It was March 1983, and the buzz at the NFL meetings in Palm
Springs, Calif., was all about the wondrous crop of quarterbacks
in the upcoming draft. At least five were projected to go in the
first round, just like this year. I was sitting poolside when
Jim Finks, the Chicago Bears' general manager, pointed to my
notebook and said, "Write this down: 'In 20 years there will be
one quarterback from this draft who will be remembered above all
the others: Tony Eason.'"
In my notebook I put a star next to Eason, who was on a list
that included John Elway, Dan Marino, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly
and, a little farther down, as another possible first-rounder,
Ken O'Brien. Well, an NFL-record six quarterbacks went in that
opening round, and they have combined for 11 Super Bowl
appearances with two wins, both by Elway. Yes, Eason reached the
Super Bowl, but he's best remembered for the 46-10 pasting his
New England Patriots received at the hands of the Bears in the
January 1986 title game. The message here: Greatness is in the
eye of the beholder, at least come draft time, and no one can be
certain which prospect will hit it big.
This year's bunch? Tim Couch of Kentucky and Akili Smith of
Oregon are getting most of the attention, although Syracuse's
Donovan McNabb could sneak in as the second pick. Then there are
Central Florida's gigantic Daunte Culpepper, UCLA's Cade McNown
and the sleeper, who could find a place at the bottom of the
first round, Tulane's Shaun King. "Talk to 10 people," says Bob
Ferguson, the Arizona Cardinals' player personnel director, "and
you'll get 10 ways of lining them up."
"History tells us that two will make it big," says Cincinnati
Bengals coach Bruce Coslet, "and one of those two will be a
great player. Another two will be O.K., and two more will wash
out. And somewhere down in the draft will be another guy who
will be productive for 10 years. The trick is to figure out
which one [of the quarterbacks] will do what."
"The irony of the draft process," says Smith's agent, Leigh
Steinberg, "is that the luckiest quarterback could be the one
picked the farthest down in the first round, because he's going
to the best team."
McNabb could be part of only the second 1-2-3 quarterback draft
in NFL history. Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning and Dan Pastorini
were the top selections in 1971. Each started his career with a
bad team--and each took a terrible beating early on. But there's
something that sets this year's group apart. "They can all
move," says Tom Modrak, director of operations for the
Philadelphia Eagles, who have the second pick. "The mobility of
these guys fits the era of zone blitzes and defensive overloads.
Years ago quarterbacks didn't have that. Everyone was looking
for the big guy who could stay in the pocket."
McNabb, at 6'2", 223 pounds, with a 4.6 time in the 40, is the
most mobile and athletic of the bunch. "He doesn't just avoid
the rush; he takes it downfield and makes things happen," says
Bengals player personnel director Pete Brown, whose team will
pick third. Adds Minnesota Vikings general manager Tim Connolly,
"He's just a tremendous athlete. He played in an offense that
was a mishmash--part drop-back, part option--but he ran it like
he'd been in it for five or 10 years."
NFL personnel men and coaches were eager to see what would
happen during Senior Bowl week in January, when McNabb came
under the tutelage of Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden, who
installed his short-pass offense. "Jon really overloaded him
with reads," says Eagles coach Andy Reid. "At times he had three
or four checks coming out of the huddle. He handled it all. His
mind was rapid-fire; he was barking his signals and changeups
like an auctioneer. Smarts, athletic ability, timing, ability to
see and anticipate--this kid has it all."
Culpepper reminds people of, well, nobody else who has played
the position. At the NFL scouting combine, he measured 6'3 1/2",
255 pounds, and in private workouts at Central Florida, his 40
times were in the 4.5s. "Big horse; runs over people," Ferguson
says. "Against Nebraska his junior year [a game that Central
Florida led at the half], he kept his team in the game with his
running. He just ran over people."
He also threw for 318 yards against the Cornhuskers in the
offense of Central Florida coach Mike Kruczek, a former NFL
quarterback. Kruczek's attack was part run-and-shoot with a lot
of NFL-type elements. Scouts like Culpepper's arm, plus the fact
that he has been playing in a pro-style offense. But is he
really that fast? "The 4.5s he ran were in track spikes on a
fast surface," one scout notes. "Against a really quick defense,
like Auburn's, he didn't look faster than the opposition."
"Fast enough," says Brown, "and it takes a real man to bring him
down. I saw the Gridiron Classic all-star game, and one guy came
in clean and hit him with a form tackle and just bounced off. I
know people who think he's the best of all of them."
The fifth quarterback, who's projected to go no higher than the
middle of the first round, is McNown. Among a typical crop of
quarterbacks he might be top 10, but he suffers in comparison
with this year's big four. His arm is good enough for the pros
but not quite as strong as the others'; he's a little short at
6' 3/4"; and he has a slightly sidearm delivery. "I'm hearing
the same stuff on him that I heard about Steve Young when he
came out," says Ferguson. "Hey, all this guy does is play
well--and win. Plus, he's tougher than hell."
Which brings us to the sleeper, who in 1998 had the most
productive year of any college quarterback. How about King's
numbers: 36 touchdown passes and a 68% completion rate for a
12-0 team, six interceptions, 532 yards and 10 TDs rushing--and
he played most of the season with a cast on his left wrist,
which he broke in the Green Wave's third game. Productive as he
may have been, King is only 5'11 7/8". There's that height thing
again. Hey, anyone ever heard of Doug Flutie? "King is the guy I
like most in the whole draft," says San Diego Chargers general
manager Bobby Beathard. "I just wish he was as tall as the other
Are we forgetting someone? Another sleeper perhaps, someone who
might slip in as a second-round pick and raise more eyebrows?
"Joe Germaine from Ohio State," Modrak says. "He'll drop a few
notches, and whoever drafts him is going to get a damn good
player. Just watch."