The annual rite of
winter in pro football--picking apart draft prospects--was heating up last
weekend at the sweatshop known as the NFL scouting combine. The two top
candidates to go No. 1 on April 28, quarterbacks JaMarcus Russell and Brady
Quinn, were getting it with both barrels, from the media and from scouts and
coaches whispering among themselves. Quinn couldn't win the big one at Notre
Dame, wasn't accurate enough, threw three or four brain-lock passes a game.
Needed a haircut too. LSU's Russell was a little doughy at his weigh-in (265
pounds on his 6'5 1/2" frame), didn't have Quinn's college experience,
isn't particularly mobile or consistent in his mechanics and--this one from NFL
Network analyst Mike Mayock--might not have the work ethic or love for the game
to justify the guaranteed $30 million the top pick will command this year.
When that last bit
of combine prattle traveled the four blocks from the RCA Dome to the
sixth-floor Omni hotel suite of Russell's agents just before midnight last
Saturday, the 21-year-old quarterback, who left Baton Rouge a year early to
enter the draft, just shook his head. But his uncle, Ray Russell, nearly jumped
out of his chair. "Doesn't love football!" Ray said with disgust, his
incredulity working him into a lather. "Put it like this: The boy's in 10th
grade, going into 11th, and there's this quarterback camp that's supposed to be
the best in the country, the Elite 11 in California. We get into our car in
Mobile and drive 2 1/2 days to get to that camp--so he can get the water
bottles and help run drills for the 11 guys in camp. That's how important
football is to him."
more subdued, was similarly indignant. "My junior year in high school, the
week before the state playoffs, we're down 21--0 at halftime," he said.
"We come back late, score to make it 21--20, and we go for two. I jump up
and pass for it, and when I come down I get in a pile and my foot gets all
twisted up. We win, but my ankle's swelling up real bad. They take me to the
hospital. The nurse twists it around a little bit and says, 'Six to eight
weeks. You're out.' They hand me crutches. It's bad all week. I get it packed a
couple of nights in red clay and vinegar, like a cast. I don't know what that
does, but I tried to practice a little on Thursday and played Friday night.
Torched 'em. We won."
Over the next
eight weeks the Russell-Quinn debate will be the hottest topic in the nonstop
world of draft analysis. Film will be broken down, past performances picked
apart in detail. Questions will be raised about each player's development,
leadership ability, intelligence, arm strength, foot speed, conditioning,
desire. The opinions won't stop coming until one is selected, most likely by
the quarterback-needy Oakland Raiders, who own the first pick. The consolation
prize for the other will likely be a job with the Detroit Lions (picking
second), Cleveland Browns (third), Minnesota Vikings (seventh) or Miami
Dolphins (ninth). Quinn is the ultrapolished son Marv Marinovich never had,
dying to be the top pick; Russell is the polite upstart, refusing to politic
for the position.
For much of the
past year Quinn, a four-year starter for the Fighting Irish, has been the
odds-on favorite to be the draft's first pick. But he played poorly in bad
losses to highly ranked Michigan and USC. Meanwhile, Russell, a starter for
two-plus seasons, performed better than Quinn against top competition as a
junior in 2006 and proved to be a more accurate intermediate and deep thrower.
Russell's higher completion percentage last fall, .678 to Quinn's .619, takes
on added significance when combined with the fact that his average gain per
attempt was significantly higher (9.1 yards to 7.3) than Quinn's.
When Notre Dame
and LSU squared off in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3, it was no contest: Russell ran
the Tigers' offense to perfection--21 for 34, a career-high 332 yards and two
touchdowns passing, plus another TD rushing--and LSU rolled, 41--14. Quinn, who
was chased all over the Superdome for four quarters, looked jittery and
struggled (15 for 35, 148 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions).
"You can't judge a book by one page," Quinn said with a stiff upper lip
in Indy. "Hopefully NFL teams will read the whole book on me."
They will, but the
first pick is Russell's to lose heading into his March 14 workout on the LSU
campus. Quinn will work out for NFL teams on March 4 and 22 in South Bend. As
is customary for projected top choices, neither player threw at the combine.
Both were weighed and measured and had interviews with individual teams. Quinn
chose to bench-press; he blew away the rest of the quarterback class with a
guardlike 24 reps of 225 pounds (which would mean something if pressing strong
safeties was part of a quarterback's job).
Raiders boss Al Davis loves the deep ball, and Russell will enter the NFL with
one of the strongest arms ever. Taking one normal step, he has thrown the ball
82 yards. With downfield threats Randy Moss and Jerry Porter likely to remain
in Oakland next fall and with a porous offensive line, the Raiders are
desperate for a quarterback who can get off the long pass and take a hit.
Russell is this draft's prototype for the durable bomber. And his hands are
some of the biggest ever measured at a combine. "When he grips the
ball," said Vikings VP of player personnel Rick Spielman, "he makes it
look like one of those Nerf footballs."
The top of this
draft looks a lot like 1998's. That year Washington State's Ryan Leaf was the
big, strong guy with a great deep arm; Tennessee's Peyton Manning was the heady
passer who hadn't won the big game in college. Manning went No. 1 to the
Indianapolis Colts, Leaf No. 2 to the San Diego Chargers. Nine years later
Manning sits atop the football world, and Leaf is a college golf coach in West
Texas. "The repercussions of this pick will last for years," said
Browns general manager Phil Savage. "You're picking a flavor, basically.
Brady's probably the safer pick. He's been so well-schooled in every aspect of
quarterback play, and we've had three or four years to evaluate him because
he's played so much college football. And people in this league respect [Notre
Dame] coach Charlie Weis. They'll listen to him about Brady. Maybe there's more
upside with JaMarcus because he's so physically gifted. It's a tough
between Quinn and Russell, which started at the Sugar Bowl, extended to
Athletes' Performance in Tempe, Ariz., a private workout facility where they
were among 30 top draft prospects who left their campuses in January to train
in isolation for their NFL auditions. The two were in different workout groups
and didn't spend much time together; Quinn quickly partnered with USC receiver
Dwayne Jarrett, a first-round prospect, while Russell and several other
wideouts hung together.