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A closer look at the QB class of 2003

March 18

Carson Palmer and Kyle Boller worked out last week. Chris Simms showcases himself Tuesday. Rex Grossman and Dave Ragone do it Wednesday, and Byron Leftwich will step out on April 7.

The quarterback class of 2003 is pretty intriguing, if you ask me. Over the last week or so I have asked a handful of personnel men I trust, men who have a pretty good track record on quarterbacks, to handicap this race as we head toward the April 26 finish line known as the NFL draft.

Surprisingly, I don't sense a consensus from this group on Palmer being the hands-down best prospect of the group. We will wait to make a final judgment until the workout reports are in on Simms, Grossman and Ragone, but let's do a current analysis on the top three quarterback prospects:

Carson Palmer, USC
He's the Heisman Trophy winner, so Palmer has the hardware and credentials. He is big and strong and mechanically sound. He moves around pretty well and ran a 4.62 in the 40 last week.

"He's the best no-risk guy among the quarterbacks," said one scout of Palmer. "He might not be instant potatoes, but give him a couple of years and you have a guy. You might even get Drew Bledsoe."

The Bengals have the No. 1 pick and many people already have Palmer penciled in as their guy. He might be, he might not. The scout above said he was the "best no-risk" quarterback prospect. But that does not mean Palmer has no risk.

"His ascension is based on a terrific six-game stretch at the end of USC's season," said another scout. "That guy is a heck of a prospect. The guy before that was a suspect prospect. Can it all change in six games? When he stepped outside the Pac-10, he really struggled against a Big 12 school like Kansas State (16-of-47, 186 yards in a loss), but then he came back big against Notre Dame and Iowa."

Norm Chow, USC's offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, is credited with Palmer's turnaround. When Chow took the job in Pete Carroll's first season, Palmer was a junior and scouts say Chow was very dubious of Palmer's potential in his first season. The translation is good and bad.

The good is that Palmer eventually will respond to great coaching. The bad is that it will take some time, and for a top pick he will face enormous scrutiny and criticism while he struggles. Can he handle it?

Even Palmer's mechanics get a good-bad response. They're very sound, but one personnel man considering a quarterback in the first round labeled him as "almost too mechanical ... robo-QB."

Leadership? More debate. One scout notes that "Palmer is a nice kid....very well-liked by his coaches and teammates." Another scout calls him, "a wallflower...real low on personality...hardly inspirational."

Bottom line: Carson Palmer is the leader at this stage. He is not a lock yet.

Byron Leftwich, Marshall
Byron Leftwich
Byron Leftwich's mobility is one of the few questions about his game.
Of all the quarterback workouts prior to the draft, Leftwich has the most critical date because the broken shin bone he played on in the latter part of 2002 prevented him from playing in the Senior Bowl or participating at the scouting combine.

The leg is an issue. Two scouts very interested in Leftwich thought the leg gave out slightly when he simply stepped off the scale at the combine, where he did submit to physical examinations and interviews. Another scout present at the weigh-in says he didn't see anything like that.

If Leftwich can erase all doubts about his leg, he could leapfrog Palmer. "Forget Palmer, Leftwich is Drew Bledsoe," said one top-10 guy. "He's real big (6-5½, 245 pounds) like Bledsoe. He'll stand real tall in the pocket and make all the throws."

The bad news is that Leftwich has to stand in the pocket because he has little mobility. "He's not a fast-twitch guy," said one scout. "He doesn't move well and I don't think he's as physically strong or stable as Bledsoe, so I wonder about his ability to take the punishment."

On this argument, I also talked to Ed Zaunbrecher, the former Marshall offensive coordinator now at Florida. Basically, he says anybody who doubts Leftwich's ability is making a big mistake.

"Not a throw he can't make," Zaunbrecher said. "And he is big, really big. He can stand the heat."

If Leftwich is really lights-out at his workout, the other tools are there. He's not only very intelligent (Leftwich and Palmer had almost identical Wonderlic scores just above 30), he has personality-plus.

"Really, there wasn't a guy who interviewed better than Leftwich (at the combine)," said a scout. "He's a natural leader. You can tell he brings some energy to the table. And his teammates will see him play hurt, on one leg, or whatever. . .just like he did at Marshall, and that's inspirational."

Another scout: "Leftwich has played at a high level for three years. Palmer did it for six games. Who's the safer pick?"

Kyle Boller, California
This is the real hot name. In every arena he has performed in since the season ended, Boller has done something to get the scout's attention. In fact, he has probably jumped from being a second or third-round prospect to a potential top-10 pick.

"I can envision Boller upsetting the whole draft and jumping over Palmer and Leftwich," said one scout. "Three months ago, that would have taken some courage. Today, it's not illogical, not at all."

Boller showed he belongs with the big boys at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., where Palmer, Simms and Ragone all performed, along with Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury and Iowa State's Seneca Wallace.

Then at the combine, Boller and his agent, Mike Sullivan, gambled brilliantly. Having displayed his arm skills at the Senior Bowl, Boller focused on his athleticism at the combine.

At first, NFL scouts grumbled about Boller declining to participate in passing drills, but the grumbles turned to applause when the 6-3, 235-pounder wowed scouts with a 4.59 clocking in the 40.

He also had the second-best shuttle among all QBs, and registered a 35-inch vertical jump, meaning he's got that "fast-twitch" muscle which allows a QB to escape when necessary.

Boller saved the best for last when he worked out last Thursday at Cal. His 100-throw display caught the attention of the 15 teams that attended the workout, and all the top-10 teams that appear to be contemplating a quarterback were there.

Cal coach Jeff Tedford (more about him later) made sure Boller left nothing to the imagination as the quarterback made every throw in the book. He launched one pass on the run more than 70 yards in the air.

He put an exclamation point on the workout when he took a knee at the 50 and launched a pass that sailed over and between the goal posts 60 yards away, drawing applause from all the NFL scouts and coaches in attendance.

"Physically, he's got all the tools -- a huge arm, great athleticism and great feet," said 49ers coach Dennis Erickson, who coached against Boller in the Pac-10.

(I think it is not a reach to believe the 49ers would take Boller. Erickson wants more downfield throwing and will add a big arm like Boller's at some point, but the 49ers pick 26th and probably won't get a shot at him).

And it's not like Boller has come from nowhere. He and Simms were the top-rated quarterbacks in their high school senior class, but Boller did struggle for three seasons at Cal because the program was dreadful until Tedford was hired prior to last season.

Tedford's reputation is growing fast as one of the game's bright coaches and quarterback mentors. He got David Carr started at Fresno State, then moved to Oregon, where he enabled Akili Smith to have a wonder season and polished off Joey Harrington before Cal named him head coach.

Tedford broke down Boller on fundamentals, taught him the game and made it fun. That Boller responded in one year is a testimony, but not without blemish.

"Overall, when you look at his career you see a 50-percent passer," said a scout.

Countered another scout: "Tedford proved that Boller is the real deal. He didn't take two years to respond like Palmer did with Norm Chow."

Tedford, a good bet for NFL head coaching timber in a couple of years, puts a strong stamp of recommendation on Boller.

"He's come so far in a short period," said Tedford. "The light has just come on for him. He has all the physical tools. But what you have to like about him is you're an NFL team is that he has persevered through bad times. He's not going tin the tank at the first setback. He's driven, he's competitive and he's a great kid."

And he has made a lot of money in a very short time.

Coming Friday: Grossman, Ragone and Simms check in.

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