Miami of Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger may be one of the first players drafted in April
(by Vic Carucci, National Editor, NFL.com)
Another year, another quarterback at the top of the draft?
Only the San Diego Chargers can provide that answer, and they're a long way from revealing their intentions with the No. 1 overall pick on April 24.
But there is reason to believe the Chargers could cause a quarterback to occupy that spot for the fourth year in a row. For one thing, they seem serious about finding a replacement for incumbent starter Drew Brees, who was a major disappointment in 2003. For another, at least two quarterbacks -- and possibly a third -- merit strong consideration for the first choice.
So who will it be? Eli Manning, the Mississippi star whose father (Archie) and brother (Peyton) have blazed a long trail of quarterbacking excellence? Ben Roethlisberger, the strong-armed thrower from Miami of Ohio? Perhaps even Philip Rivers, the North Carolina State standout whose stock soared considerably after an MVP performance in the Senior Bowl?
"As far as who we like -- one, two, three -- I won't say that now, but I can tell you we like three of them," Chargers general manager A.J. Smith said during a break at the NFL combine.
Manning receives the most mentions as residing at the head of the Class of 2004, and rightfully so. He not only has the right genes, but his performance also shows he is a great student of the game and especially of the quarterback position. Scouts universally rave about his throwing mechanics and quick release. He has the superb touch and accuracy on short and intermediate throws that would make him a perfect fit in a West Coast-style, horizontal passing game. He might not be quite as obsessive as Peyton when it comes to studying an opponent (Eli focuses solely on videotape while Peyton pulls out the media guide to check where opponents attended college and high school) but he makes good pre-snap reads and consistently finds holes in zone coverage. Additionally, Eli has an edge over his brother in athleticism and arm strength.
But most scouts believe that Roethlisberger has the strongest arm of any quarterback in this year's college crop, and that ultimately could push him ahead of Manning. He doesn't have a recognizable name -- or one that is as easy to spell or pronounce (it's Roth-elz-berger) -- but he did manage to draw considerable attention for a remarkable 2003 season when he completed 69.1 percent of his passes for 4,486 yards and 37 touchdowns (all single-season school records) while leading the Miami of Ohio RedHawks to a 13-1 record and a No. 10 ranking in the Associated Press poll.
Rivers is intriguing. So is Drew Henson, the former Michigan quarterback who is returning to football after a three-year hiatus to pursue a baseball career with the New York Yankees. The Houston Texans secured Henson's rights by drafting him last year, and are attempting to sign him and trade him. If not, he would enter this year's draft. Henson recently worked out for 20 NFL teams, but there is no sense that he did enough in throwing 75 passes to take the spotlight away from the current crop of college quarterbacks.
And the bulk of conversations about that crop begin and end with Manning and Roethlisberger.
"That's what you hear," said Manning, who won't participate in any combine drills but does plan to work out for NFL clubs at the New Orleans Saints' facility on March 11. "You try not to listen to things. It's hard not to when you see your name as a possible 1 or 2. I've still got a lot of work to do. I've still got a bunch of interviews to do (with coaches and general managers) and then I have my workout to do. All I can do is control what I can do. What I can do is try and go out and have a good workout."
"Obviously, Eli Manning is a great quarterback, hands down," said Roethlisberger, who planned to throw at the combine this weekend and is tentatively scheduled to run for NFL teams on March 25. "He's got everything, including the name. He's right now the No. 1 pick of the draft according to a lot of people. And he deserves it. I just love watching him play."
Consider that a politically correct take, because when asked which of the two would be chosen first, Roethlisberger said, "It's a good question. I think both of us are pretty good quarterbacks."
Let's see, we have two top quarterbacks and the Chargers are in position to select one of them. Sound familiar? It should. In 1998, the Chargers owned the second pick of the draft. After the Colts chose Peyton Manning, the Chargers went with Ryan Leaf … who went on to become a colossal bust and the subject of one of the NFL's all-time cautionary draft tales.
It has been speculated ever since that because of the Leaf debacle, the Chargers would intentionally steer clear of using a high choice on a quarterback. In 2001, they traded the top pick to the Atlanta Falcons, who used it for Michael Vick. The Chargers ended up moving down to select LaDainian Tomlinson, a spectacular franchise running back, but that was the same year they made Brees their quarterback of the future.
Could the fear of ending up with another Leaf cause the Chargers to again shy away from making a quarterback the No. 1 choice and instead go with University of Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald, or perhaps make a trade to acquire more picks to fill more needs? In December, Chargers president Dean Spanos told a San Diego newspaper columnist that the club would not use a high draft choice on a quarterback. However, according to Smith, the thinking has changed. Smith, who was not with the Chargers in '98, has gone out of his way to make clear that he is under no orders to avoid using the top pick on a quarterback.
Yet he fully understands the trepidation that goes with targeting a quarterback that high. The financial investment is staggering while the results can often be miniscule. You can end up with a disaster, such as what the Chargers had with Leaf. Or, as typically happens, you're forced to keep the player on the sidelines until he develops a better understanding of the complexities of NFL defenses. Carson Palmer, the former USC quarterback whom the Cincinnati Bengals made the top overall choice last year, never saw the field as a rookie.
"You take chances on some young men sometimes," Smith said. "You do the best that you can on (assessing) work ethic, character, background. We all do that diligently. Then you make selections, and sometimes people change."
There are, of course, the stories of players who weren't drafted as "franchise" quarterbacks but wound up reaching that status. The one for the ages is New England's Tom Brady, a sixth-round choice who went on to become a two-time Super Bowl MVP.
Every team wants to find this year's Brady, someone with big-time talent but a small enough contract to remain cap friendly for a long time. However, struggling clubs with early picks are bound to be swept off their feet by the allure of highly publicized quarterbacks whose names show up at the top of everyone's draft projections. There is no escaping the desire to have the marquee player at the most important position from the very start of his career rather than hoping to locate a diamond in the rough.
"They are still the guys that win or lose games because they've got the ball in their hands," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "I think everybody would like to have a guy who is the John Elway or the Troy Aikman, or those guys who have been successful or won championships with both ability and presence."
But not everybody has the stomach for the massive blunders that can occur in pursuit of such quarterbacks.