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INDIANAPOLIS – If you still think there's a realistic debate among Indianapolis Colts powerbrokers as to whether Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III will arrive here two months from now as Peyton Manning's celebrated successor, I admire your yearning for suspenseful draft moments. Both quarterbacks are great prospects, and we'll hear a lot about how the Colts have a tough decision on their hands – until Luck, as expected, comes to the podium first at Radio City Music Hall on April 26.
However, if you've convinced yourself that RG3 is the second coming of Cam Newton, your imagination has gotten away from you.
Newton, the reigning NFL offensive rookie of the year drafted first overall by the Carolina Panthers last April, has a few things in common with Griffin, the Baylor quarterback who'll likely go No. 2 this April to a team that swings a trade with the St. Louis Rams: He won a Heisman Trophy while running a spread offense that does not necessarily translate to NFL stardom; he's mobile and athletic; he's got a heck of an arm.
"Well, there's one other thing," says a highly respected NFL general manager. "You know – the most superficial thing of all."
Added a member of the Panthers' front office: "They're both black. Let's call it what it is."
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Even in 2012, and as far as the football world has come in recent years in eroding stereotypical stigmas surrounding African-American quarterbacks, the compulsion to force intra-racial comparisons when assessing prospects at the sport's most important position (or, for that matter, any position) is irresistible to many.
Doing the opposite – pointing out the similarities between, say, Newton and Ben Roethlisberger a year ago – comes across as downright radical.
And yet: Compare Newton to Griffin as QB prospects, as fans and some people in my business have in recent months, and seasoned NFL talent evaluators and coaches practically do a spit-take (think milkshake: since it's Indy, and it's the combine, I'm assuming everyone I know will end up at Steak N' Shake before dawn arrives).
"They're totally different animals," another general manager says. "One guy [Newton] is huge – like 6-6 and [almost] 260. The other guy will be lucky to get to 6-2 and 220 when they measure him. As good a runner as [Griffin] is, you worry about whether a guy like that can take the punishment."
If anything, in terms of physical stature, Luck is a lot more like Newton. The former Stanford quarterback, listed at 6-4, 235 during the 2011 season, may turn out to be even thicker when he steps on the scale at the combine – and given his accompanying athleticism, that's a good thing.
"You don't really realize how big Luck is until you see him in person," says a personnel executive for an NFC team. "He's a man. And he can move. Newton's just a beast – you'd see guys on tape who'd come up to hit him and go limp, like they wanted no part of him. Well, I think Luck has some of that in him, too."
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Luck, who ran a pro-style offense at Stanford, likely will be asked to spend most of his time in the pocket once he takes Manning's spot in Indy. Yet unlike Manning, he'll have the potential to turn fruitless passing plays into big gains by bolting past the line of scrimmage when necessary.
This is not to say that bigger is always better. I'll never forget the sight of former Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzen, a.k.a. J-Load, wearing a red jersey during a Giants training camp scrimmage a few years back. He stood 6-4 and weighed 315, maybe more. My reaction was: Why does this guy need a red jersey? Like someone's gonna hurt HIM?
"Big and athletic is great," says an AFC head coach. "Smaller and athletic – or just terrific, like Drew Brees – is still good. What you don't want is big and clumsy."
Size is just one reason I believe Luck will go No. 1, a near-certainty substantiated by my colleague Jason Cole's recent feature on the former Cardinal quarterback, with 14 of 15 NFL scouts and coaches surveyed saying they'd choose him over Griffin.
Luck is also considered more pro-ready, having thrived in the Stanford attack crafted by current San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and the brainy offensive coordinator he brought with him, Greg Roman. At Baylor, Griffin – as with Newton at Auburn the previous season – ran a spread offense more akin to that in which Tim Tebow thrived at Florida.
This is not to say NFL teams aren't exceptionally excited about Griffin's potential. He may not be a physical marvel like Newton, but his transcendent speed and polished running ability evoke more legitimate comparisons to Michael Vick, Steve Young and Randall Cunningham. And at this stage of his development, he may be a better passer than all of the above.
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"I think this kid can throw it better than Newton," another AFC coach said. "He's a really good passer. Then again, as we saw a year ago, perceptions can change quickly."
A year ago, Newton – at the time not considered the favorite to be drafted first overall – got coaches and personnel people fired up by agreeing to throw at the combine. Then the throwing session began, and the collective enthusiasm plummeted.
"It was ugly," the same AFC coach said. "We all walked out of there saying, 'He's got a nice deep ball, but other than that, he can't throw.' Then he goes out and throws for 4,000 yards and sets a rookie record. So, what do we know?"
After that combine debacle, Newton rebounded with a strong throwing performance at Auburn's pro day and ultimately won over the Panthers. Even with an offseason wiped out by a work stoppage, he stepped in and thrived from the outset, showing tremendous presence and putting up big numbers (passing for a rookie record 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns while rushing for 706 yards and 14 TDs).
There was very little about Newton's performance with which to quibble – but this being the NFL, quibbling is mandatory.
"The one area we saw him struggle was in the red zone, when he had to make those short, quick, tight throws on rhythm," an NFC general manager said. "He marched them down the field a lot and had some long scoring plays, but he had trouble with those red-zone throws. As a result, they had to settle for field goals a lot, and they lost a lot of close games. I could see the same thing happening with RG3, if only from lack of experience."
Griffin, because of his speed, will pose an even more dangerous rushing threat to defenses. However, because of his size, that strategic model might not be sustainable.
"I question whether it can be," said an NFC personnel executive. "It's not just his size – when you watch him on film, for some reason, it looks as though he runs into contact, and not away from it. That won't work in the NFL. You just hope the kid doesn't take a beating."
Then again, running quarterbacks like Vick, Young and Cunningham learned to adapt as their careers progressed, and there's no reason to believe Griffin can't do the same. Thus the Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins and others will be mighty tempted to trade up with the Rams (who took incumbent quarterback Sam Bradford first overall in the 2010 draft) for the No. 2 pick and all the electrifying potential that Griffin's selection holds.
Other quarterbacks (Ryan Tannehill, Brock Osweiler, Brandon Weeden, Kirk Cousins) will enter the discussion as well, but Luck and Griffin will dominate the discourse and likely be plugged in as starters from Day 1.
The franchise that ultimately lands Griffin will celebrate its good fortune, and draft-night hype being what it is, some of its fans will herald RG3 as the Second Coming.
Just don't call him the Second Coming of Cam Newton. Superficialities aside, they don't look anything alike.
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