More combine – Notebook: The widening salary gap
INDIANAPOLIS – Less than a month ago, Brodie Croyle walked off the field after the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and could have had his choice of countless fawning onlookers in a scene flush with batting co-ed eyes.
"You had like eight prom invitations," joked a reporter Friday, recalling the home-field embrace felt by the Alabama quarterback.
Croyle laughed. A lot has changed in a month. Now he's the one waiting to be chosen – while the rest of the NFL kneels before this year's holy trinity of quarterbacks in USC's Matt Leinart, Texas' Vince Young and Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler.
But if this draft is like so many others, then there is likely to be a quality prospect lost in the static of overwhelming proclamations about Leinart's smoothness, Young's explosive potential and Cutler's grit. And if you doubt that, look no further than the Super Bowl.
"We're making educated guesses," said Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert, when asked about gauging the intangibles that make young quarterbacks great. "Ben was no exception. He certainly exceeded our expectations his first year."
It remains to be seen whether any of the second-tier quarterbacks in this draft can exceed expectations. But there are plenty of intriguing prospects.
There's Croyle, who cut his teeth early at the position by becoming a varsity starter when he was in the eighth grade. There's Clemson's Charlie Whitehurst, the son of former Green Bay Packers quarterback David Whitehurst. And then there's Marcus Vick – the younger brother of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick – who has the talent to be an NFL star but is being dragged down by several brushes with authority.
That trio – mixed in with a few others such as Bowling Green's Omar Jacobs and Alabama-Birmingham's Darrell Hackney – is jockeying to be the best of a second plateau of passers. As it stands, Croyle looks like the class of the second class, with Whitehurst nipping at his heels and Vick playing more of a dark horse (imagine the darkest dark horse ever).
"(Whitehurst) has had somewhat of an up-and-down career – different highs and different lows with him, but he's certainly got some pro qualities," Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage said. "Brodie Croyle – a lot of people like Brodie. He finally showed this (season) that he was durable enough to make it through a full season. He may be the best pure thrower of all of them, quite frankly. Those are two guys to keep an eye on."
Croyle's career at Alabama finished with a 10-2 flourish in his senior year, but it was hardly picturesque. He initially committed to Florida State, then signed with Alabama after Seminoles offensive coordinator Mark Richt left for Georgia. Croyle started 11 games his freshman season but took a pummeling that could have probably been described the same way he remembers starting on varsity as an eighth grader – a "painful" experience, as he put it.
After showing promise as a sophomore at Alabama with 2,303 passing yards and 16 touchdowns, he appeared to break through his junior season. However, a torn ACL scuttled a hot start (66.7-percent passing, six touchdowns and no interceptions) and raised old flags about Croyle's durability. Not until 2005 did he manage to string together a mostly injury-free year, complementing a top-notch defense en route to a 9-0 start and renewed national acclaim.
And though Croyle's numbers weren't staggering (14 touchdowns, four interceptions and 2,499 passing yards), he parlayed that finish into rave reviews at the Senior Bowl. After brushing off a slow start in Mobile, Croyle demonstrated good ball velocity, pocket mobility, accuracy and solid mechanics. Despite not having superb size (6-foot-2½, 205 pounds), he grabbed most scouts' attention by the middle of the week. And by the time the game was over, Croyle had gone from being an injury-prone second-day pick to a solid first-day selection – possibly even a second-rounder.
"There's been a good bit of buzz after that," Croyle said.
Now he's crisscrossing the NFL landscape, with plenty of seriously interested teams – the Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs among them. Not surprisingly, he's usually passing Whitehurst on the way in or out of interviews, as the two compete for position. If it wasn't for Whitehurst's decision not to throw at the combine – which has irked quite a few personnel people – he may have had a chance to challenge Croyle as the best of the second-tier quarterback bunch.
But Whitehurst is dealing with his own issues, the biggest being a healing shoulder that underwent surgery between the regular season and Clemson's bowl game against Colorado. Whitehurst played in that game, then went through the combine with a shoulder he says was only about 75 percent. Even now, it's not fully healed, but he hopes it will make all the difference when it mends fully by his pro-day workouts.
"Your game film is what's important, and I think there's definitely a lot of it on me," Whitehurst said. "I'd love to be at 100 percent these past couple months with my shoulder. I think if I would have been 100 percent at the Senior Bowl, (then) I would kind of be in the mix even more (with the other top quarterbacks). It's kind of hard to prove yourself when you're not at 100 percent – not that I'm far away from it."
In a way, Whitehurst is facing some of the same issues as Croyle. He's not as injury prone, but a promising start to his college career (31 touchdowns and 5,115 passing yards his first two seasons) was stalled by a junior year when the talent around him dipped considerably. By his own admission, Whitehurst became a more forceful player, making bad decisions and throwing 17 interceptions against only seven touchdowns and a 50.7-percent completion rate.
Had it not been for a bounce back year in 2005 – which still saw him throw only 11 touchdowns and 10 picks – and his superb size (6-4 3/4, 224), Whitehurst was in danger of becoming a draft afterthought. But a solid Senior Bowl put him back on the map, and as many as a dozen teams are expected to schedule interviews with him before he leaves the combine.
Meanwhile, Marcus Vick might be lucky to come anywhere close to that number of suitors. Just on skills and measurements alone, he doesn't really meet most quarterback standards. He stands only 6-foot and weighs 201 pounds, which is passable for his brother, but it's not expected to fly for Marcus. Even his skills leave plenty to be questioned. While he clearly has a better passing acumen than Michael – showing more accuracy and better mechanics – Marcus has precious little experience to back it up, playing only one full season as a sophomore when he threw for 17 touchdowns and ran for six more.
But as Savage noted about Marcus, "Most of the homework is probably going to be off the field rather than what he appears to be on the field."
Multiple off-field incidents (contributing to the delinquency of a minor, reckless driving and marijuana possession, driving with a suspended license, an arrest for allegedly pulling a gun on two other men outside a restaurant) got Vick suspended and eventually kicked off the Virginia Tech football team. And lest anyone forget, those developments came after the nationally publicized episode when he stomped on the calf of Louisville defensive end Elvis Dumerville in the Gator Bowl.
The incident angered his family so much that Vick was shunned "for weeks."
"My mom, she said something that I didn't really think about," Vick said. "She said, 'What do you think (Dumerville's) mom thinks about that situation? She's probably saying, 'I hate Marcus Vick. He's a bad guy.' ' If someone were to do that to me, my family would be saying the same thing. I really didn't think of that. At that point, I really wasn't thinking at all."
Now Vick is professing that he's seen the light and clearing his life of "bad influences" to show the NFL he's not a "villain." That story sounds familiar to personnel people at the combine, since it was a yarn Ohio State's Maurice Clarett was spinning last year.
"(Vick) won't be on our (draft) board. Not if hell freezes over," said a scout from an AFC team in need of a quarterback. "His (security) file is as big as Adrian McPherson's was last year, and he doesn't have nearly as much talent. The risk versus reward is all out of whack. I'm not going to say Marcus can't play (in the NFL) – I bet you he runs one of the fastest 40 times this year. I'd bet my house – (But) there are way too many things buzzing around in his head for him to be taken anywhere but the bottom (of the draft)."
Still, Vick held up well under the pressure of reporters, insisting he's nothing like Clarett and patiently answering questions that were 90 percent centered on his problems or his superstar sibling. And while he might be the longest shot of all the second-tier quarterbacks, he's fighting a slightly similar battle to change perceptions.
"I'm just trying to show (teams) the type of person that I am," Vick said. "To show the world I'm not the person that some people make me out to be."