up and find a way to win!" Rivers drove N.C. State for the tying field goal, and the Wolfpack won in overtime.
"Sometimes talk is cheap," Rivers says. "Like last season, against Ohio State, when we were down by 17 with nine minutes left. Everything had been said. We just needed to do something on the field. But in that first game I felt I had to give us a spark. Sometimes you just know when it's right."
That's a key in evaluating Rivers, who doesn't have the classic throwing motion of Roethlisberger or the football pedigree of Manning. But look at the perceived flaws in other passers who went on to greatness. Kosar's throwing motion was funkier than that of Rivers, yet Kosar threw for 23,301 yards in 12 NFL seasons and led the Browns to three division titles. Tom Brady ran a 5.24-second 40-yard dash at the 2000 combine, and his arm strength is average at best, but he has won two Super Bowls for the Patriots. Rivers was clocked at 5.05 seconds in the 40, but teams shouldn't be looking at his speed. They should be looking at his pocket presence, his knack for rising to the occasion.