The QB quest

The Baltimore Sun

Football people call it the most important position in any team sport.

They flock to passing workouts every spring like men rushed west for gold. They do so because a great quarterback can almost guarantee repeated trips to the NFL promised land.

With Steve McNair retired, the Ravens are expected to be among those quarterback prospectors in next weekend's NFL draft. But if they are to find the next golden arm, they'll have to defy the odds. Most teams that pick a quarterback in the first round come up with copper at best, a handful of dirt at worst.

The value of a top signal caller is clear. First overall picks John Elway, Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning won Super Bowls. Dan Marino and Jim Kelly led their teams to the playoffs season after season, as have Tom Brady and Brett Favre, two great quarterbacks picked in later rounds.

That lure of greatness is why a passer goes in the top 10 most years.

But find the wrong guy, as many teams do, and you're consigned to three or four years of frustration, as the Ravens have been since they traded up to draft Kyle Boller in 2003.

"Imagine going to work every day for 16 weeks with no chance to win," said former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf, who never drafted a top quarterback but traded for a young Favre. "That's the way it is when you don't have a quarterback."

Others think the position is the most vital on the field but not the be-all and end-all for winners.

Teams reach for quarterbacks because of the perceived importance of the position, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. And he's not sure that's a good idea.

Kiper noted that several teams, including the 2000 Ravens, have won by surrounding average quarterbacks with superb talent.

"We give way too much credit to the quarterback," he said, "and we also criticize them way too much."

ESPN analyst Merrill Hoge went even further, saying he would almost never take a quarterback in the first round.

"Teams think they've got to have a franchise quarterback, no matter the weaknesses of the player," Hoge said. "It's not that they don't see the flaws, but they get enamored and fool themselves into thinking they can iron everything out."

Hoge likes to watch a prospect drop back 100 times before he sees the kid throw a pass. If the player's footwork is unsound, he might never catch up in the NFL, the analyst said.

He loves this year's top quarterback prospect, Matt Ryan, in part because he's fundamentally sound and in part because he throws accurately in the face of fierce hits. Hoge is impressed enough that he said he might risk a top pick on the Boston College product.

Allure of 'magic'

When scouts and executives talk about quarterbacks, they often turn away from physical qualities to more mystical or, at least, indefinite characteristics.

Perhaps high quarterback picks miss so often because talent evaluators are trying to grasp the ungraspable. Some openly use the word "magic" to describe the John Unitases and Joe Montanas.

"It's something that we'd all like to bottle, but you just can't," Wolf said.

"What I look for is how they move the team," he said. "When the game is on the line, does the college coach keep the ball in the quarterback's hands or take it out? At that critical moment when he's shoved into the limelight, does the quarterback make a play or not?"

A great one has to have acceptable size, arm strength, touch and mobility, Wolf thought, but also something more. He said he saw that from Favre in college, even if others let him slip into the second round.

"The field tilted in Southern Miss' favor when he got the ball," Wolf recalled. "When he came on the field, good things happened for his team, and he made them happen."

This sense of great quarterback as football shaman is widespread.

"It's not about arm strength. It's not about measurables. It's about do you sense that's the guy you can win with?" Kiper said. "That factor is much more important than at any other position. It's a gut feel."

That said, he believes many quarterbacks fail for the same reasons as other college standouts - mechanical weaknesses or substandard work habits that can only be exploited by the best competition in the world.

"To me, nothing's a sure thing, nothing," Kiper said. "There are going to be first-round busts at every position."

Memories of '83

A look at the history of drafting quarterbacks almost has to start with a 1983 class that has taunted talent scouts and fans for a quarter century.

It produced two all-time greats in Marino and Elway, another Hall of Famer in Kelly, and two solid starters in Tony Eason and Ken O'Brien. Only Todd Blackledge was any kind of bust.

But 1983 was so unusual it's almost not worth mentioning. Judging other years against it is like measuring modern pitchers against Cy Young's 511 wins.

The 24 first rounds since have produced exactly two undisputed superstars - Aikman and Manning. A handful of other first-rounders - Donovan McNabb, McNair, Carson Palmer, Daunte Culpepper, Drew Bledsoe and Jim Everett - became top-five quarterbacks at one time or another. Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger have led their teams to Super Bowl wins.

But the majority of the 46 passers selected in the first round between 1983 and 2004 never sniffed greatness (it's too early to judge those picked in the past three seasons).

Some, such as Ryan Leaf and Akili Smith, never played well. Others, such as Joey Harrington and Kyle Boller, became modest but clear disappointments. Still others, such as Vinny Testaverde and Jeff George, posted a few excellent statistical seasons but never cracked the elite.

In the past 25 years, the success rate has been decent among quarterbacks who went No. 1 overall. That spot has yielded superstars in Elway, Aikman and Peyton Manning, very good players in Bledsoe, Palmer and possibly Eli Manning and only two busts in Tim Couch and David Carr (with Alex Smith a possibility).

Between picks Nos. 2-10 (of obvious interest to Ravens fans), teams have been more likely to get a Rick Mirer or Harrington than a McNabb or Everett. The ratio of hits to misses for the rest of the first round is actually a little better, though not much.

So history suggests it's a bad percentage play to take a quarterback in the first round, especially when all-time greats Favre and Brady went later, as did excellent players such as Boomer Esiason (Maryland), Kurt Warner, Tony Romo and Mark Brunell.

Former Ravens coach Brian Billick argued as much three years after picking Boller.

"If you're going to crapshoot, don't do it in the first round," he said in 2006. "No matter how good you are and what your track record is, it's a crapshoot. You don't want to throw that dice on the fifth, 10th, 15th or 25th pick."'

Scouring statistics

On the other hand, most of the really good quarterbacks of the past 25 years were first-round picks. It's enough to drive a team executive to madness.

As debate on the future merits of Vince Young and Matt Leinart unfolded two years ago, David Lewin, himself a Division III quarterback at Macalester College, sought more objective answers about the position.

Lewin studied quarterbacks drafted in the first and second rounds and found that two college statistics - games started and completion percentage - correlated strongly with pro success. He wasn't sure why at first.

But he figured starts were significant because scouts are more likely to be right about a player they've watched for four years than one they've inspected for two. Completion percentage, he decided, was the best measure of a quarterback's ability to execute a system efficiently.

Lewin thinks his system might overrate players from exotic offenses or those who attempt few passes. But he said he's corresponded with an NFL team that studied the same issue and reached similar conclusions.

The method would have red-flagged players such as Akili Smith and Leaf, who didn't start many games, and Boller, who wasn't accurate in college. (His completion percentage in 42 games at California was .478.)

"In the modern era, there has never been a successful NFL quarterback with a college completion percentage that low," Lewin wrote of the Ravens' quarterback in Pro Football Prospectus 2006.

This year, he's less high on Ryan than many, because Ryan started for 2 1/2 seasons.

He thinks Michigan's Chad Henne, who started for four years, and Louisville's Brian Brohm, a supremely accurate passer, are safer bets, though they lack Ryan's athletic upside.

"Brohm was the presumptive No. 1 pick after last year and then he went out and had his best collegiate season," Lewin said. "So it's puzzling to me that his stock has dropped, basically because his team couldn't stop anybody."

Kiper might employ different methods than Lewin, but he's also quite fond of the second- and third-tier quarterback options.

"This might be a year," the draft expert said, "when you can wait and hope to catch lightning in the bottle."

NFL draft

When: Saturday, 3 p.m., rounds 1 and 2; next Sunday, 10 a.m.; rounds 3 to 7.

Where: Radio City Music Hall, New York

TV: NFL Network, ESPN and ESPN2

Changes: The first day will include rounds 1 and 2, with the third round moving to Day 2 this year. In the first round, selections must be made in 10 minutes or less, a reduction from 15 minutes previously. In the second round, selections must be made in seven minutes, rather than 10. In rounds 3 to 7, selections must be made in five minutes or less.

Ravens picks

Round 1: Pick 8 (8th)

Round 2: Pick 7 (38th)

Round 3: Pick 36 (99th)

Round 4: Pick 7 (106th)

Round 4: Pick 34 (133rd)

Round 6: Pick 7 (173rd)

Round 6: Pick 40 (206th)

Round 7: Pick 8 (215th)

Round 7: Pick 33 (240th)

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