INDIANAPOLIS -- I want to weigh in on the head -- specifically, what goes on in the heads -- of this year's quarterback class. In some order, Jay Cutler, Matt Leinart and Vince Young will probably be off the board by the first four or five picks, perhaps even after the first three. And in a few years I believe we'll look back and say they made up the best first-round group of OBs in nearly two decades.
Before we get to those guys, I want to pass along a neat story San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Nolan, on the subject of certain players' decisions not to work out at the scouting combine, shared here the other day about an undersized defensive lineman from Arizona and the impression the player made on him, then the Giants' linebackers coach, about a decade ago. I think it's relevant.
The player was Tedy Bruschi. Not only did Bruschi participate in all the combine drills, he wanted to do them first. And if another player, say, jumped higher than he did, he wanted another shot at the vertical. It would take Bruschi a little while to find a home at linebacker with the Patriots, but his competitive spirit was apparent right away. "I knew he would be a player," Nolan said.
I bring up that story because after spending just a few moments around them, you can't help but feel the same way about Cutler, Leinart and Young. Talent evaluators have concerns about some of Cutler's mechanics, forged from four years of playing behind porous offensive lines and throwing to, at best, so-so receivers at Vanderbilt. They question Leinart's arm strength and his mobility, and wonder just how much he benefited from his star-studded supporting casts at USC. And they have their doubts about whether Young, as athletically-gifted as he is, can be as effective a passer in a more structured NFL system as he was at Texas. Leinart and Young led teams to national titles and accomplished just about all there is to accomplish at the collegiate level, yet some league types have more doubts about them than Cutler, who they see as the best prospect of the three.
But the thing you must say about these guys -- you saw it from them in college and the media got a sample of it Friday -- is that all three possess the single most important quality a quarterback needs to succeed in the NFL. It's simply known as it. Or the It-Factor. That presence. Poise. A cool demeanor.
It's one of the major reasons, aside from landing in the wrong set of circumstances, why we see so many quarterbacks who are said to have all the tools fail at the NFL level, and why we've seen six of the eight quarterbacks to play in the past five Super Bowls come out of the sixth round, seventh round, ninth round or undrafted altogether. Ryan Leaf, the poster child for draft busts, had just about everything, but the intangibles.
These guys, Cutler, Leinart, and Young, all got it.
Take Cutler. Watching him put on a show in his press conference, I could see what everyone sees, and why some scouts view him as the best of the three top prospects. He doesn't give a you-know-what. In contrast to Leinart and Young, who chose to bypass the combine workouts and instead show their stuff at their Pro Days and individual workouts, Cutler came here to compete. He brought that nothing-to-lose, gunslinger mentality that allowed him to shine at lowly Vanderbilt with him to Indy. Prime example: The guy has no reason whatsoever to do the bench press, yet he puts up 225 pounds 23 times, better than any running back except Utah's Quinton Ganther (29). You gotta love that.
It's easy to see why he was a three-time team captain at Vandy. When asked if he was worried that throwing here Sunday might hurt his soaring stock, Cutler answered, "It's just throwing. I've been doing that a long time."
"I wish everyone was competing with me, but that's how it goes," Cutler said, referring to his primary competition.
Cutler thrived in arguably the most competitive conference in America, the SEC. His style has been compared to that of Brett Favre, whom, along with John Elway, Cutler loved as a kid. He's got a powerful arm and a quick release reminiscent of Jeff George. His footwork could be better, but he made the best out of a tough situation, which actually sets him apart from Leinart and Young, who had lots of talent around them. We already know Cutler can cut it regardless.
"I got it done without a lot of guys around me," Cutler said. "Nothing against those guys [his teammates], I love them to death, but I didn't have All-Americans scattered across the field and I had to adjust, I had to deal with pressure. I had to deal with getting the ball into tight places, so I think it is going to help me going to the next level, dealing with adversity and being able to succeed through it."
All Leinart knew at USC was success. He lost two games in three years by six points, and Young was all that kept the Trojans from winning three straight national titles. I've heard the same story from a couple of scouts, that 'SC coach Pete Carroll, when asked whom he'd take between Carson Palmer, Leinart's predecessor and one of the best young QBs in the game today, and the guy he just had, said, while Palmer has all the tools, Leinart's the guy if you want to win championships. If for some reason, the Saints don't take him at No. 2, no doubt his former offensive coordinator, Norm Chow, and the Titans will at the third spot. Cutler could even go to the Titans, since Chow is said to not be all that enthralled with the idea of tailoring his offense around Young's unique talents.
The thing about Leinart is, in essence, he's been in the spotlight for three years in the second-largest media market in the country. With USC being the closest thing L.A. has to an NFL team, Leinart was the star of stars. If he goes to a place like New Orleans or Tennessee, or to almost any other market, one could argue the scrutiny will be less than it was at Southern Cal.
Sure, he had Reggie Bush, LenDale White and great protection, but somebody had to drive the bus. Maybe Leinart doesn't have the arm to make all the throws, or at least make them all look easy, but he's made big throws. For example, fourth-and-8 in South Bend, Ind. He could not have been cooler in crunch time of the title game, dancing to the band's music and keeping teammates loose in the huddle.
"The one thing, it was tough being in LA, dealing with all the pressure and the limelight, and really being the only team there that's had success the last couple of years," he said. "I think that, the publicity that I've gotten, whether it's going out, or anything that I got, I think that's going to prepare me for the NFL, just because that's the closest thing you're going to get. Obviously it's not the NFL. But wherever I do go I'm going to have great preparation. I've been there, I've seen everything, I've done tons of interviews, I've seen lots of things happen."
The best competition Leinart faced may have been in practice, and he's been well- schooled by USC's pro-level coaching staff. He's probably the best decision-maker of the three top prospects. He looks at himself as "a Tom Brady-type."
"I think my overall preparation at USC is going to be an advantage," Leinart said. "First playing behind Carson Palmer, who's a Pro Bowl quarterback, and learning from him. Playing against an NFL-style defense and Coach Carroll for five years -- Troy Polamalu, Lofa Tatupu, guys that I've played against. I think I've been prepared the best you can be prepared.
"Playing in big games. Being on the biggest stage, I think that's going to prepare me."
You'd have to think he's better, having passed on entering the draft after his junior year -- and on a chance at maybe being the top pick -- and gotten another year of seasoning.
"Far better," Leinart said. "I was able to really approach the game mentally ... the film watching I've studied a bunch of NFL quarterbacks -- Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Rich Gannon, Brett Favre. I've spent a day with Rich Gannon, he came down to 'SC. Just to see how he prepares for a game every day during the week.
"The mental part, the first day of fall install I learned more practically that day than I did the whole year before Just overall, mentally and physically, [I] just grew. A lot of people say I'm 1,000 throws more experienced."
On the flip side, Young has to convince teams he can operate a more conventional offense from under center, rather than the shotgun -- same transition Alex Smith is making in San Francisco. And there are doubts about his quirky throwing motion and whether he can beat a team from the pocket.
We know this: Young knows how to carry a team. The hope, of course, is that he has a healthy career, but he's going to be one of those players, like a Michael Vick, whose team is simply lost without him. He's going to mean that much to a franchise. Young inspired such confidence from his Texas teammates. They just knew he'd find a way to get it done. In the championship game, he kept his huddle loose by joking about how scared the Trojan defenders looked. That kind of presence and calm under pressure is a much bigger deal than a guy's release or his arm slot.
From what Young said Friday, teams are tellin him, "If it isn't broken, don't fix it" when it comes to the issue of Young's sidearm delivery. "Sitting down with some of the coaches now, hearing the different things they've been saying about my throwing motion, there's nothing really wrong with it. The media, that's who keeps talking about the throwing motion. There's nothing wrong with the throwing motion."
Young is going to be just fine. So will Cutler and Leinart. In their unique way, each of them has it. And regardless of what the tape, scale, stopwatch or the analysts say, having it is what matters most in a quarterback.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.