NFL Nation: Tim Couch

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- In the recent annals of performances by rookie quarterbacks, the number of times Teddy Bridgewater's been taken to the ground has been startling.

The Minnesota Vikings rookie quarterback has been sacked 15 times in just four games, or on 11 percent of his dropbacks.

In other words, according to ESPN Stats and Information, Bridgewater is on pace to be the most frequently-sacked rookie quarterback in the league since the Dallas Cowboys' Chad Hutchinson in 2002. He's been pressured on 27.9 percent of his dropbacks, and he's thrown just one touchdown pass against five interceptions so far.

Bridgewater
 I've heard some talk recently about the idea that the Vikings could be "ruining" Bridgewater by exposing him to so much pressure -- and running the risk of either getting him injured or making him skittish -- as a rookie. The name David Carr usually comes up in these conversations as a cautionary tale, after the former first overall pick was subjected to 76 sacks in the Houston Texans' inaugural season, and then another 173 in the following four seasons, before the Texans let him go.

It's true that the list of the most-sacked rookie quarterbacks in history (usually passers playing for bad teams behind leaky offensive lines) includes a number of busts: Carr tops the list at 76, followed by Tim Couch at 56, Jake Plummer at 52, Dieter Brock at 51, Tony Banks at 48 and Rick Mirer at 47. But then we come to names like Warren Moon and Jim Kelly (albeit after time in the CFL and USFL, respectively), and Andrew Luck, who was taken down 41 times as a rookie and pressured on 28.8 percent of his dropbacks while playing for a team that threw the ball 627 times. Phil Simms took 39 sacks as a rookie. Russell Wilson was sacked 33 times, Joe Flacco 32 and Ben Roethlisberger 30.

It'd be one thing to worry if Bridgewater was showing signs of letting the rush affect him, either by taking off early or hurrying throws to avoid sacks. We've seen him rush throws on a couple occasions, but not to the point where I'd attribute it to something more deep-seeded than a rookie still figuring out his timing in the NFL. He rebounded from two interceptions on Sunday, making some of his best throws when he stood in the pocket and fired decisively to a receiver, and offensive coordinator Norv Turner sounded pleased on Thursday with how composed Bridgewater has remained in the face of all the pressure.

"He's got good sense in the pocket. He's getting better at getting the ball out," Turner said. "He threw the ball away a couple times Sunday when there was nowhere to throw it, where against Detroit [on] those plays he took sacks. We're working on getting him a lot quicker, we're working on design to help get the ball out quick, we're working on protection so we don't have to have the conversation about how he handles it."

If the Vikings keep giving up pressure to the point where Bridgewater's sack totals are pushing into the 50s, then we might have something to worry about long-term. But right now, the issue seems to be affecting the Vikings' ability to win in the present more than it's stunting Bridgewater's growth. The amount of pressure the Vikings have allowed is alarming, especially from an offensive line that was supposed to be one of the team's strengths. But the Vikings were drawn to Bridgewater in part because of how masterfully he handled pressure in college, and any sense of a maladjustment because of what he's faced as a rookie probably is premature.
The party's over for Johnny Manziel.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsThe Browns would do well to give Johnny Manziel time to develop instead of thrusting him in as a starter.
The offseason of Vegas-Austin-Mexico-Los Angeles clubs and beverages/bottles has concluded. The social media photos with rolled bills are complete. Manziel reported for his first NFL training camp on Wednesday in Cleveland to try to become the Cleveland Browns' starting quarterback. On Thursday, workouts begin. It's not exactly a brave new world for the Browns' first-round draft pick -- he did manage himself quite well in college during the season while having a good time in the offseason, thank you very much -- but it is a more challenging situation than anything he has dealt with in his life. The young wunderkind who was simply always better than those around him finds himself at a whole new level, having to earn his place in the world of professionals.

But while attention will be focused on his every move, his coach has made no secret he'd prefer Manziel not be the team's immediate starter. Coach Mike Pettine told SI.com that in his "ideal world," Manziel would not start on opening day.

Go figure.

The Browns, a team in need of a new image, excite the area and the football world by drafting the most exciting player eligible, and they want him to wait.

But there's sound logic and strong precedent behind Pettine's thinking.

He talks about success stories for people who wait to start -- Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Carson Palmer -- and compares them to guys he has seen rushed into the starting lineup too soon -- Kyle Boller -- for a team not good enough to support them.

That's a scenario Cleveland fans know all too well, as they have seen quarterback after quarterback forced into the lineup, only to struggle with a bad team and fail: Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, Charlie Frye and Brandon Weeden among them.

The other cycle that has been repeated in Cleveland is that a quarterback ballyhooed as a savior watches as the team drafts another. The public and media -- and eventually the team -- grow weary of the first "savior" struggling because the team is not equipped to help him. This starts the clamor for the next guy. He then is rushed in and struggles for the same reasons the first guy did.

Savior after savior has flamed out, quickly. Heck, a year ago in Cleveland, Jason Campbell was briefly considered a savior. He finished 1-7 as a starter.

"It's a bad cycle," Pettine said, "until you get the team around him."

Pettine has to balance a lot, starting with hype and expectation (multiplied exponentially because it's Manziel) that comes with any quarterback drafted in the first round. But he also has to balance what he has seen -- that a quarterback will struggle if the team around him struggles.

"There's no doubt [the quarterback is] the most important guy on the field," Pettine said. "But he's so much the product of his supporting cast."

In many past years, the Browns built the team from the inside out. Start with the quarterback and hope to add pieces. It can work, but the danger in that process showed constantly as a lack of a supporting cast left each young quarterback battered, shell-shocked and fragile.

Pettine wants to build from the outside in while still working with the best quarterback he can find.

That's why in the offseason the Browns rebuilt the running game with personnel and system. It is why they bolstered the offensive line, and why they've implemented a defensive scheme that has been successful everywhere it has been used. It's also why they brought in prominent defensive veterans Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby, guys used to winning who might change the vibe in a locker room accustomed to losing.

The final piece was a quarterback to compete with Brian Hoyer. In Manziel, the Browns got a guy who threw for 7,800 yards and 63 touchdowns at Texas A&M, a guy who for whatever reason has become a social media phenomenon.

"I don't think even he can get a handle on the why," Pettine said

At this point in his NFL career, Manziel has done nothing but be successful in college. As any Browns fan can attest, college success and/or a college resume does not automatically translate to wins in the NFL.

Pettine said Manziel was a great teammate in the previous time he was in Cleveland, calling him "very humble." The typical litany of positives followed: good in the weight room, attentive in meetings, smart.

Pettine then added this tidbit: "I think he's ahead of the learning curve."

In the world of hype, parsing and interpreting what has formed around Manziel, that comment would translate on the conversion chart to: "Holy smokes this guy is good."

But there are many factors at play, not the least of which are the beliefs and principles of the head coach. In organized team activities and minicamps, Manziel had his moments but never consistently looked like a no-brainer to be the starter. He never played like a guy who immediately had to be put in the lineup. Manziel himself admitted the Browns' offense is a lot more complex than the one he ran in college, where he didn't even have a playbook. There's the reality that the Browns open in Pittsburgh and then play at home against the New Orleans Saints and the Baltimore Ravens. Those are three very tough, physical and aggressive defenses that might make a team hesitate to start a rookie.

Two things are steadfastly true, though. First is that if Manziel doesn't turn out the lights, his on-field party will be over. Because he won't be able to succeed on the field if he's living the extreme high life off it. Pettine said he expects the off-field to be a "non-story" soon.

The second is that Pettine is determined to not give Manziel the job simply because of who he is.

"It's very simple for us," Pettine said. "Who gives us the best chance to win?"
A tiny item caught my eye amid the hoopla about media access and Johnny Manziel's first practice weekend with the Cleveland Browns.

It came from Peter King of Sports Illustrated, who pointed out that the playbook (on a tablet) that Manziel received from the Browns was the first one he had been given in his football career. At Texas A&M, King wrote, Manziel ran a group of plays given to him from week to week.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
David Maxwell/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel must adjust to the first playbook of his football career, but his biggest challenge involves mental preparation.
This flashed me back immediately to Tim Couch, who played in the NFL after not having a playbook in college. Everyone knows what happened to Couch, but the story became a big deal when folks learned Couch did not have a playbook at Kentucky. With Manziel, it was barely a blip on the radar.

Clearly the different approach will require an adjustment for the Browns' rookie quarterback. To go from no playbook to one on a tablet is a significant change.

It's all part of Manziel's transition as he goes from celebrated college star to ... ahem ... NFL backup. And several current and former NFL coaches believe the changes will be significant but that doesn't necessarily mean it won't work out.

The challenges are twofold. One is adjusting to running an offense based on two or three reads after running primarily a one-read, spread formation system in college. The other is adjusting to the increased emphasis in the NFL on line calls, coverages and reads as opposed to the college emphasis on the pace with which plays are run.

This is all added to the normal adjustment of moving up one level; it's a mental transition added to the physical ones, where the players chasing Manziel are all bigger, faster and stronger.

Nobody doubts Manziel's ability, or his potential for excitement. But the insights provide a little more football reality to the transition.

The point: The college playbook is small and the focus is on speed and getting the play run. It's not on things like pre-snap read, determining where the defense will pressure and adjusting the playcall to that read. College programs want plays run at a near frenetic pace. It's the focus in practice and games.

Yes, Chip Kelly's system translated to the Philadelphia Eagles, but that's because he brought many of the elements of the system he used in Oregon. Manziel will be going from a fast-paced college system to a variation of the West Coast run by Kyle Shanahan.

The sheer depth of knowledge Manziel will need should not be underestimated. It extends not just to the offense, but to understanding the defenses -- the disguised coverages and rush fronts and blitzes (think Troy Polamalu the past several years).

The NFL is a league in which protections are called at the line and pass routes are run based on blitzes and coverages. The right call at the line is crucial, the right read before the snap vital -- to the point it can be the difference between a first down or a strip-sack or interception.

Understanding the defense is as important as understanding the offense.

None of this means Manziel won't succeed. Far from it. He may succeed right away.

What it does is show the benefit to some quarterbacks of sitting and learning, and what it also shows is how tough the transition can be as colleges go further away from pro-style offenses.
There are few secrets about Bruce Arians as a coach.

He likes to throw long and deep, and he likes to put up a lot of points. And here’s another thing we know about Arians: He’s had some great quarterbacks.

With the draft less than a week away and speculation increasing that the Arizona Cardinals will take a quarterback with one of their six picks, what kind of quarterback Arians favors has become a hot topic.

Here is what we know: Arians has had a lot of success with taller quarterbacks who don’t run much. Just look at Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck. They can run, but don’t in Arians’ system. And most every quarterback that fits those dimensions has succeeded in his scheme.

Here’s a look at the past six quarterbacks Arians has coached and the top 10 quarterback prospects in this year’s draft, according to ESPN:

Ben RoethlisbergerAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarBen Roethlisberger, the Steelers' first-round pick in 2004, has forever impacted the franchise.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers needed more than a little luck to end their long search for the rightful heir to Terry Bradshaw, the quarterback they had taken first overall in the 1970 NFL draft.

Ten years ago today -- and almost a quarter of a century after they selected Bradshaw by winning a coin toss to secure the top pick over the Chicago Bears -- the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th overall pick.

As with Bradshaw, the pick set the franchise on a glorious course.

Bradshaw struggled early in his career and was benched and booed by fans before winning four Super Bowls, but with Roethlisberger, the Steelers got a serious return on their quarterback investment earlier than anyone could have expected.



An injury to starter Tommy Maddox in the second game of the 2004 season thrust Roethlisberger into action. And the quarterback who had been considered more of a project than the two picked ahead of him (Eli Manning and Philip Rivers) because he hadn't played against top competition at Miami (Ohio) responded by winning his first 14 starts.

The Steelers suffered a disappointing loss to Tom Brady and the Patriots in the 2004 AFC Championship Game, but they finally found their quarterback after going through their share of them following Bradshaw's retirement in 1984.

Roethlisberger led the Steelers to three Super Bowls from 2005 to 2010, winning two of them, and he showed a flair for extending plays after his pass protection had collapsed, as well as directing clutch fourth-quarter drives -- both the result of a competitive streak that is as long as one of the three rivers that converge in Pittsburgh.

He authored his signature comeback in Super Bowl XLIII when the Steelers trailed the upstart Arizona Cardinals by three points and were backed up at their 10-yard line with less than three minutes left in the game.

Roethlisberger needed eight plays and a little more than two minutes to lead the Steelers to a game-winning touchdown, capping the drive with a 6-yard scoring pass to Santonio Holmes.

The pass was vintage Roethlisberger: daring and something more likely seen in a backyard game, not the NFL's biggest stage. Roethlisberger unleashed the pass under pressure, throwing it into a crowd but only where his receiver had a chance to catch it.

That unlikely play, in retrospect, serves as something of a metaphor for Roethlisberger's Steelers career, because so much had to break just right for him to wear black and gold in the first place.

“We didn't expect that he would end up in Pittsburgh,” Ryan Tollner, Roethlisberger's agent, said.

Indeed, 10 teams picked ahead of the Steelers in the 2004 draft, including the Browns, who would have been hailed for taking the Ohio native to lift the struggling franchise.

And Roethlisberger's camp didn't know to what extent he was on the Steelers' radar.

The team had met with Roethlisberger at the NFL scouting combine and also hosted him for a pre-draft visit, but they never worked him out. Tollner figured he would go to the Raiders at No. 2, the Cardinals at No. 3, the Giants at No. 4 or the Browns at No. 6.

If none of those teams drafted Roethlisberger, Tollner thought, Buffalo at No. 13 would be the probable landing spot for his client.

Meanwhile, another member of Roethlisberger's inner circle was convinced the Giants were going to draft him. Terry Hoeppner, his coach at Miami, had spoken extensively with Ernie Accorsi about Roethlisberger and had gotten a good vibe from the Giants' general manager.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/John Marshall MantelQB Ben Roethlisberger hasn't forgotten about all of the teams -- especially the Browns -- who bypassed him in the 2004 draft.
That is why when the Giants drafted Rivers -- they subsequently dealt him to the Chargers for Manning, who had been taken first overall -- Hoeppner fired a water bottle in disgust across the table where he was sitting with Roethlisberger and others at the draft in New York City.

The Redskins took safety Sean Taylor with the fifth pick, providing an opening for the Browns, who needed a quarterback after Tim Couch, the first overall selection in 1999, didn't pan out.

"[Roethlisberger] is a northwest Ohio kid, and played in-state at Miami of Ohio and here the Browns are, they've struggled at the quarterback position for a long time," Tollner said. "Ben is sitting there and they elect to go with a tight end. It's something Ben's never forgotten and he never will."

The Browns' picking tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. proved to be one of the draft's pivotal points. But the Steelers also came close to passing over Roethlisberger after he lasted through the first 10 picks.

The team had zeroed in on Arkansas offensive tackle Shawn Andrews, but owner Dan Rooney deftly shifted the conversation to Roethlisberger before the Steelers made their pick.

Rooney had good reason to speak up.

The Steelers had built their dynasty in the 1970s -- and transformed an organization once synonymous with losing -- through shrewd drafting.

They had missed an opportunity near the end of Bradshaw's career when they passed on local legend Dan Marino in the 1983 draft and instead selected Texas Tech defensive tackle Gabe Rivera with the 21st pick.

The Dolphins pounced on Marino with the 27th selection, and his strong arm and quick-as-a-hiccup release allowed the Pitt product to become an early star in Miami and eventually a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer.

The Steelers, meanwhile, shuffled through enough quarterbacks in the post-Bradshaw era that seven different players led them in passing from 1983 to 2003.

Rooney fretted that overlooking Roethlisberger also might come back to haunt the Steelers.

"I couldn't bear the thought of passing on another great quarterback prospect," Rooney wrote in his book "Dan Rooney: My 75 Years With The Pittsburgh Steelers and The NFL."

"So I steered the conversation around to Roethlisberger. After some more talk, we came to a consensus and picked Roethlisberger."

Ten years later, Roethlisberger remains the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl -- he was only 23 when the Steelers beat the Seahawks in February 2006 -- and joins Eli Manning and Brady as the only active quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl victories.

Roethlisberger, who turned 32 in March, already has broken many of Bradshaw's Steelers records and is five victories away from becoming the 13th quarterback in NFL history to win at least 100 regular-season games.

It hasn't all been smooth for Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh.

A motorcycle accident after his first Super Bowl victory left Roethlisberger seriously injured and may have contributed to his uneven play in 2006. And two sexual assault allegations made against him less than a year apart led to a four-game personal-conduct policy suspension by the NFL at the beginning of the 2010 season (Roethlisberger was never charged with a crime).

Roethlisberger since has rehabilitated his image, gotten married and started a family. He is considerably closer to the end of his career than the beginning of it, though he played every snap last season.

It's safe to say Roethlisberger is one of the best draft choices in Steelers history -- and the most critical one to reconnecting the team that has won a record six Lombardi trophies with its triumphant past.

Oh, and yeah, Roethlisberger is 19-1 in his career against the Browns, the most notable and personal of the teams that passed on him 10 years ago.

"I think that Ben getting where he did in hindsight was the best thing that could have happened to him because he went to a strong organization but he went in a position that kept him feeling like an underdog," Tollner said. "He entered the league a very respectable pick at No. 11 overall but very driven to prove that 10 teams made a very bad mistake in passing on him."

A look at the AFC North

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The lone AFC North team in the playoffs made another early exit Sunday when the No. 3 Bengals lost to the No. 6 Chargers, 27-10, at Paul Brown Stadium. With all four division teams now in offseason mode, here is a quick look at them by order of finish in the AFC North.

Cincinnati Bengals

2013 record: 11-5, 3-3 in division

Key free agents: DE Michael Johnson, OT Anthony Collins

Biggest question: Have coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton taken the Bengals as far as they can?

Biggest reason for hope: Despite losing in the wild-card round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season, the Bengals have a very good nucleus. Rookie Giovani Bernard showed enough to think his time splitting carries with the plodding BenJarvus Green-Ellis is over.

Why they might disappoint: Dalton has faltered too many times in big games to think he can take the next step, and just making the playoffs is no longer good enough in Cincinnati.

Overall state of the franchise: The Bengals find themselves at a crossroads, but they have little choice but to stick with Dalton -- for now -- unless they want to draft a quarterback in the first round and hand over a veteran team to him.

Pittsburgh Steelers

2013 record: 8-8, 4-2

Key free agents: OLB Jason Worilds, WR Emmanuel Sanders

Biggest question: Will the Steelers re-establish themselves as Super Bowl contenders while re-tooling their defense?

Biggest reason for hope: The offense will be able to mask some of the issues the Steelers have on defense if it builds on its strong second half of the 2013 season.

Why they might disappoint: The defense could get worse before it gets better if younger players don’t emerge in the secondary and Worilds signs elsewhere.

Overall state of the franchise: The Steelers are facing a lot of uncertainty, but a 6-2 finish and the way the offense has come together point to them returning to postseason play in 2014 after missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

Baltimore Ravens

2013 record: 8-8, 3-3

Key free agents: TE Dennis Pitta, LB Daryl Smith

Biggest question: Did the Ravens suffer through the dreaded Super Bowl hangover or are they in decline?

Biggest reason for hope: Joe Flacco is a franchise quarterback, and there is still plenty of talent on both sides of the ball.

Why they might disappoint: The Ravens, like the Steelers, are clearly in transition on defense. Two cornerstones of that defense -- outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata -- no longer dominate on a consistent basis.

Overall state of the franchise: Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh are as good as any general manager-coach tandem in the NFL, and they have to be given the benefit of the doubt even though the Ravens slipped this season.

Cleveland Browns

2013 record: 4-12, 2-4

Key free agents: C Alex Mack, S T.J. Ward

Biggest question: Will a new coach and a quarterback finally stabilize an organization that has floundered, often spectacularly, since the NFL returned to Cleveland in 1999?

Biggest reason for hope: There are some pieces in place, most notably wide receiver Josh Gordon, cornerback Joe Haden and left tackle Joe Thomas, and the Browns have a pair of first-round picks, including the fourth overall selection.

Why they may disappoint: Tim Couch, Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden are the quarterbacks the Browns have drafted in the first round since 1999. Why should Browns fans think they will get it right in this draft?

Overall state of the franchise: The Browns dumped coach Rob Chudzinski after just one season, and unless they find the right replacement and, oh yeah, a quarterback in the draft, the Browns will continue to bottom feed in the AFC North.

Big Ben, Browns and a touchstone moment

November, 19, 2013
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The Pittsburgh Steelers always provide the Cleveland Browns a measuring stick.

Roethlisberger
One way to measure is to realize that the Steelers have had Ben Roethlisberger starting at quarterback since he was a first-round draft pick in 2004.

How that happened constantly provides the Browns with a nightmare memory of one of those touchstone moments when the entire course of two franchises could have changed based on one decision.

Butch Davis was coach of the Browns then, and the team was coming off a 5-11 season in which Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb each started eight games.

Davis started the 2003 season with Holcomb, based mainly on his 400-yard plus playoff performance in Pittsburgh the season before -- a game Couch missed with a broken leg.

But Holcomb broke his leg in '03 on a quarterback sneak in San Francisco -- a break Davis called "a teeny, tiny break in a non-weight bearing bone."

Couch and Holcomb see-sawed back and forth until Holcomb threw a couple of interceptions in a Monday night loss to St. Louis. After that game, Davis called Couch in his office and told him he was his quarterback for years to come.

The Browns had the seventh pick in the first round. The front office wanted tight end Kellen Winslow or wide receiver Roy Williams. Davis tried to trade up for safety Sean Taylor, but after initially saying yes to the deal the Giants changed their mind and instead swapped Philip Rivers for Eli Manning.

San Diego and New York both found their quarterback.

Davis never really considered Roethlisberger -- even though he had thrown for more than 10,000 yards at Miami of Ohio and even though he grew up in Findlay, Ohio.

Davis privately told people he simply was not a Roethlisberger guy.

The Browns coach favored one of two kinds of players: Guys he recruited and signed to the University of Miami, and guys he tried to recruit.

Winslow and Taylor fit the profile; Roethlisberger was from the MAC and didn’t.

The Browns wound up trading up one spot in the draft to get Winslow and gave up a second-round pick to do it.

Roethlisberger went to the Steelers at No. 11. He went on to win Rookie of the Year and take the Steelers to the AFC Championship Game in his first season. He eventually won two Super Bowls.

The Browns signed Jeff Garcia, cut Couch (the quarterback for years to come) and went 4-12 in '04 only because Holcomb started the last game and won it.

They are still looking for their quarterback.

In a draft in which three franchises found quarterbacks who are still starting for the teams that drafted or dealt for them on draft day, the Browns got a tight end and traded a second-round pick to move up one spot for him.

Since the Steelers drafted Roethlisberger in 2004, the Browns took two other quarterbacks in the first round (Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden) and two in the third round (Charlie Frye and Colt McCoy). They may take another in 2014.

Since the Manning-Rivers-Roethlisberger draft, the Browns have used 17 starting quarterbacks. And Pittsburgh has gone 15-0 in games Roethlisberger has started against the Browns.


BEREA, Ohio -- The Colt McCoy era is over. A new one -- make that older one -- began Thursday night when the Cleveland Browns selected Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden with the 22nd overall pick.

The Browns have gone from a weak-armed quarterback to a geriatric one by NFL standards. At 28 years, 195 days, Weeden is the oldest player ever to be taken in the first round of the Common Draft era, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Weeden is only two years younger than Ben Roethlisberger. He's one year older than Brady Quinn, the last quarterback taken by the Browns in the first round.

Drafting running back Trent Richardson in the first round was a no-brainer. And, even though I think Weeden can be a quality starter in this league, taking him in the first round makes little sense for a team that is not a quarterback away from contending for a Super Bowl.

The Browns have too many other needs on offense to reach for a failed minor-league pitcher. The Cleveland front office believes it found a franchise quarterback in Weeden, but you have to wonder who is going to block for him at right tackle and who is going to catch the long passes from Weeden's big arm. The Browns are right that Weeden will be an upgrade over McCoy. But, like McCoy, he might have trouble reaching that potential with the holes surrounding him.

In a span of a few hours, the Dawg Pound went from high-fiving over the selection of Richardson to scratching their heads over Weeden.

Why didn't the Browns take a wide receiver like Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill? Why didn't Cleveland pick up an offensive tackle like Stanford's Jonathan Martin or Mississippi's Bobby Massie? Why did a rebuilding franchise select an older quarterback?

"We went through the process of evaluating him, we became very fond of him," Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. "We all did, from Randy [Lerner, owner] to Mike [Holmgren, team president] to Tom [Heckert, general manager] to myself. I came away saying this is a guy we'd like to have on our team. That's where we're at right now."

It was interesting that Shurmur pointed out that the owner had input on this decision. The pressure is on, and the clock is ticking.

At his age, Weeden has to start immediately. There's no time to let him sit and learn. And, because of his age, the expectation is to win immediately.

Browns officials shrugged off Weeden's age as being an issue. The number they concentrated on is 22, which is Weeden's wins in 25 starts in college.

"We feel like the kid's a winner," Shurmur said. "I wasn't concerned about his age."

The arrival of Weeden could mean the end of McCoy's days in Cleveland. The Browns gave McCoy a major vote of no confidence when they aggressively tried to trade up for Robert Griffin III last month.

The question now isn't whether McCoy will compete for the job. It's whether McCoy will even be on this team. Heckert didn't deny the possibility that the Browns could trade McCoy this weekend.

"To be honest, we haven't thought about that. We really haven't," Heckert said. "That's something we'll talk about tonight and tomorrow."

If it wasn't for Weeden's age, he would have been a top-10 pick. He has a strong arm. He's got a quick release. He is a hard worker. He is a respected leader.

There's a good chance that Weeden will be a productive quarterback and might end the string of other "franchise" quarterbacks like Tim Couch, Derek Anderson and Quinn. The problem is, teams draft quarterbacks in the first round to be the starter for the next decade. The odds are against that with Weeden, who will turn 30 in October next year.

The Browns have done such a great job in rebuilding the defense in the past two drafts that you want to give them the benefit of the doubt that they'll do the same on offense. When it came time for the Browns to pick at No. 22, Heckert said there was no decision to make especially after Baylor wide receiver Kendall Wright was drafted by Tennessee at No. 20.

"Brandon was by far the best player for us," Heckert said. "There wasn't really even an afterthought. As soon as a couple of guys went, we knew we were going to take him."

Weeden might have been the best player available at that point. He was just not the right player for the Browns.

Cam Newton wins Rookie of the Month

September, 29, 2011
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This one should come as no surprise. The NFL just announced that Carolina quarterback Cam Newton has been named the Offensive Rookie of the Month for September.

Newton
Newton
The No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Newton threw for 1,012 yards, the most ever by a player in his first three NFL games. He threw for four touchdowns and ran for two.

Newton threw for 422 yards in his debut, the most ever by a player in his first game. He followed that by throwing for 432 yards in Week 2.

Newton is only the third Carolina player to earn Rookie of the Month honors. Julius Peppers won the defensive award in October 2002 and Matt Moore won it for offense in Dec. 2007.

Sam Bradford (October and November 2010) and Tim Couch (October 1999) are the only other quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall to be named NFL Rookie of the Month and Newton is the only one to earn the award in his first month of play.

Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan won Defensive Rookie of the Month.
Andy Dalton & Colt McCoyUS PresswireThe futures of the Bengals and Browns are tied to young QBs Andy Dalton, left, and Colt McCoy.
Since the AFC North was created during the 2002 realignment, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have been the biggest bullies within the conference. Those teams have combined for seven division titles in the past nine seasons.

With new eras beginning simultaneously for Ohio's two NFL franchises, young quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Colt McCoy will be aiming to shift the balance of power toward the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns, respectively. Quarterback is the league's most important position, and if Dalton and McCoy turn out to be the long-term solutions, it could go a long way toward potentially turning the AFC North on its head.

The Steelers and Ravens have their answers at quarterback. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, 29, already has led his team to three Super Bowls, winning two, and is currently in the prime of his career. Baltimore's Joe Flacco, 26, has led the Ravens to three consecutive playoff appearances and continues to get better.

That puts an immense amount of pressure on Dalton and McCoy to catch up. Their futures directly tie into Cincinnati and Cleveland's ability or inability to close the gap within the division. If both are busts, there might not be an end in sight to the dominance by Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Neither the Bengals nor the Browns have any shot of overcoming these perennial contenders with shoddy quarterback play.

"It's horrible; there's nothing good about [inexperienced quarterbacks] facing the Ravens and Steelers," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "They're not carbon copies of each other, but their philosophy is pretty similar. They're going to take away your running game, and you're not going to outwork them in the trenches or move them. Then you're one-dimensional, and then you're in trouble."

Cleveland has had a number of quarterbacks eaten alive by Baltimore and Pittsburgh since returning to the NFL in 1999. Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn are just some of the players who were battered, beaten and couldn't maintain long-term success in the AFC North. McCoy is next in line to give it a shot this season.

Last season McCoy showed flashes of promise, but he got off to an inauspicious start against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. He went 0-3 against the Steelers and Ravens, throwing for two touchdowns and eight interceptions in those games. If McCoy has similar performances against Cleveland's biggest rivals in Year 2, he won't hold his starting job very long.

"I think he played like a rookie at times and then he far exceeded my expectations at other times," Browns president Mike Holmgren said recently of McCoy. "It coincided with the games we won and a couple games that we lost. ... Did he exceed expectations from me? I would have to say yes, because I didn't expect him to play. Is there a huge upside and much more to come? I would say yes to that, too, because he is a young man just learning to play the position in our league."

Holmgren echoes the sentiment of Cleveland's coaches and those in the front office, who remain optimistic about McCoy. But Williamson isn't convinced.

Williamson recently ranked the Browns last in his post-draft Power Rankings, leading Scouts Inc. to predict Cleveland will take Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the top pick in the 2012 draft. If this scenario plays out, McCoy's first full season as a starter in 2011 projects to be a disaster.

"I really worry about the guy's arm strength. I just can't get around that," Williamson said. "When the weather gets bad, he's not going to be able to complete passes in Cleveland. I think he's a real good fit in the West Coast offense. I think he has some moxie to him and I like the way he plays. But when it's December and the Steelers and Ravens are in town, you better be able to complete a deep out."

Former No. 1 overall pick Carson Palmer did have success, which is why Cincinnati is the only team other than Baltimore and Pittsburgh to win the AFC North. The Bengals won division titles in 2005 and 2009.

Palmer, who demanded a trade and threatened to retire this offseason, was particularly tough against the Ravens. He was 9-4 as a starter versus Baltimore, and the Ravens certainly won't miss Palmer if he never plays another down in Cincinnati.

That is where Dalton comes in. Barring an unexpected change of heart by Palmer, Dalton is projected to be the Week 1 starter in Cincinnati after leading TCU to an undefeated season in 2010.

Dalton, like many successful quarterbacks, comes to Cincinnati with confidence and a very competitive attitude.

"Obviously, everyone knows about the current situation with Carson Palmer," Dalton said. "As far as I know, it's open [competition]. We're trying to figure out who will be the guy, and I’m looking forward to it."

Dalton's biggest strengths are his accuracy and leadership, which will be needed in Cincinnati. Dalton recently said he models his game after some of the top quarterbacks in the league.

"Growing up and watching the NFL, I saw what Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have done. They seem to have full control over their team," Dalton explained. "You see how well it's worked out for them. Recently, I watched Aaron Rodgers even before he won the Super Bowl. He's a guy who took advantage of his opportunity when it was his time. I think those are three guys that I've watched and studied. Hopefully I can take something from each of their games."

Neither McCoy nor Dalton was a top draft pick. McCoy was a third-rounder in 2010, and Dalton was taken in the second round last month. Yet both are projected to start very early in their careers and, thus, will carry pressure similar to being a first-round pick.

Time will tell if Dalton and McCoy will eventually lead to a quarterback changing of the guard in the AFC North. But count Williamson among the biggest skeptics.

"They both won a ton of games in college, were wonderful college players, and you want your daughter to marry them," Williamson explained. "But they just don't throw the football as well as they have to be 'The Guy' in that division."
JaMarcus RussellBrett Davis/US PresswireThings have been looking up for the Raiders since releasing JaMarcus Russell a year ago.
It was exactly one year ago that the Oakland Raiders liberated themselves from the greatest draft bust in NFL history.

Happy anniversary, Raider Nation.

On May 6, 2010, the Raiders decided it was no longer worth keeping JaMarcus Russell around their organization. Thus, just more than three years after making him the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Oakland gave up on the talented but lackadaisical quarterback.

Russell, who was 24 at the time of his release, was 7-18 as a starter and made more than $39 million in guaranteed money. His questionable work ethic and general malaise were legendary. The only thing Russell accomplished in Oakland was taking Tony Mandarich and Ryan Leaf off the hook. Russell is the unquestioned biggest NFL draft bust of all time.

The events of the past year prove Oakland made the right decision. The Raiders are an improved, refreshed team without Russell, while he has made no positive strides toward resuming his NFL career. There have been significant developments that indicate Russell may never play in the NFL again.

“I don’t see it happening,” Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. said of a Russell comeback. “The guy has never shown he wants to work for it.”

Russell was unavailable for comment on this story.

Admitting the mistake allowed Oakland owner Al Davis and the rest of the organization to move on. No one in Oakland had to watch Russell slump around the facility and answer questions about his never-to-come development. In January, Davis acknowledged the pain of the Russell experience, but he was happy the team was moving forward.

[+] EnlargeJaMarcus Russell
John David Mercer/US PRESSWIREJaMarcus Russell was arrested for possesion of codeine syrup without a prescription but was not indicted. Still, no team has picked him up since his Raiders release.
“(He's) a good person but he's got personal problems, and I decided that it was time that we were not going to fight it anymore,” Davis said. “I wasn't going to. I wasn't going to ask the coaching staff to do it, and I had already traded for Jason and had that in the back of my mind. ... It hurt us a great deal. But you have to go on. ... JaMarcus hurt. Anytime you lose a first-round draft choice it hurts. But it's over. It's been a long time and we'll overcome it."

The recovery period began the day Russell was cut.

After winning a total of 14 games in the three seasons Russell was in Oakland, the Raiders went 8-8. Veteran quarterback Jason Campbell -- who was acquired less than two weeks before Russell was chopped -- started 12 games and gave the Raiders’ offense professionalism, preparation and leadership that was lacking under Russell.

“I think the simple fact that Russell was cut helped the Raiders improve,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. “It had to send a message to the team that the Raiders weren’t going to keep dead weight around just because he was a high draft pick. It showed the team that the Raiders were serious about winning and that they weren’t going to keep a liability around … It had to fire up that team and helped make them improve in 2010.”

Although Oakland has improved without Russell, the player himself has been unable to recover his career. Shortly before training camp, the New York Jets showed interest in Russell. Days later, however, Russell was arrested at his Mobile, Ala., home on charges of possession of codeine syrup without a valid prescription. In October, a grand jury declined to indict Russell.

In November, Russell worked out for both Washington and Miami. He was out of shape and unimpressive in both workouts. Russell weighed 282 pounds when Oakland cut him. He weighed significantly more during those workouts.

Russell has not had an NFL workout since. Don't expect teams to flock to him once the lockout is over. Russell is not even attracting interest from the minor league United Football League.

Last year, former Denver general manager and Omaha Nighthawks personnel man Ted Sundquist reached out to Russell as the team put him on its protected list. Sundquist said the word from Russell's camp was that he wanted to pursue an NFL career. This year, no UFL team put Russell on its protected list, and Russell went undrafted by the five-team league Monday while a player like 2002 Kansas City first-round pick Ryan Sims was a high draft pick.

In April, former NBA player and coach John Lucas reportedly parted ways with Russell after serving as a “life coach.” Lucas was reportedly frustrated with Russell’s work ethic. There hasn’t been any indication that Russell is working out and or that he is preparing for a comeback. Despite earning $39 million in Oakland, Russell reportedly faced foreclosure on his Bay Area mansion.

“I just don’t see it in the kid,” Horton said. “... I don’t think he is throwing and he is not doing the right things to give himself a chance to get back. I don’t think anyone will give him a chance.”

That’s what separates Russell from other recent quarterback busts such as Leaf, Akili Smith, Tim Couch, Cade McNown and Joey Harrington. At least one other organization acquired these players after they were cut by the teams that drafted them. They weren’t considered untouchable, as Russell has become in the past 365 days.
At the risk of sounding like Cliff Clavin from “Cheers’’, here’s a little-known fact about Cam Newton.

When he was taken by the Carolina Panthers with the first pick Thursday night, Newton became a part of history. He became just the third player to win the Heisman Trophy, a national championship and be the NFL's No. 1 overall pick in the same academic year.

The only two guys who did that before Newton were Leon Hart in 1950 and Angelo Bertelli in 1944. That trivia comes to us from the fine folks at ESPN Stats & Information.

Here’s a little more from that same crew. Newton became the sixth SEC quarterback taken with the No. 1 overall pick since 1967.

The others were Georgia’s Matthew Stafford in 2009, LSU’s JaMarcus Russell in 2007, Ole Miss’ Eli Manning in 2004, Kentucky’s Tim Couch in 1999 and Tennessee’s Peyton Manning in 1998. The Panthers better hope Newton turns out to be more like the Mannings, or maybe even Stafford, than Russell or Couch.
Blaine Gabbert/Jake LockerAP Photo/Icon SMIBlaine Gabbert and Jake Locker are expected to be high picks in next week's draft despite concerns about accuracy during their collegiate careers.
Enough, wrote Scott of Harrisonburg, Va. Apparently I had referenced one too many times that accuracy rates among college quarterbacks typically translate when they reach the NFL. Prove it, Scott said. Here's what he dropped in the mailbag:
My first born if you compile a list of *all* the quarterbacks that rolled through the NFC North (as starters since 2000?) and rank them by their college completion rate.

I've got my hands full already, so I won't be collecting that bounty or any other reward for this post. But Scott's question intrigued me. Accuracy is the single-most important characteristic of any quarterback, especially when you expand the definition to include decision-making. After all, throwing to the right person should increase the chances of a completion.

If a college quarterback finishes his career with a relatively low completion percentage, is it reasonable to expect he can elevate it at the professional level? Research performed by actual football statisticians, most notably the David Lewin, has suggested college quarterbacks who complete less than 60 percent of their passes at least warrant closer inspection by NFL teams considering drafting them.

There are obvious 2011 angles to this theory as the Minnesota Vikings plan to draft a quarterback next week. Washington's Jake Locker finished his career with a 53.9 completion percentage, having never completed better than 58 percent of his passes in any season. Meanwhile, Missouri's Blaine Gabbert has raised questions among those who have pulled apart his college career to find he completed only 44.3 percent of his third-down throws. Last season, he completed only 38 percent of his throws that traveled at least 15 yards.

So here's what I decided to do from an NFC North angle. Using Scott's suggestion as a guide, I looked up the college completion percentages of the 31 quarterbacks who were either drafted by one of our teams since 1999 or were the primary quarterback for at least one season in this division over that stretch. (Hat tip to totalfootballstats.com for the information and to ESPN.com blog editor Brett Longdin for helping me compile it.)

I'm not a statistician, and I don't think we should consider the information below a representative trend for the entire game. I just think it's an enlightening illustration from a pool of players most of us are familiar with. First, here is a ranking of NFC North quarterbacks based on their NFL accuracy, organized to show how the division's most accurate quarterbacks fared in college.



Again, we should be careful about drawing any firm conclusions from this data. But here are some points worth noting:

  • Five quarterbacks brought their completion percentage from below 60 percent to above 60 percent, with Brett Favre forging the most dramatic path. Jay Cutler was another notable climber. I didn't include the Minnesota Vikings' Joe Webb in that count because of his small sample size. The other 11 sub-60 percent quarterbacks remained there when they reached the NFL.
  • Context is critical for evaluating college completion percentages. In his original paper, in fact, Lewin noted that Cutler's 57.2 college completion percentage was misleading given the long history of much lower rates on Vanderbilt's perennially undermanned teams in the decade before Cutler arrived.
  • The most accurate college quarterback on this list is Brian Brohm, who completed 65.8 percent at Louisville. We all know how that worked out for Brohm, who was stunningly inaccurate during his practice time with the Packers and hasn't been much better in several stints with the Buffalo Bills. Another example of college completion rates not translating is Drew Stanton, who hit 64.1 percent of his throws at Michigan State but hasn't come anywhere close to that with the Detroit Lions.
  • Overall, 12 of the quarterbacks currently have higher completion percentages in the NFL than they did in college. A total of 16 dropped and three have not yet thrown an NFL pass. I realize there are huge discrepancies between the number of throws made by, say, Brad Johnson and Matt Flynn, but those are the raw numbers.
  • It's worth nothing that the NFC North's most accurate quarterback over this stretch, Aaron Rodgers, finished his college career at 63.8 percent.

If our small sample leads us in so many directions, I think it's fair to assume that NFL teams will look well beyond the percentages. Ultimately, teams must decide what factored in to both high and low percentages. Did Locker play on an overmatched team, as Cutler did? Were Gabbert's downfield receivers substandard?

On the other side of the spectrum, TCU's Andy Dalton completed 66.7 percent of his passes last season. Was that performance the result of pinpoint throwing and smart decisions? Or is he the next Brian Brohm or even a Tim Couch, quarterbacks who benefited from a college scheme that facilitated a high completion rate?

[+] EnlargeBrett Favre
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesBrett Favre, who had a 52.4 completion percentage in his college career, is proof quarterbacks can become more accurate in the NFL.
Once NFL teams establish that context, then they can begin examining the prospect's raw throwing skills. This is where concerns have arisen about Locker, especially. Why did he have so many passes that simply failed to hit their mark during his career?

ESPN analyst Jon Gruden made clear that "accuracy can be improved" but that Locker needs to "work hard" at re-establishing his fundamentals.

"Sometimes it's because of your fundamentals," Gruden said. "Sometimes you're out of rhythm, you're in the shotgun, you're underneath the center. Sometimes you're under duress and out of rhythm. Sometimes you're hurrying, you're playing too fast. You're anticipating congestion around you when maybe there isn't."

But Gruden warned: "Accuracy sometimes can be terminal. Sometimes you can't cure that. I think that's a big concern with Jake Locker, because he does miss some throws."

We can't conclude that Locker or Gabbert are destined for NFL failure because they sometimes struggled to complete throws in college. The necessary improvement has been made over the past decade in this division, be it from a Hall of Fame quarterback like Favre or a journeyman like Brian Griese.

But it's also a reason for pause. Based on our sample size, at least, it's more likely that a relatively inaccurate college quarterback will be inaccurate at the NFL level. Scott of Harrisonburg probably didn't need me to tell him that.

Draft Watch: NFC South

April, 7, 2011
4/07/11
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: history in that spot.

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers’ top pick is No. 1 overall. Here are the last seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010 QB Sam Bradford (Rams)

2009: QB Matthew Stafford (Lions)

2008: OT Jake Long (Dolphins)

2007: QB JaMarcus Russell (Raiders)

2006: DE Mario Williams (Texans)

2005: QB Alex Smith (49ers)

2004: QB Eli Manning (Giants via Chargers)

Analysis: It’s still early, but indications are the Panthers are seriously considering taking a quarterback, and that probably narrows it down to Auburn’s Cam Newton and Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert. Part of the reason the Panthers are looking down this road is because they saw what the Rams got in Bradford last year. The early results from Bradford and Stafford have been encouraging. But Russell was a tremendous flop, and Smith hasn’t been much better. Manning is the only quarterback taken No. 1 overall in this time period to make a Pro Bowl. Even before Manning, the history of quarterbacks at No. 1 is shaky for a long time. Carson Palmer and Michael Vick have had some good years and some bad ones. David Carr and Tim Couch rank right up there with Russell. To find a quarterback drafted first overall who has been an unquestioned success you have to go all the way back to Peyton Manning in 1998, and there were some people at the time who thought Ryan Leaf could be just as good. Long story short: there might not be such a thing as a sure-fire quarterback, even with the No. 1 pick.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers’ top pick is No. 20 overall. Here are the last seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: CB Kareem Jackson (Texans)

2009: TE Brandon Pettigrew (Lions)

2008: CB Aqib Talib (Buccaneers)

2007: CB Aaron Ross (Giants)

2006: DE Tamba Hali (Chiefs)

2005: DE Marcus Spears (Cowboys)

2004: DE Kenechi Udeze (Vikings)

Analysis: The Bucs have been in this territory recently and have had tremendous results and one very big complication. The Bucs were at No. 19 heading into the 2009 draft, which was the first for general manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris. They feared missing out on a chance to get the guy they believed would be their franchise quarterback. That’s why they traded up to No. 17 and took Josh Freeman. You can’t question that move, because Freeman single-handedly turned the franchise around last season. Even taking Talib at No. 20 -- and it should be pointed out that move was made by former general manager Bruce Allen and coach Jon Gruden -- brought some positive results. When on the field, Talib showed flashes of being one of the best young cover corners in the game. But the latest in a series of off-field troubles means Talib is probably on his way out of Tampa Bay. The lesson to be learned here is that you can get big-time talent in the draft, but it’s wise to do your homework on the character and attitudes of players. It’s common knowledge the Bucs desperately need a defensive end. Look at Hali and Spears. They represent two ends of the spectrum. Hali came with some questions about being undersized but had no character issues, and he’s turned out to be a solid pass-rusher. Spears came with some questions about attitude and never has panned out.

New Orleans Saints

The Saints’ top pick is No. 24 overall. Here are the last seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: WR Dez Bryant (Cowboys)

2009: DT Peria Jerry (Falcons)

2008: RB Chris Johnson (Titans)

2007: DB Brandon Meriweather (Patriots)

2006: CB Johnathan Joseph (Bengals)

2005: QB Aaron Rodgers (Packers)

2004: RB Steven Jackson (Rams)

Analysis: Johnson, Rodgers and Jackson are proof that you can get a big-time player this late in the draft. The Saints aren’t looking for a quarterback because they have Drew Brees. But running back isn’t out of the realm of possibility, and when you see guys like Johnson and Jackson have been available at this spot, it makes you wonder about the Saints taking a shot if Alabama’s Mark Ingram is there. Yes, defensive end and outside linebacker might be greater needs, and those positions are possibilities. Pierre Thomas re-signed, Reggie Bush is expected to stay and Chris Ivory is recovering from injury, but the Saints still have to think back to the end of last year when they basically ran out of running backs.

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons’ top pick is No. 27 overall. Here are the last seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: CB Devin McCourty (Patriots)

2009: RB Donald Brown (Colts)

2008: CB Antoine Cason (Cardinals)

2007: WR Robert Meachem (Saints)

2006: RB DeAngelo Williams (Panthers)

2005: WR Roddy White (Falcons)

2004: OLB/DE Jason Babin (Texans)

Analysis: Although nearly every draft guru is projecting that the Falcons will take a defensive end, it’s not out of the question that a wide receiver or running back could be the pick here. General manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith have talked a lot about wanting to add explosive players. If they look at their own history and the recent history of NFC South teams who have been in this spot, the idea of going with a receiver or running back could get stronger. Although it took some time for him to develop, White has turned into one of the game’s top receivers. Meachem also took some time and dealt with some injuries but has emerged as a force in the New Orleans passing game. Williams had some explosiveness as soon as he joined the Panthers.
Marcell Dareus, Nick Fairley & Patrick PetersonGetty ImagesMarcell Dareus, Nick Fairley and Patrick Peterson are all options for Denver at No. 2.
There wasn't a debate in the Carolina Panthers’ draft room in 2002.

The Panthers’ brain trust was certain it had identified the player who best fit their needs. All they had to do was wait and see what direction the one team in front of them would take.

“It was stressful because we knew what we wanted, but we still had to wait,” former Panthers executive Tony Softli said. “At No. 2, you can almost control what you want to do, but not totally.”

Softli and the rest of the Carolina brass were overjoyed when the Houston Texans used the No. 1 pick to take quarterback David Carr. That left Panthers to take their top choice, and they grabbed defensive end Julius Peppers. They survived their short wait.

That was John Fox’s first year as the Panthers’ coach. That experience of having the No. 2 pick ended happily for Fox. Will it happen again? In his first season as the Denver Broncos’ head coach, Fox also has the No. 2 pick.

“Knowing, John, he’ll want defense,” Softli said. “We’ll see what happens with picking at No. 2 again.”

The Broncos have been busy this offseason studying players at several positions in their attempt to get it right at No. 2. The only team in Denver’s way is Carolina, which has the No. 1 pick. No matter what the Panthers do with the No. 1 pick, the Broncos know they must get this pick right. The Broncos were 4-12 in 2010 and haven’t made the playoffs since 2005. They need an infusion of talent.

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox and Julius Peppers
AP Photo/Rick HavnerJohn Fox found success the last time he had the No. 2 pick in the draft -- in 2002 when he and the Carolina Panthers took Julius Peppers.
“We know that the key thing is -- and we have talked about the fact that we have to be good in the draft -- we cannot miss in the draft, especially with where we are,” said John Elway, the Broncos' new vice president of football operations. “We have to be dead on … We cannot miss in the draft. We have to be good there.”

Added Fox: "There'll be a player there who's worth that pick in this draft. Some years you don't want to be there, but there's a lot of players there in this draft.”

Softli knows plenty about picking at No. 2. In addition to being in Carolina in 2002, Softli was an executive with the St. Louis Rams in 2008 and 2009 when they had the No. 2 pick.

“Picking No. 2 is a great place to be if there are multiple players to pick from at the spot,” Softli said. “This is a good year to be at No. 2. There are a number of high-quality players. Denver can’t go wrong.”

Softli said it will help the Broncos that there is a chance the Panthers will take a quarterback at No. 1. The Panthers have been linked to both Auburn’s Cam Newton and Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert.

The Broncos finished last in the NFL in total defense and points allowed. The draft is stacked with top defensive prospects. If the Panthers take a quarterback, Denver would have its pick of any defensive player on the board.

“I think a great spot to be in is No. 2 and not need a quarterback if there is a top quarterback available,” said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. “The stud quarterback is going No. 1. If you pick No. 2 and you really need a quarterback, you probably aren’t going to get him. But otherwise, it’s a solid place to be.”

There haven’t been many quarterbacks taken at No. 2 in recent history. Since 1990, only three quarterbacks have been taken with the No. 2 pick. Each time, a quarterback was taken No. 1. The last time it has happened was 1999, when Philadelphia took Donovan McNabb at No. 2 after Cleveland took Tim Couch No. 1. In the same time span, a quarterback has been picked at No. 1 12 times.

“Usually, there aren’t two quarterbacks worthy of the first two picks,” Softli said. “So, the presence of a quarterback can really make a difference between one and two. If you pick No. 1 and you need a quarterback, you usually take one. That can help the team picking No. 2.”

While the failures of the team picking No. 1 are most remembered, success at No. 2 has been far from guaranteed. There have been epic failures at No. 2 in the past 20 years. Ryan Leaf, taken by the Chargers in 1998, is considered one of the greatest draft busts in NFL history. The Colts took Peyton Manning at No. 1 that year. Other major busts since 1990 at No. 2 include Jets running back Blair Thomas (1990), Seattle quarterback Rick Mirer (1993, taken after New England drafted Drew Bledsoe) and Detroit receiver Charles Rogers (2003).

There have been plenty of draft hits at No. 2 in the time span. Some of the solid picks in that spot include running back Marshall Faulk (Colts, 1994), McNabb, Peppers, receiver Calvin Johnson (Lions, 2007) and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (Lions, 2010).

Softli was with the Rams last year when they picked No. 1. Softli said he feels there is nearly as much pressure drafting No. 2 as there is at No. 1.

“It’s almost as hard,” Softli said. “I know everyone concentrates on the No. 1 pick, but owner will look at you funny if you mess up the No. 2 pick, too.”

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