- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The decision determines the success and longevity of the general manager and coach, costs the owner around $40 million in guaranteed salary and sets a franchise’s course for the next five years.

Each year entering the NFL Draft, a handful of teams face the question the Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and, to a lesser extent, the Detroit Lions must answer by Saturday: Do they choose a quarterback with their first pick? And if so, which one?

The Raiders have been on the clock since completing their dismal season Dec. 31 and have been projected to draft a quarterback since jettisoning their starter in late February. This year’s top prospects in an otherwise weak group are Louisiana State’s JaMarcus Russell and Notre Dame’s Brady Quinn.

For every “hit” with a drafted quarterback, there are myriad “misses,” making the most important position in football also the toughest to project.

The Browns, Lions and Houston Texans still haven’t recovered from missing on Tim Couch, Joey Harrington and David Carr, respectively. It took the Cincinnati Bengals hitting with Carson Palmer in 2003 and the San Diego Chargers acquiring Philip Rivers a year later to make up for the Akili Smith (1999) and Ryan Leaf (1998) disasters.

And the Washington Redskins? Heath Shuler not panning out in the mid-1990s has led to a steady parade of starting quarterbacks.

“If you miss at the top end, you can set your franchise back three to five years,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said.

Said Redskins coach Joe Gibbs: “You look through history, and it’s hard to analyze quarterbacks. [Joe] Montana was a third-round pick. [Joe] Theismann was a fourth-rounder. [Mark] Rypien was a sixth-rounder for us. A guy like [Jake] Delhomme sits on the bench for five years before he got a chance. It’s one of the harder positions to really project.”

If a team chooses wisely, it can inject new life into a struggling franchise — like Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair, Michael Vick and Palmer did with their teams.

It’s why teams looking for a quarterback spare no expense and leave no detail unearthed during the four-plus months between the end of the season and the draft.

“It’s an exhaustive process,” Redskins associate head coach Al Saunders said. “The evaluation of their background is an inquisition of everybody that has come into contact with him. The Leaf-Manning thing serves as an example of the detailed work that needs to be done. You obviously evaluate the physical ability but also the character. It will get to the point where if you’re in position to pick one of them and have to rate them Nos. 1 and 2, you’re going to spend a tremendous amount of time at their school with the head coach, the coordinator and the position coach.”

This year’s top two quarterbacks are different in stature and how they get the job done. Russell is a physical marvel (6-foot-6, nearly 260 pounds) with a monster arm. Quinn isn’t the long-ball threat but was reared by a Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis, at Notre Dame.

Russell a rare talent

If Russell didn’t have “QB” on his sweatshirt when he walked through a conference room full of media members at this winter’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis, he could have passed for a defensive lineman. He’s that big.

“From a physical skill set perspective, I’ve never seen a college quarterback with more ability,” Mayock said. “You put the tape on, and it’s frightening. He can make every throw. He’s got better touch than you would expect. He’s got a pretty good feel for the game for a guy that hasn’t played all that many snaps. He’s a guy physically that is without parallel.”

Said Cleveland general manager Phil Savage: “JaMarcus is a significant talent. He’s a rare combination of size and arm strength. It’s a little bit out of the norm to take somebody 6-5-plus, 250-plus pounds and can throw the ball around like he can.”

Russell left LSU a year early after two-plus seasons as a starter. In 25 starts during his sophomore and junior seasons, he threw a combined 43 touchdowns and 17 interceptions while completing an impressive 64.3 percent of his attempts.

Last year, although the Tigers lost at Auburn and Florida, Russell led LSU to wins at No. 8 Tennessee and No. 5 Arkansas. In a 41-14 Sugar Bowl rout of Notre Dame, Russell was 21-for-34 for 332 yards and two touchdowns.

“He can make plays with people hanging on him that I’ve never seen a kid make,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. “He reminds me a little of Daunte Culpepper but is a little bigger. He was something at LSU.”

The comparisons to Culpepper are inevitable because of the similar size and arm strength and college system, which had them play regularly in the shotgun formation.

Russell, who started playing quarterback at age 6, always has been bigger and stronger than his teammates and opponents.

“And I was always able to throw it a pretty good length of the field,” he said. “I’m bigger than most of the guys out there, and it’s a lot of fun when I had big guys trying to tackle me and I wasn’t falling to the ground — I was still able to make plays.”

Russell’s big arm would seem to make him a perfect fit for the Raiders, who — despite near-yearly changes in personnel and coaching — still adopt a vertical passing mentality. But if the Raiders surprise and select Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson and Detroit does something stupid (a distinct possibility considering their recent history), the Browns will pick Russell in a nanosecond.

Quinn could slide

Like Russell, Quinn played for two coaches at Notre Dame, two seasons apiece for Tyrone Willingham and Weis. His first two seasons, Quinn had 26 touchdowns and 25 interceptions. Under Weis, he had 69 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

“Anytime you have a coach that came from the NFL and brought along quarterbacks like Tom Brady, you have to look at that as a gift,” Quinn said of Weis.

Regardless of his numbers, Quinn has been scrutinized more than Russell during the draft process. Pessimists look at his inability to make plays outside the pocket, his occasional bouts with inaccuracy but mostly his 7-10 record vs. ranked teams. Russell was 7-4 against ranked teams in 2005 and 2006.

“Unfortunately we fell behind pretty quickly in a couple of games [last season], and we had to play catch-up from there on out, and sometimes things aren’t going to fall your way,” Quinn said of the big-game knock. “But I don’t necessarily believe that’s the case at all.”

Said the Browns’ Savage: “I think that’s unfair, quite frankly. When you look at Notre Dame football the last three years, if you know the personnel they have versus some of the competition they’ve played, if you took Brady Quinn and put him in other situations, he would have won ‘big’ games.”

Translation: Quinn’s supporting cast wasn’t nearly as talented as Russell’s help. Savage, who covets Russell but knows he probably won’t get him, faces one of the draft’s big decisions: Quinn or Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson with the third pick.

Cleveland, in its first draft upon returning to the league in 1999, chose Couch over McNabb with the No. 1 overall pick. If the Browns go for Peterson, Quinn could tumble to the bottom of the top 10 like Matt Leinart did last year. Minnesota, which has the No. 7 pick and might not want to start second-year player Tavaris Jackson, and Miami at No. 9, if it cannot complete a trade for Trent Green and decides to release Culpepper, are candidates to take Quinn.

Miami coach Cam Cameron, who groomed Drew Brees and Rivers with the Chargers, said his evaluation of Russell and Quinn didn’t start with arm strength.

“First and foremost, it’s a leadership position,” Cameron said. “Until that base is covered, height, weight, speed, arm strength — all those things — become secondary in my view. Guys become great leaders in this league because they’re bright and tough. Players will follow those types of quarterbacks. … We’re looking for a guy that when our defense runs on the field, their mind-set is, ‘Let’s get the ball back for this guy because he’ll get our offense into the end zone.’ ”

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