- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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All you heard after this year's Rose Bowl was Vince Young this, Vince Young that. Jay Cutler was the talk of the Senior Bowl and the scouting combine. Now, nearly a week into free agency and six weeks before the draft, the hottest quarterback prospect isn't from college but rather is 24-year-old Atlanta backup Matt Schaub.
Word around the campfire is the Dolphins offered the Falcons a second-round pick and then some (pick or player) for Michael Vick's understudy before they swung a deal with the Vikings for Daunte Culpepper. The Falcons want Jets franchised defensive end John Abraham, but New York's desire for Schaub in exchange is holding up that deal. The Cowboys, Ravens, Titans and Vikings -- all in the market for a young quarterback -- have contacted the Falcons about Schaub and been rebuffed.
It's going to take a lot to pry Schaub -- a third-round pick out of Virginia in 2004 (the fifth quarterback selected) -- from the Falcons, and it's easy to understand why. With injuries and inept performances common, a quality backup quarterback is not a luxury but a necessity. The way Vick plays, he inevitably gets hurt. Schaub stepped in for Vick in Week 5 last year and made a nice résumé tape for himself, shredding the Patriots' defense for 298 yards and three touchdowns in a three-point loss -- this, one week after he impersonated Vick in the second half of a blowout win over the Vikings, running for 56 yards on four carries. Not coincidentally, new Jets coach Eric Mangini was New England's defensive coordinator last year and Vikings owner Zygi Wilf had a front-row (box) seat for Schaub's dynamic relief performance against his defense.
Remember: Three falls ago, Falcons owner Arthur Blank had to watch Doug Johnson quarterback his team when Vick missed most of the 2003 season with a broken leg. For the Falcons to make a deal involving Schaub -- and the impression I got Wednesday from speaking with one high-ranking team official was that he was not "untouchable" -- they have to be able to replace him with someone they feel they can win with when and if Vick goes down for a game or two.
Problem is, not many teams (how about Tennessee with Billy Volek?) can offer the combination of a starting-caliber backup and high pick(s) it takes to get Schaub. So then, it's up to the aforementioned QB-needy teams to make Atlanta a Godfather offer.
If I'm the Jets or Titans, I do darn near whatever it takes to get this kid. It says a lot, doesn't it, that both those clubs -- teams picking third (Titans) and fourth -- are exploring alternatives to drafting a quarterback early. As much as there is to like about Cutler, Young and Matt Leinart, there's no question each has holes in his game. Can Cutler correct the bad habits he developed playing with poor talent at Vanderbilt? (Oh, and FYI: From what I understand, Cutler didn't exactly blow the Jets away during his combine interview.) Can Young cut it as a passer at this level? And how's Leinart going to respond to a pass-rush?
We've seen what a crapshoot picking quarterbacks can be. Crap out early and it can cost you $20 million.
So if I'm going to role the dice, I do it on a guy who's cheap ($385,000 next year, the last of his contract, after which he becomes a restricted free agent) and whom I don't have to try to project as much. Even though Schaub has started only two games, he is 134 regular-season pass attempts more experienced than any of the top prospects.
The Jets took the unusual step of having players break down their college game film at the combine. They already have NFL film on Schaub. You know what he can do against a Bill Belichick scheme, a Ted Cottrell defense, pro competition. With the draft's big three, as Jim Mora's dad once said, you think you know, but you just don't know. I'm guessing the Jets and Titans have some doubts about the top guys and would prefer not to bet the house on an unknown.
Something else that makes Schaub attractive is that he has had great training. His position coach at Virginia was Bill Musgrave, his head coach Al Groh. In Atlanta, he has been tutored by Greg Knapp, who has worked with Pro Bowlers Steve Young, Jeff Garcia and Vick. When you watch Schaub, you see a big (6 foot 5, 237 pounds), poised and accurate passer. You see perhaps the next Mark Brunell or Marc Bulger or Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Delhomme -- all one-time understudies who have gone on to have success as starters. Schaub is bright and makes good decisions. Cutler, Leinart and Young will need time to adjust to the pro game. Schaub is ready to step in and lead right now. Atlanta took care of a lot of the grooming.
The Falcons would like to hold on to Schaub, and that's smart, but if the right offer comes along that could help them improve at several other positions, they'd be foolish not to consider it. Or maybe they just keep him this year, slap the high (first- and third-round pick compensation) restricted tender on him next year and make the rest of the league wait until he's an unrestricted free agent. But his trade value might never be higher than it is right now -- something for the Falcons to think about.
As for any teams thinking about taking a gamble on a quarterback, they might want to consider passing on investing a top-five pick and a large signing bonus in an unproven player. There are very few sure things when it comes to quarterbacks. Anyway, unless you're the Saints -- who pick second -- you don't know for sure whether you'll get the QB you want.
I still believe the top three guys will be good players, but Schaub just might be the best bet. He's certainly the safest.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.
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