Sunday, April 6, 2003
Leftwich's health key question for scouts
By Len Pasquarelli
In the personnel departments of all 32 teams last week, the fax machines spit out a letter from renowned orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, apprising the franchises that Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich has been now cleared to participate in any on-field football drills.With apologies to Dr. Andrews, a skilled orthopedist in whose hands most teams would want any player with a torn knee ligament or damaged rotator cuff, the personnel directors want to see Leftwich's viability for themselves. That's how things are, of course, when a club is preparing to open its coffers and invest an eight-figure signing bonus in a quarterback. So on Monday, representatives from virtually every franchise will convene at Manatee High School in Sarasota, Fla., to scrutinize an audition which figures to shape the composition of the first 10 picks in the 2003 draft. And after rehabilitating for several months, and testing a left leg that has been fractured each of the past two seasons, Leftwich is prepared to play the role of a germ for all the figurative microscopes to which he'll be subjected. "If you think the teams are anxious to see me," Leftwich said, "I've got them all beat in terms of how eager I am to show them that I'm all healthy." His impressive statistics aside -- Leftwich has passed for nearly 12,000 yards and 89 touchdowns in three seasons as the Marshall starter -- the quarterback still has much to demonstrate to the hundreds of pairs of eyes that will be on hand for his first offseason workout. Few doubt his arm strength or accuracy or grasp of the passing game. "I mean, hell, it's hard to find 6-foot-5, 238-pounders with arms that are like rockets," said Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden. "It's hard to find them, man." There is some irony, though, attached to the fact that a player who will earn millions with his arm will ultimately be adjudged by his feet. Even before the latest injury to his left leg, a fractured tibia sustained last November, there was some skepticism about two key elements of Leftwich's game: his ability to escape the pass rush and the fact that, for the majority of his career at Marshall, he operated from the shotgun formation. The broken leg, and the fact some scouts contend they discerned a slight limp during the February combine sessions, merely created another layer of doubt. And now, on Monday, the engaging Leftwich, arguably the only quarterback among the top five prospects in the draft who has posted big numbers every season he started, gets one chance to expunge any misgivings. League scouts contend, as usual, that Leftwich will be apprised by his entire body of work and that watching videotape of him is the purest measure of his worthiness. Truth be told, though, his professional draft status will in part be affected by what he does Monday on a high school field. Said one AFC personnel director: "He's a big talent but, because he doesn't have great movement skills, he's a big target as well. Even before the injury, there were questions about his mobility. And people want to see him get up behind the center, not in a shotgun, and take a normal drop. Those are things you have to be sure about. I think everyone knows he's a talent, probably a top 10 pick, but you want him to go out and get rid of the warts you know?" In preparation for the workout, Leftwich has been working for months at the International Performance Institute in Bradenton, a facility essentially owned by IMG, the conglomerate sports and marketing agency that represents him. He has dropped some weight, down about 13 pounds, after checking in at an eye-opening 249 pounds at the combine. Leftwich has been triple-checked by Andrews and done more running that anyone will let on. He is, anyone who chats with him for even a few minutes will admit, open and engaging and bright. Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, still trying to discern whether Leftwich or Kyle Boller of California is the better player, acknowledged there is "an aura" about the Marshall star. That is one of many reasons the Cincinnati Bengals, who own the first pick in the draft, will dispatch a small army to Monday's workout. The Bengals are even supplying a pair of veteran wide receivers, Ron Dugans and Peter Warrick, to serve as targets in the audition. The Bengals will bring Leftwich, one of four players they are considering with the top selection, to Cincinnati early in the week for more interviews. But there is as time for talking, Leftwich realizes, and a time for doing. And the time for doing, he allowed, is at hand. "This is something that I've been waiting for, and preparing for, and I'll be ready," he said.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.