January 16, 1998 in Sports

Leaf Or Manning: Who’s No. 1? With Coug Standout Going Pro, Vols Star No Longer Obvious Pick

Clare Farnsworth Seattle Post-Intelligencer
 

One quarterback has the records and the name recognition. The other, a junior-come-lately, has less pomp but more circumstance, and just might be better.

Peyton Manning? Or Ryan Leaf?

As NFL teams begin preparing for the annual draft, that seems to be the most-asked question: Which passer will be the No. 1 pick on April 18.

Manning, the son of former NFL quarterback Archie Manning, has an obvious pedigree. He also returned for his senior season at Tennessee, leading the Volunteers to an 11-2 record and finishing second to Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in balloting for the Heisman Trophy.

Leaf is passing on his senior season at Washington State after passing the Cougars to a 10-2 record and the school’s first Rose Bowl appearance in 67 years.

“Before the season started, there was no question that Peyton Manning was going to be the top quarterback available this year,” said Leigh Steinberg, the agent who represents Leaf. “Now, I don’t think you can say that.”

Steinberg has been here before.

It was 1993, when Rick Mirer was everyone’s choice to be the first pick overall in the NFL draft, with Steinberg’s client, another WSU junior named Drew Bledsoe, considered the second-best quarterback.

Until, that is, scouts, coaches and general managers started taking longer, harder looks at the two. On draft day, the New England Patriots made Bledsoe the first pick and the Seahawks selected Mirer at No. 2.

Many feel the 6-foot-6 Leaf is about to pull the same tortoise-and-the-hare routine on Manning.

“Manning isn’t as big as Leaf. He’s not as fast as Leaf. He’s not as athletic,” one scout said. “I don’t think there’s any comparison.”

In the NFL draft, and the paralysis-by-analysis evaluation process that leads to it, Heisman votes count for very little. Of much more importance is how a quarterback throws the out route, or the deep fade; how he handles himself in pressure situations; how his teammates respond to him in those situations.

This is where Leaf is expected to have a definite edge over Manning, who appears robotic at times - both in his passing mechanics and his responses to success and failure.

Because Leaf is a junior, he will not play in any of the college all-star games but will attend the NFL combine in Indianapolis in February, even if he does not participate in the passing drills. His real test will come later when he holds individual workouts at WSU in March and April.

Leaf and Manning aren’t just the best quarterbacks coming out of college this year, they could be the best tandem to enter the league in many years and for many to come.

As Steinberg puts it, “Ryan is a franchise quarterback. The type of player you can build a team around, instead of just with.”

That’s not just agent-speak.

“Ryan is a big, tough, strong kid who is really competitive,” said Randy Mueller, Seattle Seahawks vice president of football operations. “And he’s got all the obvious tools.”

Added a scout: “I’m not so sure any discussion of the two shouldn’t start with Leaf and then go to Manning.”

The Indianapolis Colts have the top pick and need a quarterback. But there are a half-dozen teams in the top 10 that may try to move into position to have a shot at Manning or Leaf: the San Diego Chargers (No. 3), Chicago Bears (No. 5), New Orleans Saints (No. 7) and Buffalo Bills (No. 9), and possibly the St. Louis Rams (No. 6) and Baltimore Ravens (No. 10).

Sitting in the power-broker seat are the Arizona Cardinals, who have the second pick overall but also are committed to quarterback Jake Plummer, their second-round pick last year.

Trading up is not just an option for teams like the Chargers, Bears and Saints. It is a necessity.

With rare exceptions, teams do not make it to, let alone win, the Super Bowl without a quality quarterback.

Leaf does have his detractors. While some consider his cocky attitude a plus, others call it arrogance and list it as a negative.

“That’s one of his biggest problems - his character,” one scout said. “From what I’ve heard, he’s a (jerk). So even if he has grown up, it’s still in there somewhere.”

That, says Steinberg, was the younger, less-mature Ryan Leaf. But because Leaf only declared himself eligible for the draft Jan. 2, it is the only Ryan Leaf many know.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

SIZING UP THE TOP PICKS

A look at the college career statistics of the top two quarterbacks in the 1998 National Football League draft:

The QB Height, Wt. Att. Comp. Yards TD Int.

Ryan Leaf 6-6, 238 880 473 7,433 59 24

Peyton Manning 6-5, 222 1,412 884 11,335 90 34

This sidebar appeared with the story: SIZING UP THE TOP PICKS A look at the college career statistics of the top two quarterbacks in the 1998 National Football League draft:

The QB Height, Wt. Att. Comp. Yards TD Int. Ryan Leaf 6-6, 238 880 473 7,433 59 24 Peyton Manning 6-5, 222 1,412 884 11,335 90 34


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email