USC's Matt Leinart could be the first quarterback drafted this year, but he's got strong competition for that honor
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are due to pick 23rd in next weekend's NFL Draft, and by measure of any mock draft you'll find, that puts them out of range grab Matt Leinart, Vince Young or Jay Cutler. Those are this year's franchise quarterbacks, the passers deemed to be a cut above the rest, the best bets as long-term solutions for NFL teams rabidly in search of just that.
So it's not surprising that, when asked about that trio of glamour picks, the first reaction by Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden is, hey, "I think there are a couple other guys who are interesting."
And, indeed, history tells us that the this draft's great QB of the future may just as easily come off the board in the second, fourth or sixth rounds. In what has quickly become the classic example for this point, the New England Patriots drafted Tom Brady in the sixth round in 2000, seventh overall at his position after Chad Pennington, Giovanni Carmazzi (!), Chris Redman, Tee Martin, Marc Bulger and Spergon Wynn. So perhaps Leinart, Young and Cutler will someday be overshadowed by the likes of Brodie Croyle, Charlie Whitehurst or D.J. Shockley.
Still, there are reasons that the above trio will probably be gone by the 10th pick of the draft. Very strong reasons. Gruden, in fact, thinks highly of all three.
Though some mock-drafters dissent, Leinart is generally slotted first among these three, perhaps as high as the second pick overall. Gruden thinks his new team will get a passer who is strong in every facet of the game.
"Leinart's a great system quarterback, a physical presence, a charismatic guy," said the Bucs' coach. "There are not a lot of holes in him. You could say he's not the most mobile guy. He's a guy you'd love to have on your team."
Cutler has been the draft's most upwardly mobile prospect, rising from dark horse status at the end of 2005 to a true threat to dethrone the other two as the first passer taken. While Leinart was at the helm of a super-powered USC attack in California, Cutler honed his skills with a usually out-manned Vanderbilt offense. His confidence and creativeness in that situation has recently drawn him one of the most flattering pro comparisons possible: Brett Favre.
"Cutler, he's got a knack," said Gruden. "He's got that flair about him like he's going to win this game. Get the ball back, this guy's going to figure it out. He's going to make a play in this drive and he's going to beat you. Then you see his workout and, man, he's bigger than I thought. He can throw the ball better than I thought. He's really a hell of a guy; I like this guy a lot. Everybody that scouts the guy, they keep looking for something and all they keep finding is, 'Man, I like this guy.'"
In contrast, Young's worthiness as the top pick has taken something of a beating since the combine. Right after his incomparable performance against Leinart and the Trojans in the national championship game, there was widespread speculation that the Houston Texans might take him first overall. A few months and endless analysis later, and some are wondering if he might slip out of the top five or the top 10 overall.
If so, some team in the second hour of the draft might end up feeling very lucky, Gruden believes.
"He looks like a tight end, a power forward," said Gruden. "He's a showman, he's got an air about him. I think he's as physically gifted as any guy I've ever seen play that position. I've never seen a guy do what he did. Winning a national championship like that. Taking that ball and running 80 yards through people. And when he needs to throw it, he throws it. An interesting guy, man, a very interesting guy."
Given that NFL teams are just as likely to be sowing disinformation at this point than anything near the truth, Young could still be on Houston's radar, or he might be secretly enticing one of the other teams in the top five. Or perhaps Cutler's gun-slinging will win over the first team looking for a passer. Then again, Leinart does own a Heisman Trophy and either one or two national championships, depending upon how you count them.
So we'll have to wait and see how those three fall out on draft day. Until then, we can't get much deeper than Gruden's main point of analysis: "They're all very good players."
Offense or Defense?
Since Gruden came aboard as head coach in 2002, the Bucs have made nine first-day draft picks; that is, they've had nine picks in the first, second and third rounds combined over the last four drafts.
Of those nine, six have been offensive players, including both first-rounders. That, plus the veteran nature of the Bucs' top defensive players, might lead one to believe that Tampa Bay will be looking at defense in the early going on April 29.
Why, then, are there as many mock drafts presupposing a new offensive tackle or wide receiver in the first round for the Buccaneers as there are predictions of a defensive tackle, linebacker or cornerback?
Well, for one thing, the Buccaneers haven't spent any particular high picks on offensive linemen since Gruden's arrival, and they haven't tabbed an OL in the first round since Kenyatta Walker in 2001. Chris Colmer, the Bucs' second third-round choice last year and the 91st player taken overall, is the only first-day offensive lineman drafted during Gruden's tenure.
"We took Barrett Ruud in the second round and Marquis Cooper in the [middle of the] third round," said Gruden of two young linebackers who could soon make a difference for the club. "To put it in perspective, we haven't taken an offensive linemen since I've been here as high as we've taken those guys."
And, for another thing, the Bucs think their top-ranked defense, while admittedly led by such experienced men as Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, Shelton Quarles and Simeon Rice, does have a nice mix of young players either contributing or ready to contribute. That includes Ruud and Cooper as well as a handful of defensive linemen, including some who are already established starters.
"Dewayne White is a second-round draft choice, a guy who we think is very good," said Gruden. "Hovan and McFarland are still young guys. We think Anthony Bryant is a good, young inside player."
But perhaps the main reason the Bucs are thought just as likely to move in either direction is that they are not overly restricted by "need" this year. Safety Dexter Jackson is the only starter from the division-winning 2005 team who will not return in 2006, and the Bucs have already made a few free agent additions to an area of admitted concern, the offensive line. Since the draft is most useful in building for the future, it is good to be in a position to take the player you think will help the most in the long run.
And if that happens to be a cornerback or a linebacker or any other defender, then that will be good news for the Bucs, too.
"We've got to continue to add [to the defense]," said Gruden. "We've got to continue to look for young players on defense."
One of the 32 first-round picks in the upcoming draft was traded on Wednesday, and though the deal didn't involve the Buccaneers, it could affect them.
The pick that changed hands was the 22nd selection overall, which puts it one spot in front of the Bucs' scheduled pick. The San Francisco 49ers, who already own the sixth overall choice, acquired that pick from Denver in exchange for second and third-round picks, numbers 37 and 68 overall.
Actually, the pick originally belonged to the Washington Redskins, but Denver acquired it a year ago, along with a 2005 third-rounder and a 2006 fourth-rounder, in exchange for its 2005 first-round pick.
Of course, in one respect it is irrelevant to the Buccaneers who holds the 22nd pick. It's not likely that Tampa Bay knows with much certainty who Denver would have taken at that spot or who San Francisco might be targeting. On the other hand, however, it probably is two different players, so the trade could affect who is available to the Buccaneers with the next selection, albeit in a way that is difficult to predict at this point.