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
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.
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
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."