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Quarterbacks: Mobility is the answer to today's swarming NFL defenses, and this year's QB draft class has an abundance of it

NFL draft

April 11, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Confronted with a new era and an endless barrage of blitzes, the face of NFL quarterbacking has changed.

No more cozy pocket to pass from. No more safe haven to hide.

The offensive answer to the search and destroy mission of defense today is a more mobile quarterback. Mike Kruczek knows the kind -- one who can slip through small cracks and avert trouble before it finds him.

"The talent on the defensive side dictates that you have a quarterback who can break tackles, who has foot quickness to avoid people, to get the ball downfield," said Kruczek, coach at the University of Central Florida.

"No longer can you be a between-the-guards kind of quarterback, because they're going to find you. You have to have athletes behind center. It's become a premium with coaches in the NFL."

For the last four years, Kruczek had one of those athletes behind center at Central Florida. Big, strong-armed, elusive, with quick feet.

That's why Daunte Culpepper is in the elite group of college quarterbacks expected to go in the first round of Saturday's NFL draft.

Along with Kentucky's Tim Couch, Syracuse's Donovan McNabb, Oregon's Akili Smith and UCLA's Cade McNown, Culpepper is riding the crest of a new wave of NFL quarterback. Each has his own distinct style and strengths. But the common denominator with all five is the mobility factor now much-coveted by NFL personnel men.

"Everybody in this class has outstanding mobility," said Mel Kiper Jr., the draftmeister from Baltimore who doubles as ESPN analyst on D-day. "It's what everybody wants because it gives you another dimension. A mobile quarterback can get a first down when nobody's open, or hit his third or fourth receiver late in the equation. If you have arm strength, leadership and can factor in mobility, it's a huge plus."

Elusiveness effectively arrived when Kordell Stewart became the Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback in 1997, and has been refined by the Arizona Cardinals' Jake Plummer and the Tennessee Oilers' Steve McNair, among others. It goes back to the madcap scrambling days of Fran Tarkenton in the 1960s and '70s.

But perhaps never before has elusiveness played such a vital role on offense.

"It has gone up exponentially," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "The idea of a quarterback sitting in the pocket and operating from there is going down the tubes faster and faster. Defenses are so mobile and athletes so gifted. A quarterback has to have a certain athleticism."

John Wooten, the Ravens' assistant director for college and pro personnel, reduced it even further.

"It's one of the real requisites. You've got to have a mobile quarterback with defensive ends running 4.5's and 4.6's [in 40 yards]," he said. "Every time you watch a game, you see the quarterback getting hit. Guys that can't move, they can't play."

In varying degrees, the Class of '99 embodies that spirit. McNabb, who ran a sprint-option offense at Syracuse, is regarded as the best athlete in the group. A four-year starter in football, he was good enough to play two seasons on the basketball team as a reserve guard. He threw the fewest passes (251) of any of the top five quarterbacks last season, but posted the most career wins (35).

McNabb had a week under Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden, learning the West Coast offense and throwing from the pocket, at the Senior Bowl.

"I felt very comfortable," McNabb said. "It was more terminology that was different. Coach Gruden's the guru. That gave me a chance to learn the West Coast offense under him."

Couch and Culpepper, who ran similar, modified versions of the West Coast scheme, are not quite as mobile as McNabb, but nifty enough to avoid sacks. Couch threw for 4,275 yards and 36 touchdowns at Kentucky last season. He has scheduled a second workout for the Cleveland Browns today, when he could either solidify his position as the probable No. 1 pick or lose it. There have been some concerns about arm strength with Couch.

Culpepper wasn't as prolific a passer as Couch (3,690 yards, 28 touchdowns), but he broke Steve Young's NCAA completion percentage record with a mark of 73.6.

"He'll be fantastic [in the NFL]," said Kruczek, a quarterback for five seasons in the NFL, four behind Terry Bradshaw in Pittsburgh, in the 1970s.

"The mechanical aspects have to be innate, and he's built on them. His mechanics are as good as anybody around. There's not a whole lot the coaches will have to do. I won't say he's a polished quarterback, but if you compare him to the other four, he is polished."

There are two concerns with Culpepper -- his weight and Central Florida's schedule. He finished the season at 247 pounds, but weighed in at 262 at the scouting combine in February.

"He's 256 now," said Kiper. "What will he be five years from now? He might be 270, but he still might be 255, too. He has a ton of talent, though. He is a fullback when he runs with it."

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