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
April 30, 2006

The NFL's 71sttalent lottery, beginning Saturday in New York, is shaping up as the Draft ofNo Sure Things. Just look at the two players jousting to be the top pick. USCback Reggie Bush could be pro football's next big star as arunner-receiver-return man, but you can't count on a player who touched theball an average of 16 times a game in three collegiate seasons to be anevery-down NFL back. North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams, toutedas the best pass rusher in the draft, had sacks in only 11 of his last 23collegiate games. ¶ Years ago teams scouted players by what they read innewspapers and magazines, and by word of mouth, and that method worked prettywell. In 1956 the New York Giants picked Sam Huff, Jim Katcavage and DonChandler in Rounds 3, 4 and 5, respectively; the next year they selected DonMaynard in the ninth round. Huff and Maynard (who became a star with the NewYork Jets) made the Hall of Fame, and the Giants went to six NFL championshipgames with Katcavage and Chandler. ¶ Today the Giants have a 17-man scoutingand personnel staff and employ a psychologist who uses a 480-questionpersonality 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 '56draftees-any team would. The truth is, despite spending more and more money,hiring more scouts, watching more video, poking and prodding more 21-year-oldsin more workouts, NFL teams aren't coming close to mastering the draft. Case inpoint: selecting quarterbacks. In 1971 the first three picks were Jim Plunkett,Archie Manning and Dan Pastorini. Though each of them went through roughperiods, all turned into solid NFL players. In 1999 the one-two-three pickswere Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith-two monumental busts bracketinga Pro Bowl quarterback (box, page 49).

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

The Draft of NoSure Things is particularly dicey at quarterback. USC golden boy Matt Leinartspent three years piloting one of the greatest college teams in history, but ishe 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, awillingness to take risks-but he can't hide the bottom line on his résumé: an11-34 record as a starter. The ultimate gamble this year is Texas's chiseled6'5" athletic marvel, Vince Young. "I can see him going to the Hall ofFame, and I can see him being a bust," one prominent NFL offensivecoordinator said last week. "He's the biggest question mark I've seen inthe draft in a long time."

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

On the footballfield at Texas Southern in mid-April, class is in session under a blazing Texassun and in a stiff crosswind. Former quarterback and veteran assistant coachJerry Rhome, hired by Young to tutor him in the ways of the NFL the last twomonths, is not sparing the rod. "No!" Rhome yells, after his studentthrows a bad pass to the left sideline. "Don't swing your body! Hit [setyour feet], turn and boom-throw! You eliminate the bad throw with goodmechanics."

Instead ofplanting his back foot solidly, turning sharply to his left and lasering theball 12 yards to the sideline, Young had lazily swung his torso and tossed theball 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 MinnesotaVikings last year. "His footwork, his drop, his setup, everything he's beenworking on has improved drastically. If people in the NFL still think he's amystery, I can promise you he's not. Not after what I've seen in the last twomonths." But Rhome isn't making draft decisions this weekend.

Young is trying tomake the leap from a simple college offense that counted heavily on his runningskills-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 quarterbacksince Bobby Douglass of the Chicago Bears in 1972 has averaged 10 rushingattempts per game in the NFL.) Also, Young consistently throws the ball with analmost sidearm flick; the pros prefer a classic overhand style. And add this tothe learning curve: At the February scouting combine Young was allowed to takethe NFL-administered Wonderlic intelligence test a second time after the leaguesaid his first test was graded incorrectly. He reportedly scored a pedestrian15 out of 50 on the retest, and the entire episode raised questions about hisability to master and execute an NFL offense.

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

Figuring whichcollege 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) andBen Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers, 2004)-have won a Super Bowl as astarter 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 beenforewarned.

You say 14 more ofthose 43 quarterbacks did lead the teams that drafted them to the playoffs?Well, don't give the Cincinnati Bengals too much credit for choosing theprecocious Carson Palmer in 2003; they made two colossal first-round blunders(David Klingler in 1992, Akili Smith in '99) before getting it right. TheDetroit Lions' miserable first-round quarterback history (Chuck Long, '86;Andre Ware, '90; Joey Harrington, 2002) has been a prime reason why they've hadbut six winning seasons in the last 20. For every Aikman there are two ToddMarinoviches. And we haven't even mentioned Kelly Stouffer (the sixth pick, bythe 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 quarterbacksbetter in 1940 than they do today," says retired Green Bay Packers generalmanager Ron Wolf. "There's far too much analysis and overthinking. Peopleget into too many unimportant things rather than seeing if the guy can play andlead and win."

At Texas, Youngdid all those things. He led the Longhorns to 30 victories in his 32 starts,completed 62% of his passes and ran for 37 touchdowns in 37 career games."The thing he doesn't get enough credit for is how much of a leader hewas," says Longhorns teammate David Thomas, a first-day draft hopeful attight end. "Superstar or freshman walk-on, he treated everyone with thesame respect. That's why we loved playing with him."

Watching threeTexas games from 2005 on tape broken down for coaches, it's easy to see whyYoung is such a tantalizing-and vexing-prospect. Early in a 47-28 win atOklahoma State in October, for example, Young stood tall in the pocket, waitingfor Thomas to get open on a seam route down the middle. With a defensive endsteaming in from the left, Young waited until the last second before threadinga bullet between two defenders into Thomas's outstretched hands-and then gotleveled. Touchdown. In the third quarter Young weaved through traffic at theline, pump-faked a linebacker so convincingly the guy leaped to block theimaginary throw, juked another Cowboy so hard the player actually pulled upwith a hamstring injury, and glided 80 yards for a touchdown. But earlier inthat same game Young had made a lazy, off-balance throw to a receiver who hadfour defensive backs around him. (It wasn't intercepted.)

Young appeared tohave the most difficulty against blitzing teams that shut off his rushinglanes. Oklahoma and Texas A&M played him that way, holding him to 64 yardson 28 carries combined. Yet Young made enough plays (he had three TD passesagainst the Sooners and led two late scoring drives to seal the win against theAggies) that Texas won both games.

In the NFL thefield will seem smaller for Young because the defensive players are quicker,and his new coaches won't give him as much freedom to run. Here's one reasonwhy: Michael Vick, who averaged 10.6 rushes per game at Virginia Tech, hascarried the ball about seven times a game for the Atlanta Falcons over the lastfour years-and even with that reduced load Vick has missed 14 games because ofinjuries. "I've watched a lot of tape on Young," says ESPN analyst RonJaworski, the former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, "and if he runs inthe NFL like he did in college, guys like [Baltimore Ravens safety] Ed Reed aregoing to bust him up."

At Texas, Youngwasn't required to perform most of the NFL passing basics, such as taking afive- or seven-step drop, planting the back foot, surveying the field andfiring a 10- or 12-yard out or comeback route to the sideline. More often hewas in the shotgun, throwing fades and counting on his receivers to beatdefensive backs. Often he threw on the run. So, after the 64-year-old Rhome wasretained by Young to help him work on fundamentals, one of the things the27-year NFL coaching veteran concentrated on was the drop-back and throw to thesideline.

Last Thursday,Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer put Young through a 45-minuteworkout at the University of Houston. In many ways these drills gave anindication of how far Young has progressed under Rhome. The young quarterbackwas polished and accurate in front of Schottenheimer. He dropped back smoothlyand quickly, set up and threw tight spirals to receivers on the sidelines, andcompleted most of his passes. When the workout was done, Schottenheimer walkedup to Young and said, "Very impressive. I saw a lot of things Iliked."

But the fact thatSchottenheimer was the only Jets representative at this workout, so close tothe draft, spoke volumes. In the previous four days a Jets traveling party ofSchottenheimer, coach Eric Mangini and general manager Mike Tannenbaum hadworked out and dined with Leinart and Cutler; owner Woody Johnson had joinedthe group in Nashville to meet Cutler. That's one slight. Here's another: Youngisn't even on the radar screen of the teams with the first two picks. TheTexans, who've cast their lot with shaky incumbent quarterback David Carr, willchoose between Bush and Williams. The Saints, who signed free-agent passer DrewBrees in the off-season, brought five candidates for the No. 2 pick to NewOrleans last week. Young wasn't one of them.

"I'm thinkingTennessee is the best possibility," says Young's agent, Major Adams. Maybe.The Titans will likely draft a quarterback with the third pick, though therewere indications over the weekend that they were most interested in tradingdown and taking Cutler-or addressing their quarterback need in the second roundwith a less-heralded prospect, such as Alabama's Brodie Croyle.

Young acts as ifthe notion of sinking in the draft doesn't bother him. He exhibits a naive sortof confidence when talking about the doubts surrounding him and the perceivedslights in the draft run-up. "I don't care about any of that," he says."Teams have different needs. God will find a team for me. A lot of peoplelove my skills. If some teams don't want Vince, that's fine. All I want to dois get to a team, begin learning the system and start to get the offensedown."

"But will youremember who passed on you?" he's asked.

"I'm going toremember," he responds. "You don't pick me, that's your choice. But Iwill remember."

Young chafes whenasked what effect the Wonderlic episode might have on his pro prospects."They reported I scored a six," he says, referring to media accounts ofhis first test at the combine. "That's not accurate. The test was messedup. I won't have trouble learning any offense. I'm not worried about that atall." Representatives of two teams that met with Young, including Tennesseecoach Jeff Fisher, said they were encouraged by his grasp of X's and O's.

Still, it's hardto outrun stories like that. If Young plummets in the first round, you can besure it won't just be because NFL decision-makers doubt his ability to throwthe sideline out.

So Young could bedrafted anywhere from No. 3 to ... well, who knows? But before the NFL getsaround to him, there's the confusion at the top that has to be resolved. Afterhalf the free world had given Bush to Houston, which desperately needsoffensive firepower, Texans owner Bob McNair said last week that the pick was acoin toss between Bush and Williams. "Reggie Bush can be a dominating forceon offense, but Mario Williams can be the same on defense," says McNair,who might have to write one of those players a check for $25 million, theestimated signing bonus for this year's top pick. "We had games last yearthat we led at halftime and ended up losing, and it was because we couldn'tpressure the quarterback. We've got a tough decision to make." The Texansbegan contract negotiations with Bush and Williams last weekend and could shiftfrom one to the other if the financial demands of their first choice are toosteep.

Houston's suddenambivalence has taken Bush by surprise, though he said last week that he hasn'tcounted on anything since January. "It's been a goal of mine to be thefirst pick," he said. "But you never know what's going to happen withthe draft. Will someone trade up for me? I don't know. I don't think I'll knowfor sure until draft day."

In the Draft of NoSure Things, that may be the only certainty.

SI.COM

Get draft news and analysis from Peter King, Dr. Z andDon Banks at SI.com/nfl.

Inside

43 Quarterback Essentials

44 LenDale White's Wild Ride

46 Beware The 10 Risk Factors

48 Measuring Bodies and Brains

49 The Great Mistake Of 1999

50 Dr. Z's Mock Draft

"Teams scouted quarterbacks better in 1940 thantoday," says Wolf. "There's far too much overthinking."

"If Young runs like he did in college," saysJaworski, "guys like Ed Reed are going to bust him up."

PHOTOPhotograph by Greg Nelson BIGSTEPS
Young, a shotgun QB with the Longhorns, has been honing his drop-back skills toassuage doubts that he can adjust to the pro game.
PHOTOMARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE ON THECLOCK
Bush was the center of attention on USC's pro day, but even his unquestionedskills don't make him a sure No. 1.
PHOTOTODD ROSENBERG NUMBERSGAME
Cutler flashed his skills at the combine but can't hide his .244 winningpercentage as a college starter.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)