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Pre-Senior Bowl workouts elevated QB

Most league scouts would acknowledge that it was an impressive week of practices preceding the annual Senior Bowl all-star game that paved the way for North Carolina State star Philip Rivers to instantly transform the top tier of quarterback prospects in this year's draft from a duet into a trio.

But what made it possible for the inexplicably underrated Rivers to become so coveted that he would be traded on Saturday afternoon for Eli Manning in a swap to the San Diego Chargers that included a tricky maneuver with the New York Giants?

Ask Rivers, and he will tell you that it was the week before the week of the Senior Bowl workouts that catapulted him into such elite company.

Working out in balmy Destin, Fla., under sunny skies and the tutelage of former NFL quarterback and assistant coach Zeke Bratkowski, throwing to a group of receivers with whom he was familiar, Rivers girded himself for the biggest step in moving from a quarterback who had started the most games in NCAA history (51) to a prospect whose skill set was commensurate to that of Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.

During that week, Rivers soaked up plenty of sun, in temperatures more than 40 degrees warmer than what he had left behind in Raleigh, N.C. More important, and fittingly as well, the player to whom Wolfpack head coach Chuck Amato often referred as The Human Sponge soaked up football knowledge and got his head back into the game.

For whatever reason, there was a perception that, despite his college career, Rivers was still not regarded as a first-rounder. That perception began to change in the week before he went to the Senior Bowl game, a contest from which Manning had begged off and for which Roethlisberger, an underclassman, was not eligible.

"That week helped so much, working with Zeke Bratkowski, getting back into the swing of football again," said Rivers, who finished a brilliant career with a slew of records but lingering doubt about how his skills would project to the next level. "I mean, that's usually a down period football-wise, because you've finished your team's bowl game, you're getting ready for the Senior Bowl and the combine, and your mind is telling you that you can kick back a little.

"But that week was all football, from throwing to guys, to watching tape, to having Zeke tell me exactly what to expect once I arrived in Mobile (for the Senior Bowl). It really set up my Senior Bowl week, got me in a comfort zone before I even arrived for practices, let me settle back into a football kind of mentality."

It is difficult to believe, even after just a brief conversation with the engaging Rivers, that there might be a time when he is not in the football mode. He is extremely bright, having earned a degree in business, and mature beyond his 21 years.

When he visited with Ken Herock, who prepares prospects for the grueling combine interview process, it took just 15 minutes for Rivers to convince the former longtime NFL personnel director that he knew the responsibilities of every position on every play of the thick North Carolina State offensive playbook.

But there is something else about Rivers as well, a natural charisma that arguably rivals the aura of Peyton Manning. And he is well-grounded, as demonstrated by his decision to decline the league invitation to spend draft day in New York, preferring instead to watch events transpire on his parents' television, surrounded by family and friends.

"I just said to myself earlier this week, 'How do you want to remember this day,' you know?" Rivers explained of the decision to stay home with wife Tiffany and daughter Halle (who will turn two years old about the time daddy leaves for training camp) and other family members. "The league said I could bring four friends and family. I've got way more than that. These are the people I wanted to surround myself with on such a memorable day. But even I didn't think it would be this memorable. But I care about the folks who care about me."

Truth be told, it might indeed be those non-physical abilities, his humanness for lack of a better term, that make Rivers special and actually helped to validate all those gaudy numbers he recorded in college.

"I think that if you get to know me, you know, up close and personal, as they say, you'll come away thinking I've got something going for me," Rivers said.

That was certainly the case at the Senior Bowl, where Rivers played exceptionally, and captured most valuable player honors. But as is characteristically the case at the most competitive and talent-laden of all the postseason all-star games, it was the week leading to the game that draws the most scrutiny, and during which Rivers really excelled.

Not only did Rivers quickly assimilate the playbook, but it became immediately obvious how spontaneously he dominated the field with his presence. The San Diego staff, which lobbied to get Rivers into the Senior Bowl after he initially wasn't invited, coached the North squad. And their coaches, from Marty Schottenheimer on down, was mightily impressed with Rivers' confidence and the way in which his teammates accepted him.

It is no secret that, on the Chargers' draft board, the grades for Manning and Rivers were razor-thin close.

That much-discussed funky delivery of Rivers, a kind of mechanically unusual sidearm motion, and one that worried some scouts? Rivers allowed Saturday afternoon that he has grown weary of discussing it and no one can blame him for that. He noted that, if you asked 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL to throw the ball, you would witness about 32 different deliveries.

The impressive bottom line is that Rivers threw for 13,484 yards in his career, second most in NCAA history. He tossed 95 touchdown passes and just 34 interceptions. He won every game that had the word "bowl" as its surname. And, oh, yeah, in 2003, Rivers had only five passes batted down at the line of scrimmage.

It doesn't sound like the Chargers, or the Pittsburgh Steelers, who coveted Rivers at the No. 11 spot in the first round and were stunned when he was chosen so early as part of the juxtaposition of San Diego and the Giants, were worried about the delivery.

"It's more than just throwing the football," said Chargers wide receivers coach James Lofton, speaking about Rivers and the esteem in which he is held by the San Diego staff. "He's got that certain 'it' that is hard to define. There is a presence there. You watch him in the huddle, all eyes are on him, not a head moves. You just can't say that about every quarterback, you know? I don't think he's surprised by very much."

Rivers was more than surprised, though -- in fact, shocked would be a better description of what transpired on Saturday -- when the Giants chose him with the fourth overall pick, the move a necessary precursor to the subsequent deal with the Chargers. Executives from neither the Chargers nor the Giants phoned Rivers before the pick. Neither team called his agent, Jimmy Sexton, either.

"Hey, let me tell you, I was the most surprised guy around," Rivers said.

For one of the few times in his football career.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.