- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Successful NFL teams are built around quarterbacks. It reflects in their salaries. Alex Smith and Eli Manning, top picks in the past two drafts, received contracts worth $8 million-a-year averages and guarantees in excess of $20 million. Philip Rivers, taken three picks after Manning in the 2004 draft, got a rookie contract worth more than $7 million a year.
And while some organizations feel compelled to rush their franchise quarterbacks into action, others have learned it's wise to "sit" on their investments. In recent years, except for the Steelers, who brought Ben Roethlisberger into a solid team, franchises that invested high first-round picks on quarterbacks have had better success letting their highly paid rookies be students rather than players.
The success of being patient with Michael Vick, Carson Palmer and Eli Manning is countered by the failures of rushing Joey Harrington, Tim Couch and, to a certain degree, David Carr. As teams with top-10 selections ponder the pros and cons of selecting either Texas' Vince Young, USC's Matt Leinart or Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler, the internal struggle is deciding how to use these quarterbacks as rookies.
"It still depends on the guy," Redskins offensive coach Al Saunders said. "No matter who you are, the transition into the NFL for a first-year quarterback is dramatic. Look at the struggles of John Elway or Peyton Manning or Eli There is so much to learn. It's not just learning different offenses. They are learning different concepts of defenses he's facing. He's also learning to play with 35-year-olds, learning to play with guys who have been in offenses for a long time."
Of the three top quarterbacks in this draft, Leinart is considered the one who could play the quickest. He's played in a pro style offense at USC under the guidance of NFL-caliber coordinators. Just as Eli Manning was relative to Roethlisberger and Rivers, Leinart is considered more ready to step in and play compared to his draft counterparts.
But how much should that argument go into the evaluation? Eli Manning went 1-6 after getting the starting job in the middle of the 2004 season, completed only 48.2 percent of his passes and had some wondering if he was a good as Roethlisberger, who had one of the greatest rookie seasons ever. Given an offseason to regroup, Manning led the Giants into the playoffs last season and was second in the NFC in passing yards (3,762).
"There is nothing like doing something to give you experience, but the downside could hit you in three areas," Colts president Bill Polian said. "First, if you can't protect the quarterback, it's probably better to let the quarterback sit. Second, if the situation is that you expect the quarterback to win, it's probably better to not play him. Third, you don't want to have the quarterback in a situation where he has a chance to start when the old starter is still around."
The Colts let Peyton Manning take over as a rookie starter but this wasn't a rush job. Manning was considered one of the most prepared quarterbacks to ever come out of the college ranks. He had Marvin Harrison to work with at receiver, and the offensive line wasn't horrible. The Colts released the previous starter, Jim Harbaugh, to clear out the locker room to allow Manning the room to grow as a leader.
All those elements aside, Manning went 3-13, threw 28 interceptions and completed 56.7 percent of his passes. After that tough rookie season, Manning evolved into one of the best quarterbacks in the game.
Yet, every set of circumstances is different.
"Take Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler as examples," Saunders said. "The urgency to get them to play as a rookie will come from the fan base. If you can afford to keep a high profile quarterback in the learning phase, you can't have anything but positive results."
Since 1998, the quarterbacks who played the most as rookies had the least success. Though Peyton Manning eventually survived his rookie year, Ryan Leaf failed after nine starts and never finished his rookie contract. Couch was the most active rookie quarterback in 1999 but he never finished his rookie contract with the expansion Cleveland Browns. The Texans reaffirmed their belief in Carr after four seasons with a four-year extension, but he's been sacked 208 times in 60 starts and is looking for his first winning season.
The Titans were the model of how to let a quarterback develop. They limited Steve McNair to two starts as a rookie and four as a second-year player. By Year 3, McNair became the face of the franchise, which allowed it to grow into a perennial playoff team.
It's pretty clear the Titans are going to draft either Young or Leinart and there is a chance they'll have the choice between the two. Like McNair, Young is considered a quarterback whom it could be more advisable to sit during the first season. Though he's mobile and has a strong arm, Young needs time to learn the NFL offenses.
Though it's still more than a week away from the draft, the thoughts coming out of the Nashville, Tenn., are that Titans personnel officials favor Young slightly over Leinart, citing his long-term potential. However, the coaches prefer Leinart because he's more ready for NFL service.
"I think it's very important, in my opinion, to be patient with a young quarterback because the things they learn early are all negative," Titans general manager Floyd Reese said. "If you put a kid in there, they don't know the offense and they are performing against defenses they don't know. Plus, they get hurt and beat up. You just can't be prepared for that.
"Is Matt one of those who is prepared? People will tell you yes, but history tells us no. The worst thing that could happen to a guy like Matt, who has Peyton Manning-type mobility, is to go out there and have teams start to blitz him. Then he gets the crap knocked out of him and you could come out discouraged."
Rare is the Roethlisberger or Dan Marino who could fall down far enough in the draft to land with a winning team. Most of the top quarterbacks in a draft go to losing teams. Harrington went 3-9 as a rookie and years of losing have caused him to lose the team. Now, the Lions are struggling to get more than a sixth-round choice for the third pick in the 2002 draft.
"How many quarterbacks have been drafted in the past 10 years?" Reese asked. "When a young quarterback loses, he loses credibility and he loses confidence. It's hard for a quarterback to come in and lead a team to a successful season. In Ben Roethlisberger's case, all he had to do was go in there and not screw up the snap."
Ultimately, the Titans have to decide which quarterback -- Young or Leinart -- is going to be the best for their franchise in the long run, not just the rookie season. The Jets are in a similar position if they have a choice of any of the top three quarterbacks, including Cutler.
Palmer might be like Leinart in the sense he appeared to be well prepared to be a first-year starter. However, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis resisted and sat him for a year.
"I felt our veteran players had a belief in Jon Kitna and thought Jon Kitna could win games for them," Lewis said.
Quarterbacks are big investments in the draft, but teams are being smarter about their investments by being patient.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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