QB Smith's about-face has suitors on forward march

On The NFL

April 04, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Just 14 months ago, Akili Smith's personal and professional lives were in shambles.

The Oregon quarterback, who had flopped in baseball in the minor leagues, was suspended by coach Mike Bellotti after being arrested twice in a two-week span in February 1998.

He was charged with fourth-degree assault, second-degree trespassing and harassment after he and a teammate allegedly beat up two bouncers outside of a bar. Two weeks later, he was arrested on a drunken driving charge.

Smith then started to turn it around. He was acquitted on the bar fight charges and pleaded no-contest to the DUI charge and went through an alcohol awareness program after his blood alcohol was found to be just under the legal limit.

"I made some bad decisions. I don't lie about that. But I matured as a man," Smith said.

He then had a big senior season at Oregon and impressed the scouts by working out at the scouting combine instead of waiting for a personal workout.

Still, he was dogged by controversy when he got 37 of the 50 questions right on the Wonderlic test at the combine.

That was one of the best scores posted, but raised eyebrows because he would have been a Prop 48 student coming out of high school because of low SAT scores if he hadn't opted for baseball. The combine result more than doubled his previous Wonderlic score, but he credited the big rise to a study coach.

Regardless, his rocket arm continues to impress the scouts. It's obviously better than Tim Couch's arm, and the Cleveland Browns are now waffling on whether to take Couch or Smith with the top pick. They've even scheduled a private workout with Couch on April 11, six days before the draft, to take another look at his arm.

It's still doubtful the Browns will gamble by using the first pick on a player who basically had one big college season.

Smith, though, is the first to point out that he has the raw talent.

"Being a scout, you have to recognize talent," he said. "And I have talent."

Dwight Clark, the Browns' director of football operations, doesn't seem concerned about Smith's off-the-field problems.

"You can tell he's a good person, has good character," he said.

What he doesn't have is experience, but no player has climbed faster on the draft charts in the past year.

Culpepper available?

The Ravens, who thought they might have to trade up to get a quarterback, now appear to have a good chance to get the fourth-best one in the draft with the No. 10 overall pick.

The stock of Daunte Culpepper has fallen a bit and if the Chicago Bears pass on him at No. 7, he's likely to be on the board when the Ravens pick. After Couch, Smith and Donovan McNabb likely go in some order with the first three picks, the Bears are the only other team in the top 10 besides the Ravens looking for a quarterback.

There will be better players on the board at other positions, but the Ravens will be tempted to roll the dice on Culpepper, who visited their training complex last week.

Not only does coach Brian Billick appear to think he can mold most quarterbacks -- with the possible exception of a 6-footer like Eric Zeier -- into winners, but the Ravens have to find a quarterback of the future.

There are questions about Culpepper because he didn't play much against big-time competition at Central Florida. And he lacks the persona of a Smith.

When both visited the Philadelphia Eagles last week, Culpepper said, "I am who I am. I can't change myself and be flashy like some of the other guys are doing."

But he added, "If a team wants to win, they'll take me."

Since Scott Mitchell, who signed a one-year deal, is probably this year's stopgap answer, the Ravens may decide to find out if Culpepper can be the long-term answer.

Quarterbacks are likely to go 1-2-3 this year because teams are so desperate for them. The Jacksonville Jaguars are proof of how important a good quarterback is.

They had 42 draft picks in their first four years, selected 38 players and found only six starters. Yet they're a contender because they traded for Mark Brunell.

The Ravens have drafted better the Jaguars, selecting nine starters in three years -- 10 if wide receiver Patrick Johnson starts this year -- and yet they're a losing team and have never beaten Jacksonville because, among other things, they don't have a playmaker at quarterback.

Ricky Williams watch

If the quarterbacks go 1-2-3, the Colts now appear ready to grab Ricky Williams with the fourth pick even though they already have Marshall Faulk. They're sending a seven-man delegation to his workout Tuesday in San Diego.

There are questions about Williams having fumbling problems because of his small hands, but his production at Texas could mean he'll be the next Earl Campbell.

One man who doesn't need convincing is Mike Ditka, the New Orleans coach who's likely to offer the Colts a bushel of draft picks for Williams.

Williams, who may be the best player in the draft, said, "I'm not going to say I'm the best, but there's no one out there better."

Warren Moon watch

Kansas City Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson, who had Warren Moon in for a visit last week, said, "Let's say he's a lot less expensive than he was two years ago, five years, 10 years ago. He's not overly interested in salary."

Yet Moon, who's also considering Baltimore, held out in Seattle last year and still may be swayed by the best offer.

Timing

It's likely a coincidence, but the Ravens visit to Cleveland on Nov. 7 will come four years and one day after owner Art Modell announced he was moving the Browns to Baltimore.

Quotable

"You get a guy with less yardage, but he [Priest Holmes] doesn't have all the negative runs that Barry [Sanders] had. I don't think there's anyone in pro football like Barry Sanders. But he has limitations, too. He's wasn't the best pass-blocking back in the league." -- Ravens quarterback Mitchell, on switching from Sanders to Holmes as his feature back.

Pub Date: 4/04/99

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