Young, unproven QBs figure to draw attention
In his first three seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, quarterback David Garrard appeared in only 10 games, started three of them and completed only 70 passes, with just four of those for touchdowns.
Barring a catastrophic injury to Byron Leftwich, who as a first-year full-time starter in 2004 led the Jaguars to the cusp of the playoffs, those statistics for Garrard likely will not be enhanced very much in 2005.
What does figure to dramatically improve by this time next year, though, is Garrard's overall career direction.
In the spring of 2006, and at the relatively tender age (for a quarterback) of 28, Garrard will become an unrestricted free agent. Despite a pretty sparse résumé, and even with the presumption Garrard doesn't throw a single pass in the upcoming season, his availability in the unfettered market will significantly change the prism through which he is viewed.
And it could very well alter the basic outlook and landscape of free agency, at least in the quarterback market.
No one was willing to part with a first-round choice for Garrard, whose raw potential still supercedes his on-field deeds, and that is understandable. But next spring, when Garrard won't cost another club anything in terms of compensation to the Jags, bet the mortgage that agent Albert Irby's phone is going to be ringing off the hook as soon as the free-agent signing period commences.
Why so? Well, think about this: How often in the history of free agency, and particularly in recent years, has there been an unrestricted quarterback available who still has more football ahead of him than behind him? The answer: Not too often. Garrard is one of the rarest of specimens in that regard, a player still in the formative stage of his career, and at the game's most singularly critical position.
Much has been made of the annual quarterback carousel in the NFL, a high-stakes game of musical chairs, one that shuffles depth charts around the league every spring. But rarely do the quarterbacks who change addresses in free agency possess skills that are sufficient to change the long-term direction of a franchise. Most are older quarterbacks whose best years are already in the history books and not fresh, young passers with new and possibly exciting chapters yet to be authored.
For the most part, the quarterbacks who have switched teams in free agency over the last several springs fall into two categories: Proven but declining veterans who can provide an insurance policy for a team and, perhaps, a tutor or security blanket for the young starter. Or "caretaker" quarterbacks, players who are stop-gaps, hired for the short term, brought in to serve as the bridge to a franchise's next generation.
Consider these numbers:
• In the spring of '04, a dozen veteran quarterbacks signed with new teams as unrestricted free agents before training camps opened in the summer. Guys like Ty Detmer (Atlanta), Chris Chandler (St. Louis), Jeff Blake (Philadelphia) and Kordell Stewart (Baltimore) fell into the "insurance policy" category. And then there were the short-term starters, such as Vinny Testaverde (Dallas), Kurt Warner (New York Giants) and Jeff Garcia (Cleveland). Only two of the veterans who were signed as starters or eventually won the starting job, Kerry Collins (Oakland) and Brian Griese (Tampa Bay), will return to the same clubs in 2005. The rest? One and done. The average age of the 12 quarterbacks who switched teams was 33.1 years and their average NFL tenure was 9.8 seasons. Four of the players were 34 or older and just one, Shaun King (Arizona), was under 28.
• Things aren't markedly different this spring. The nine quarterbacks who will have new addresses in 2005 because of free agency average 32.9 years of age and 8.9 seasons of NFL seniority. Only Mike McMahon, who went from backup in Detroit to a reserve role in Philadelphia, is under 30 years of age. None of the others are under 31 and seven are 33 or older. Two of the elder statesmen, Drew Bledsoe (Dallas) and Warner (Arizona), were signed to be starters. But can anyone honestly look down the road a couple seasons and see the two still starting for their current franchises? No way.
• Over the last five years, just 16 of the 60 teams that qualified for the playoffs were led into the postseason by quarterbacks they had signed as unrestricted free agents. Of the league's 32 projected starting quarterbacks for 2005, just two, Jake Plummer of Denver and Carolina's Jake Delhomme, were signed by their current clubs as unrestricted free agents before '04. Perhaps the key, when it comes to adding free agent quarterbacks, is to sign someone whose first name is Jake, right?
Uh, wrong, folks. A much better idea would be to find a quarterback with starter's tools, a young signal caller ready to emerge as a No. 1 guy, a player poised to step up to the top of the depth chart. The key is to have some forward vision and not to constantly look to the rear-view mirror for free agent fill-ins. Isn't it better in many cases to have a young quarterback ready to make his own imprint than one who is little more than a retread?
In many ways, free agency has created a subset of itinerant veteran quarterbacks, players who collect travel stickers and another season's worth of paychecks. Warner will be playing for his third franchise in three seasons. Ditto Garcia and, probably, Testaverde. Blake could join his fourth different team in four years. The free-agent class of 2006 won't eliminate the nomadic penchant of veteran free-agent passers, but it should address the crucial lack of stability to an extent.
Of course, the basic problem has been that there are rarely many younger quarterbacks in the unrestricted talent pool.
The drought will end, though, next spring with Garrard free to depart Jacksonville after a four-year apprenticeship.
And the former East Carolina standout, a fourth-round choice in the 2002 draft, isn't the only such candidate. The potential unrestricted free-agent quarterbacks for the spring of 2006 include Josh McCown of Arizona, New England's Rohan Davey, Green Bay's T.J. O'Sullivan and perhaps Tim Hasselbeck of Washington. Tampa Bay's Chris Simms will be a restricted free agent.
Granted, no one from the group has ever started more than 16 games. O'Sullivan has yet to throw his first pass in a regular-season game. Take McCown, who started 13 games in 2004 but who will lose his job to Warner this year, out of the equation, and the rest of the group totals only 11 starting assignments.
But next spring might well be the year in free agency in which youth will be served at quarterback, and in which young passers might also be serviceable. Discounting Simms, who should be more difficult to pry away because he will be a restricted free agent, the average age of the five potential unrestricted quarterbacks will be 27.2 next spring. At a position famous for late-bloomers, 27 certainly isn't too old an age from which to fashion a potential starting quarterback.
Which is why Garrard, a good athlete with nifty movement skills and a strong enough arm to succeed as a starter at some point, will command interest.
Garrard suffered a setback last summer when he was afflicted with Crohn's disease, a severe intestinal inflammation that required him to undergo surgery. There seem to be no debilitating long-term implications, though, and Garrard appears ready to move forward with his career. Of the younger quarterbacks who can become unrestricted free agents next spring, Garrard is arguably the most compelling.
He is a bright player, a presence in the huddle, a quarterback who has purged from his game the urge to move prematurely out of the pocket. In the two years since his rookie season, when he went through a period of "happy feet," Garrard seems to have learned patience on the field.
This time next spring, his patience away from the field could pay off handsomely, likely with a new team and perhaps the chance to compete for a starting job. The promise of the future has provided Garrard a ready excuse for looking ahead. Maybe it will also allow some franchises to look at unrestricted free-agent quarterbacks in a different way, too.
Around the league
• Having been seemingly dormant for weeks, discussions aimed at a swap of Buffalo Bills tailback Travis Henry and Arizona Cardinals offensive tackle L.J. Shelton were revived at the NFL owners meetings this week, and there is a decent shot the proposed trade will be consummated around draft time. The final hurdle: In addition to getting Shelton, who would replace Jonas Jennings as the starting left tackle, Bills general manager Tom Donahoe also wants to switch spots in the second round. That would mean Buffalo would move to the No. 44 slot overall and Arizona would slide back to the No. 55 spot. Cardinals coach Dennis Green has balked at that component of the trade but apparently still wants Henry to fill the hole he's got at tailback, so that he could then use his first-round choice in the draft (the No. 8 position) to grab a much-needed cornerback. The speculation had been that Green was eyeing a running back with his first-round choice. Apparently, he feels he can get a young runner, such as J.J. Arrington of the University of California, in the second round. The Bills, who don't have a first-round selection, having dealt it to Dallas last year in the trade that enabled them to choose quarterback J.P. Losman, want to improve their lot as much as possible in the second round. Buffalo needs Shelton, or the Bills will probably have to move starting center Trey Teague to left tackle, a position he has not played since he left Denver following the 2001 season. With Losman as a first-year starter, the Bills want to maintain as much stability as they can on the offensive line.
• The Oakland Raiders are the latest team to have trade discussions with New Orleans officials about "franchise" defensive end Darren Howard. They join Dallas and about five other teams that have sniffed around the five-year veteran, although the Cowboys, of course, have been the most ardent suitors. Not surprisingly, the names dangled by the Raiders in the trade talks are cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Phillip Buchanon. Oakland already has added one new defensive end, former Philadelphia starter Derrick Burgess, as a free agent, but feels Howard would further upgrade the position. The Saints aren't likely to take on Woodson's current salary-cap charge of $10.53 million. Lowering that number would mean negotiating a long-term contract for Woodson and that would mean dealing with his agents, the always-difficult tandem of brothers Carl and Kevin Poston. Buchanon, who the Raiders might be even more desperate to jettison than Woodson, is coming off a lackluster 2004 season. Buchanon has a new agent, though, in Drew Rosenhaus, who also represents starting cornerback Mike McKenzie, and who has a knack for getting his clients motivated. The smart money says Howard still winds up in Dallas, but keep an eye on the Raiders now, too. Meanwhile, Saints coach Jim Haslett suggested this week that, if Howard isn't traded by draft day, New Orleans will simply keep him for 2005. Don't read too much into that claim.
• For all the conspiracy theorists out there who felt that Southern California quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart might yet bypass his final year of eligibility and make himself available for the NFL's supplemental draft: Leinart noted rather adamantly this week, as the defending national champion Trojans commenced spring practice, that he will be back at USC for the '05 season. Do players make those kinds of statements and then go back on their word? Sure, all the time, right? But Leinart was so strident in his remarks that most NFL scouts believe him. Leinart, by the way, is still rehabilitating from elbow surgery and probably won't be able to throw with any kind of velocity until sometime in May.
• Very quietly this week, the Carolina Panthers made an interesting switch on their offensive line, moving two-year veteran Jordan Gross back to the right tackle spot he played as a rookie in 2003. The shuffle means that second-year pro Travelle Wharton, who started 11 games at left guard as a rookie last season, moves outside to the critical left tackle spot. At least for now. The Panthers struggled considerably at right tackle in 2004 after the abrupt training-camp retirement by Adam Meadows. More surprising was how much Gross, arguably the top offensive rookie in the NFL in '03 when the Panthers advanced to Super Bowl XXXVIII, flopped at left tackle. When the Panthers selected Gross in the first round in 2003, most scouts felt his eventual (and best) position would be left tackle, but Carolina had veteran Todd Steussie playing there at the time. Last spring, in part for salary-cap reasons but just as much to accommodate the move of Gross over to the left side, Steussie was released. Gross never took well to the change, though, and played poorly on the left side. So for mini-camps, he will return to right tackle and the Carolina coaches will spend part of the spring determining if Wharton can handle the weighty chores on the left side. If he can't, the Panthers have some options, the first of which would be to move newly acquired left guard Mike Wahle outside to tackle. The former Green Bay star, who many teams rated as the top blocker in the unrestricted free-agent pool, has played some left tackle in the past. The Panthers also could use their first-round pick in the draft, the 14th choice overall, to select a left tackle. This much is certain: Carolina will do whatever it takes to assure it doesn't have to live again through the kind of offensive-line nightmare it experienced in 2004. The switch of Gross back to the right side is indicative of that.
• Speaking of offensive-line movement, don't be surprised if the Dallas Cowboys' brass checks out right tackle Chris Terry, released by the Seattle Seahawks last week. His myriad off-field problems aside, Terry still is a solid player, the rare strong-side blocker who is actually better in pass protection than in the running game. The Cowboys have been thinking about moving longtime left tackle Flozell Adams to the right side. Under such a scenario, second-year veteran Jacob Rogers would play left tackle, the position he manned in college. A second-round pick in 2004, Rogers never got comfortable at the right tackle spot, and coaches feel that moving him to the position at which he starred at Southern California might speed his progress. But getting Terry, a proven right tackle, would allow Adams to stay on the left side. It would keep Rogers on the bench, but would provide him more time to develop, minus the urgency that a starting job would bring. With the league meetings over now, and still armed with enough salary-cap room to afford a deal with Terry, look for Dallas officials to explore such a possibility.
• How about the class demonstrated by Marco Rivera, the Cowboys' new right guard, signed as an unrestricted free agent to a mega-deal that included a $9-million signing bonus. As most people know, Rivera was forced to undergo back surgery for a disk problem within days of signing with the Cowboys. The surgery will sideline the former Green Bay star and three-time Pro Bowl performer until early June and he will miss much of the Cowboys' offseason conditioning program. Last week, Rivera walked into the office of owner Jerry Jones and, citing the back injury and the embarrassment it caused both him and the franchise, offered to return the entire signing bonus. Jones declined the offer but that doesn't mean he didn't appreciate the gesture.
• There certainly was plenty of information, much of it misinformation from what we can gather, on the "pro day" workout of University of Michigan star wide receiver Braylon Edwards earlier this week. Some outlets reported that Edwards, expected to be a top-five selection on April 23, ran sluggish 40-yard times and was inconsistent catching the ball. But two prominent personnel men who attended the campus audition dismissed those reports. They both had Edwards clocked in the mid- to high-4.4s, felt that he was explosive in and out of his cuts, and caught the ball well. "He's a little bit like [former NFL wide receiver Andre] Rison, in that he isn't a real burner," one NFC scout said. "He's more quick than he is fast. So you might not see him run up the boundary and just go right past the cornerback, you know? But he's got great competitive speed with the ball in his hands and, if you get the thing to him consistently, he's going to make a lot of plays, believe me. He's the real deal. Very impressive." It's believed that San Francisco, which has the top pick in the draft, has Edwards rated as the lottery's No. 1 prospect. That said, the 49ers still are most likely to choose a quarterback, and that probably will be Aaron Rodgers of California. Miami likely will snatch Auburn tailback Ronnie Brown with the second choice and then Cleveland will think long and hard about taking Alex Smith, the Utah quarterback, at No. 3. The Browns, by the way, favor Smith over Rodgers because they feel he is the better athlete.
• Erstwhile tailback Maurice Clarett, who might have run himself right out of the draft by clocking 40-yard times of 4.72 and 4.82 at the scouting combine in Indianapolis last month, will try one more time to rehabilitate his image and his stock next Thursday. The former Ohio State star will audition for NFL scouts at his prep alma mater, Warren G. Harding High School, and it will be interesting to see just how many people make the trek to Warren, Ohio, for the workout. Meanwhile, the other player affected by the 2004 court ruling on the league's draft eligibility guidelines, former Southern California wideout Mike Williams, ironically seems to have benefited from being barred from last year's lottery. Based on his workouts from a year ago, Williams probably would not have been chosen until about the middle of the first round in the '04 draft. But he spent his year in football limbo, a season in which the NCAA refused to reinstate his college eligibility, working hard and honing his skills. The result: Williams is a certain top-10 selection on April 23, perhaps even a top-five pick. He could go off the board as early as No. 5 to Tampa Bay and almost certainly won't get past Minnesota, which picks seventh.
• An interesting admission from Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren this week that he permitted Koren Robinson to participate in Seattle's first-round playoff game only after the two men reached an agreement that the talented but troubled wide receiver would seek professional help in the offseason. Robinson has experienced more than his share of missteps, including a four-game league suspension in 2004 after he tested positive for the designer drug ecstasy, but credit Holmgren for not abandoning him. "I plead guilty to the fact I didn't throw him on the trash heap," Holmgren said. The team's first-round pick in 2001, and a player of immense physical ability, Robinson faces a big year in 2005. He has already completed a rehabilitation program and will attend offseason workouts in Seattle, but is entering a season in which he must produce. Basically, despite unwavering support from his coach, Robinson is working on his last chance. The Seahawks remain confident he can finally fulfill his potential, but they are making contingency plans at wide receiver just in case Robinson falters again. The team is very close to a deal with unrestricted free-agent wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, visited this week with free agent Jerome Pathon and continues to talk with Washington officials about a possible trade for Rod Gardner.
• In a draft class that doesn't exactly feature a glut of upfield pass rushers, keep an eye on Troy (Ala.) "edge" defender DeMarcus Ware. A hybrid defender who might be best suited to playing in a 3-4 front, Ware recently had a superb campus workout, an audition in which some scouts actually clocked a sub-4.5 time in the 40. Ware is skyrocketing up draft boards leaguewide. With he and Maryland's Shawne Merriman as the only pure upfield rush threats, Ware now appears a lock to be chosen in the first round. The Atlanta Falcons, by the way, are enamored of both Merriman and Ware, but probably would have to trade way up in the first round to have any chance of landing either player.
• Those teams (like Cincinnati) waiting for the Houston Texans to simply release veteran linebacker Jamie Sharper might turn blue holding their breath. Yeah, Texans officials have granted Sharper permission to seek possible trade scenarios. No, the Texans won't just give Sharper away. In fact, they might hang on to the eight-year veteran until after the draft, if necessary, because they want something in return for him. Sharper is still a productive, if somewhat limited, defender. He still makes plays against the run and led the Texans in tackles -- his 177 stops were 75 more than the Houston runner-up -- in 2004. Some team would be wise to surrender a middle-round draft choice now for Sharper so that he could participate in minicamps.
• Regular visitors to this site know that, over the past year, we have documented the plight of Khiawatha Downey, the offensive lineman stricken with multiple sclerosis, who teams shied away from in the 2004 draft. Well, Downey suffered another setback this week, one that could end his dream of playing in the league. Several weeks ago, Downey signed on with the St. Louis Rams as a free agent. He had been in camp with San Francisco last year, also as a free agent, sustained a knee injury, and eventually reached a settlement on his contract. Because they wanted Downey to participate in their offseason program this spring, the Rams did not allocate him to NFL Europe, feeling instead that he would benefit more under the watchful eyes of their staff. Earlier this week, Downey packed his car and headed for St. Louis, where the offseason program commenced. But he experienced mechanical difficulties along the way, phoned a Rams staffer, and explained his arrival would be a bit delayed. But when he went out of contact for about 12 hours, and missed a morning weight session, St. Louis waived Downey. This is the same team, it should be noted, that continues to employ offensive tackle Kyle Turley, a guy who allegedly threatened to kill coach Mike Martz last year. Now Downey has no job and it's too late to try to catch on with an NFL Europe team. It's likely that Downey, who was fighting long odds to begin with, will file a grievance against the Rams. It's likely, too, that his football career is ended.
• Punts: Look for the Carolina Panthers to sign former Indianapolis Colts starting safety Idrees Bashir, one of the better mid-level free agents still available. There is still a chance that former Philadelphia guard Jermane Mayberry, expected to move to right tackle with his new team, the New Orleans Saints, will stay at his old position. Now that the price tag for unrestricted free agent Victor Riley had dropped in a sluggish market, the Saints are considering re-signing the man who started for them at right tackle in each of the last two seasons. If they do regain Riley, it would probably mean Mayberry will play left guard. Two months after Saints officials announced that coach Jim Haslett would receive a two-year contract extension, the deal still isn't completed. New Orleans brass still insists the add-on will get done, but doesn't seem to be in much hurry to finish the extension. Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay said at the league meetings this week that he wants to extend the contract of coach Tony Dungy by at least two years. Dungy has two seasons remaining on his original contract with the club. The Giants likely will complete a deal with veteran offensive tackle Bob Whitfield next week. Landing Whitfield would provide the team a proven veteran to serve as the No. 3 tackle and would also give the Giants some much-needed insurance in case starting left tackle Luke Petitgout is bothered by the back problems he experienced in 2004. Elton Brown of Virginia, perhaps the No. 1 guard prospect in the draft, helped himself in the eyes of scouts during his "pro day" workout this week. Brown pulled up lame, with cramps, during his 40-yard sprint. After resting for a few minutes, but still clearly in some distress, he returned to complete the 40. His time wasn't scintillating, but scouts felt he demonstrated courage in completing the drill. His 10-yard time by the way, between 1.77-1.81, was very quick. Brown performed just 19 "repetitions" in the standard 225-pound bench press, but scouts feel his functional strength is good enough. The Redskins might have an interest in unrestricted free-agent cornerback Andre Dyson of Tennessee. The Redskins lost Champ Bailey in a trade last spring and Fred Smoot defected to Minnesota in free agency two weeks ago. Dyson is a bit undersized, but is a nice "ball' athlete, and makes more than his share of plays. The market for another veteran cornerback, Patrick Surtain of Miami, remains sluggish. The Dolphins granted Surtain permission to seek a trade, and still want to deal him away, but don't have many interested suitors right now. The Kansas City Chiefs are one team still willing to make a deal for Surtain, but they aren't willing to surrender the second-round draft choice the Dolphins want in return. Look for the Surtain talks to heat up next week.
• The last word: "It's never been a question about moving. There are some [owners] who have tried to lean on me to be out in Los Angeles. It's easy to see why, with Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James. We'd be kind of like the Lakers in Los Angeles with our star power and our success. It's easy to see how that fit could come together. I know there have been some [owners] that thought it would be a perfect fit." -- Colts owner Jim Irsay on rumors he would consider moving his franchise to Los Angeles if he cannot land a new stadium deal in Indianapolis.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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