The year after I graduated, my high school produced a Parade All-America tight end. Doug stood 6-foot-6, with long arms and huge, soft hands. He could run like a gazelle in the open field. He was the bluest of blue-chip recruits, a can’t-miss prospect. He lasted one week on a college football field. Turned out, at that level, people hit much harder than he was used to.
That’s why college recruiting—and the drafting of college players for the NFL—is such an excruciatingly inexact science. Compare the ratings of a recruiting class at any college football power with the starting lineup four years later, and you’ll see precisely how imprecise the whole business is. Some “misses” are players who suffer injuries or transfer or flunk out or get homesick. But there are plenty about whom the recruiters were just plain wrong.
Even with their considerable information resources—pre-draft workouts, personality assessments, face-to-face interviews, exhaustive film chronicles and enough statistics to make even my accountant break out in hives—the pro scouts don’t fare that much better than their college brethren. Especially when it comes to quarterbacks.
So you can appreciate what the Titans are up against this week. No team can afford an unproductive first-round pick. That goes double when that pick is one of the first five selections. And it goes quadruple when you’ll use that high pick to draft your quarterback of the future.
The good news is that one of the QBs projected to go in the first round will be available. The bad news: it’s unclear which one will make the best choice.
Consensus among the National Media Geniuses appears to be that Houston will take Reggie Bush with the first pick; New Orleans will grab DE Mario Williams next; and the Titans will choose Southern Cal’s Matt Leinart and leave Texas’ Vince Young for someone else. I’m not so sure that’s their best move. And I’m not so sure that the Titans are so sure. In fact, the local buzz is that there’s a division of opinion in the team’s front office, with the coaching staff favoring Leinart and General Manager Floyd Reese favoring Young.
Leinart is the safer choice. He’s a proven winner. He played for three straight national titles and won two. And USC’s loss to Texas in January certainly wasn’t because Leinart played like anything less than a defending Heisman recipient.
But Young is that rara avis who can throw for 300 yards and run for 200—in the same game. He is a difference-maker. Texas simply would not have won the national title without him. At USC, by contrast, Leinart was supported by two top running backs, great receivers and an amazing offensive line that might have made a 1,000-yard rusher out of James Gandolfini.
But then there’s Young’s unorthodox, semi-sidearm throwing style. And concerns about his allegedly weak Wonderlic score. And doubts that he could consistently outrun NFL defenders the way he eluded those in college.
Then again, maybe Tennessee will opt for neither. They won’t take Vanderbilt’s Jay Cutler—who owns the strongest arm among the three top QBs—with the third pick. But they might trade first-round picks with a team a little further down the draft list that craves a QB, like Arizona or St. Louis. That way, the Titans could get the signal-caller that some scouts regard as another Brett Favre—plus a valuable third- or fourth-round pick in the exchange.
And maybe (though, I think, less likely) they won’t take a QB at all. They could use the third pick to grab D’Brickashaw Ferguson, regarded as the best offensive line prospect to come along in nearly a decade, and keep Steve McNair and/or Billy Volek around.
Were it up to me, I think I’d go with Vince, take a chance on an unorthodox player with great athletic and leadership skills the way the Titans took a chance on a similarly gifted, gritty QB who led them to a Super Bowl and three AFC Championship games. I’d go with the guy who can beat you with his legs, not just with his arm. Even if he doesn’t prove to be a great NFL quarterback, he could still be a great wide receiver.
Having Vince in the house would free the Titans to part with McNair’s hefty contract, so it could shore up other holes in the lineup with free agents. This choice, though, also would require Coach Fisher to adjust his system to take advantage of Young’s talents, rather than the other way round. Gradually, almost begrudgingly, it seemed, the coach allowed the Titans to become McNair’s team instead of Eddie George’s. Whether Fisher and Chow could loosen up enough to let Vince be Vince is an open question.
I’m relieved it’s not up to me. I think I can speak for all Titans fans: “Jeff, Floyd, we’re with you. Unless you screw up.”