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The Ultimate Gamble
May 01, 2006
In the treacherous process of selecting college talent, a first-round decision can make or break a franchise. This year no top prospect poses a greater risk-or promises a bigger reward-than Texas quarterback Vince Young
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May 01, 2006

The Ultimate Gamble

In the treacherous process of selecting college talent, a first-round decision can make or break a franchise. This year no top prospect poses a greater risk-or promises a bigger reward-than Texas quarterback Vince Young

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The NFL's 71st talent lottery, beginning Saturday in New York, is shaping up as the Draft of No Sure Things. Just look at the two players jousting to be the top pick. USC back Reggie Bush could be pro football's next big star as a runner-receiver-return man, but you can't count on a player who touched the ball an average of 16 times a game in three collegiate seasons to be an every-down NFL back. North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams, touted as the best pass rusher in the draft, had sacks in only 11 of his last 23 collegiate games. � Years ago teams scouted players by what they read in newspapers and magazines, and by word of mouth, and that method worked pretty well. In 1956 the New York Giants picked Sam Huff, Jim Katcavage and Don Chandler in Rounds 3, 4 and 5, respectively; the next year they selected Don Maynard in the ninth round. Huff and Maynard (who became a star with the New York Jets) made the Hall of Fame, and the Giants went to six NFL championship games with Katcavage and Chandler. � Today the Giants have a 17-man scouting and personnel staff and employ a psychologist who uses a 480-question personality test to help project how well a prospect will fit into the team, but they would kill for the kind of production they got from their '56 draftees-any team would. The truth is, despite spending more and more money, hiring more scouts, watching more video, poking and prodding more 21-year-olds in more workouts, NFL teams aren't coming close to mastering the draft. Case in point: selecting quarterbacks. In 1971 the first three picks were Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning and Dan Pastorini. Though each of them went through rough periods, all turned into solid NFL players. In 1999 the one-two-three picks were Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith-two monumental busts bracketing a Pro Bowl quarterback (box, page 49).

That's the lure, the reason draftniks get more excited during the four months leading up to the April talent grab than in the four months of the regular season. The whole process is a guessing game. And whenever young adults and big money and ego-tripping talent evaluators collide, $20 million mistakes are made. This year will be no different.

The Draft of No Sure Things is particularly dicey at quarterback. USC golden boy Matt Leinart spent three years piloting one of the greatest college teams in history, but is he the reason why the system was great or the product of a great system? Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler has some Brett Favre-like traits-a strong arm, a willingness to take risks-but he can't hide the bottom line on his r�sum�: an 11-34 record as a starter. The ultimate gamble this year is Texas's chiseled 6'5" athletic marvel, Vince Young. "I can see him going to the Hall of Fame, and I can see him being a bust," one prominent NFL offensive coordinator said last week. "He's the biggest question mark I've seen in the draft in a long time."

So let's begin in Young's hometown of Houston, where he has been working to reinvent himself.

On the football field at Texas Southern in mid-April, class is in session under a blazing Texas sun and in a stiff crosswind. Former quarterback and veteran assistant coach Jerry Rhome, hired by Young to tutor him in the ways of the NFL the last two months, is not sparing the rod. "No!" Rhome yells, after his student throws a bad pass to the left sideline. "Don't swing your body! Hit [set your feet], turn and boom-throw! You eliminate the bad throw with good mechanics."

Instead of planting his back foot solidly, turning sharply to his left and lasering the ball 12 yards to the sideline, Young had lazily swung his torso and tossed the ball over the head of his receiver, Texas Southern draft hopeful Tyrone Reed. Young gets it right on the next play. "He gets a little sloppy sometimes, but not often," says Rhome, who served as an assistant with the Minnesota Vikings last year. "His footwork, his drop, his setup, everything he's been working on has improved drastically. If people in the NFL still think he's a mystery, I can promise you he's not. Not after what I've seen in the last two months." But Rhome isn't making draft decisions this weekend.

Young is trying to make the leap from a simple college offense that counted heavily on his running skills-12.4 carries per game for 84.5 yards-to the encyclopedic NFL playbooks, in which quarterbacks are rarely designated to carry the ball. (No quarterback since Bobby Douglass of the Chicago Bears in 1972 has averaged 10 rushing attempts per game in the NFL.) Also, Young consistently throws the ball with an almost sidearm flick; the pros prefer a classic overhand style. And add this to the learning curve: At the February scouting combine Young was allowed to take the NFL-administered Wonderlic intelligence test a second time after the league said his first test was graded incorrectly. He reportedly scored a pedestrian 15 out of 50 on the retest, and the entire episode raised questions about his ability to master and execute an NFL offense.

Eight NFL coaches and front-office officials whose teams have picks in the top half of the first round were interviewed for this story, and none would say anything critical about Young on the record. But the clubs in position to draft him have a common fear: If they don't select Young, will they be passing on an alltime great to take a less risky player? By last week the Houston Texans, New Orleans Saints and New York Jets, picking first, second and fourth, respectively, appeared to have cooled on Young, and he could fall as far as the middle of the round if the Tennessee Titans (picking third), Oakland Raiders (seventh) or Arizona Cardinals (10th) all pass as well.

Figuring which college quarterbacks will succeed in the NFL isn't rocket science. It's harder. In the last 20 years NFL teams have drafted 43 quarterbacks in the first round, each time thinking, This is the guy who's going to lead us to a championship. But only two of those players- Troy Aikman ( Dallas Cowboys, drafted in 1989) and Ben Roethlisberger ( Pittsburgh Steelers, 2004)-have won a Super Bowl as a starter with the team that picked them. Two for 43. That's a batting average of .047. Teams considering drafting Young or Leinart or Cutler have been forewarned.

You say 14 more of those 43 quarterbacks did lead the teams that drafted them to the playoffs? Well, don't give the Cincinnati Bengals too much credit for choosing the precocious Carson Palmer in 2003; they made two colossal first-round blunders ( David Klingler in 1992, Akili Smith in '99) before getting it right. The Detroit Lions' miserable first-round quarterback history ( Chuck Long, '86; Andre Ware, '90; Joey Harrington, 2002) has been a prime reason why they've had but six winning seasons in the last 20. For every Aikman there are two Todd Marinoviches. And we haven't even mentioned Kelly Stouffer (the sixth pick, by the St. Louis Cardinals, in 1987) or Heath Shuler (third, Washington Redskins, 1994) or Jim Druckenmiller (26th, San Francisco 49ers, 1997) or Ryan Leaf (second, San Diego Chargers, 1998). "I think teams scouted quarterbacks better in 1940 than they do today," says retired Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf. "There's far too much analysis and overthinking. People get into too many unimportant things rather than seeing if the guy can play and lead and win."

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