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With first pick, Detroit gets a 'Natural'

4/20/2009 - NFL

During his 17-year NFL tenure, John Elway won more career starts (148) than all but one other quarterback in league history (Brett Favre).

He was named to the Pro Bowl nine times, was an All-Pro five times, started a record five Super Bowls (winning two), presided over one of the most celebrated scoring drives in history, and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

But for the ESPN.com Mock Draft for the Ages, that impressive NFL résumé doesn't matter.

Like a Bruce Springsteen lyric from his song "Magic," it's like "livin' in the future … and none of this has happened yet." For this mock draft, all that matters are Elway's college accomplishments. Or, more accurately, the physical potential that he developed during his four years as a Stanford star, skills that made him a future NFL star.

Surprisingly, Elway was a losing quarterback in college, ringing up a 20-23 record. He never took his team to a bowl, and arguably the most memorable contest of his college career was a loss, when a California player scored the winning touchdown after five wild laterals and a serpentine frolic through the Stanford band. The closest Elway came to a Heisman Trophy was in 1982, when he was runner-up to Herschel Walker.

Despite a losing record at Stanford and the lack of a bowl appearance, Elway was regarded as not only the top prospect in the 1983 NFL draft, but also one of the most physically gifted quarterbacks to play the college game. Elway possessed great arm strength, superb touch, the ability to escape the pass rush and terrific football instincts, which were often overlooked.

If the movie "The Natural" had been about football, Elway would have been a candidate for the starring role.

The athletic instincts came naturally to Elway, who was raised in a football family. Elway is the son of the late Jack Elway, a longtime coach in the college ranks and an NFL scout. Although Elway also excelled in baseball, football became his passion.
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His unique combination of physical skills, combined with the Detroit Lions' desperate need for a quarterback, makes Elway the top pick in this ultimate mock draft.

Elway was the antithesis of the adage that a great player makes the people around him that much better. He was a great player on a flawed team. Yet without him, Stanford's performance would have been even worse.

"[He was] the best-looking college football player I've ever seen," said Paul Wiggin, the Stanford head coach in 1982 and a longtime NFL scout. "He had it all. The arm. The athleticism. The physique. The football mentality. … He really was a once-in-a-lifetime football player."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.