With their recent signing of Akili Smith, the Green Bay Packers have cornered the market on intriguing backup quarterbacks.
Smith's amazing college career led to him becoming the third overall pick of the 1999 draft. His subsequent struggles with the Cincinnati Bengals led to his availability, but they haven't closed the door on the pursuit of a successful NFL career that many league talent evaluators envisioned when they watched him perform at Oregon.
Eric Crouch, another of the six quarterbacks the Packers have under contract, falls into a similar category. Crouch won the 2001 Heisman Trophy with Nebraska. Since then, he has been trying to prove that he has a future in the NFL throwing the ball rather than catching it. The St. Louis Rams wanted to make him a receiver/kick returner when they drafted him two years ago, prompting a discouraged Crouch to retire. The Packers claimed him off waivers in April and are giving him his quarterback shot, although he did return some kickoffs after a minicamp practice earlier this month.
Perhaps one or both of these great collegiate talents will overcome the many doubts about their chances to thrive as NFL quarterbacks. Perhaps the doubters have already made the right call.
But the Packers are giving us a chance to gather more evidence. Mike Sherman and his assistant coaches provide more sets of eyes and more opinions about what Smith and Crouch have to offer.
Smith is one of the more interesting backup quarterback stories in the NFL. The Packers are one of several teams that want to see for themselves if, in fact, Smith can be the same highly productive player in the NFL that he was in college.
When the Packers worked him out, they saw a good, young prospect. They saw a quarterback with athleticism and the ability to move effectively in the pocket.
In Green Bay, Smith has an ideal place to learn and develop. He will spend the better part of every practice and videotape review watching Brett Favre, the master of improvisational quarterbacking. Favre might not be as mobile as he once was and he certainly doesn't set the NFL standard for mobility among quarterbacks, but he does know how to make plays on the move. He knows where to find openings in the secondary and what to do when he finds them. He knows how to react and adjust when the first, second and even third options are gone. He knows how to rely on his instincts.
Smith could benefit greatly from close-range observation of Favre. And he won't have the distraction of feeling the pressure to prove his worth as the third overall choice of the draft. He certainly isn't expected to make an immediate case to be a starter.
What Smith has to do is go back to the basics of making himself a fundamentally sound quarterback. Through his first few seasons in the league, scouts have raved about his natural skills, which include a very strong arm and the ability to make all of the throws a quarterback must make to compete in the NFL. They also have been highly impressed with his play faking.
But they have been troubled by Smith's inability to see the entire field on pass plays. He has shown a tendency to lock onto one receiver and to force throws into coverage. He has not consistently displayed the poise that an NFL quarterback must have in the pocket. He has, at times, seemed lost.
Part of the problem could very well have been that the Bengals' offensive system was a bad fit for Smith. Maybe he will have an easier time grasping the Packers' scheme. Maybe he will mesh better with the coaching he receives in Green Bay versus what he has been exposed to the past four seasons in Cincinnati.
In the best of all worlds, the Packers will have a couple of more seasons before they need to identify Favre's replacement. For now, they have a long list of prospective backups. Besides Smith and Crouch, they also have Doug Pederson and Craig Nall.
Regardless of what happens, Smith and Crouch are at least intriguing enough to receive additional looks, either in Green Bay or elsewhere.