Free Agency Married To The Draft

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Might the Packers find Brett Favre's eventual successor in the 2003 NFL Draft?

Jake Plummer is the marquee name and the only true starter who may come free on his own. What the Cardinals do to protect their rights to Plummer will set into motion what other teams do.

If the Cardinals let him walk, the Denver Broncos could easily become Plummer's new home, meaning Brian Griese will join the free-agent market. If that happens, Griese becomes the marquee name on the list. He will sign somewhere and possibly cause another starter to become available.

The other names on the opening list of 32 include Ryan Leaf, Jeff George, Kent Graham, Tony Banks and Rick Mirer, to name a few. Not exactly the kind of players you build a team around in 2003. There are strong indications that Kordell Stewart will join the ranks of the unemployed. If so, he will slot in behind Griese and maybe Jeff Blake, but ahead of Jake Delhomme, Charlie Batch, Koy Detmer, Rob Johnson, and Shane Matthews among others.

It's not a great list to choose from if your team is looking for a starter. If you need a veteran third signal-caller for your depth chart, they are available, but you probably don't want to play them for an extended period of time. Carolina's Rodney Peete did well last year and he's available again, but that's not where a team serious about building a long-term future wants to go. So before anyone throws real money at guys on this list, they need to look to the 2003 draft class.

About half the teams in the NFL have a quarterback question to answer. Some teams need a starter from this draft, some need a future starter to learn behind an accomplished older vet, and still others need competition at the position. Right now, four teams need a near future starter from this draft. It could become five teams if the Cardinals part ways with Plummer.

The Bengals, Bears, Panthers and Ravens all pick before the 11th selection and could take a quarterback after they study the free-agent list and the true depth of the draft. They could all consider waiting until their second-round pick if they believe draft depth is good. Realizing that free agency isn't the answer isn't the hard part, waiting until later in the draft is.

If the decision to wait happens, then any of eight teams not with the same sense of urgency to find a young future star will snatch up one of the premier picks. The Steelers, Packers, Dolphins and Giants, to name a few, would love a top-ranked guy to fall to them. As one personnel man said to me, "I can't see anyone throwing real money at Kordell Stewart before the draft."

This is a much stronger draft at quarterback than it is in free agency. This year, Carson Palmer, Byron Leftwich, Rex Grossman, Chris Simms, Kyle Bollar, Dave Ragone and Ken Dorsey lead a group that is being compared to the classes of '83 and '99. But things have changed in the NFL since the class of '83 and club executives realize they're dealing with a different set of circumstances these days.

The class of '83 included Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly and Ken O'Brien. All four played for one NFL team their whole career. That will not be the case with this draft class or any other in the near future. Volatility has already hit the class of '99.

Cade McNown has been on three teams in four years and the most important thing to remember about the group is only Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb has played for the same coach who drafted him. Tim Couch and Daunte Culpepper are on their second head coach, and Akili Smith is on his third.

People drafting a quarterback in this era understand a young player may have to learn two or three systems in the first five years of his career. The pressure to succeed or get run out of town is very real and the development and maturity of the candidate are more scrutinized than ever.

Back to the free-agent list for a second, most of those players have failed already in these areas so teams now decide how many of the draft picks have the 'intangibles.'

Palmer has played in multiple systems, stayed in

school and matured, which makes him very appealing. Simms comes from a family experience much like Peyton Manning and like Palmer, overcame early struggles in his career to finish strong. Ragone and Bollar played without great protection and a supporting cast and clubs will recognize those strengths.

A quarterback coach I respect said, "Young quarterbacks coming out early and guys who haven't played with lots of adversity may not be built for life in the NFL right now." So does that kind of thinking shorten the draft list and make some take a deeper look at the free-agent list? I don't know. But I do know any teams isolating the pro personnel people from the college personnel people are making a mistake.

Finally, by my count, free agency will provide two or possibly three quarterbacks to clubs in search of an upgrade, and the draft will supply about five legitimate answers to the quarterback question. That leaves a few teams out of the QB musical chairs game that is about to be played.

As my mentor Dick Steinberg taught me years ago before he passed away, never pass on a good quarterback when you get the chance to take one. You never know when another one will come along. The question in 2003 is where to find a good one. The answer this year looks like the draft over free agency. And you probably have to draft one sooner rather than later.

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