Ravens can't pass up chance to draft a top quarterback

April 15, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

We have said it before and we'll say it again: The Ravens' first priority Saturday in the NFL draft should be a quarterback around whom they can build.

That doesn't mean a sixth-round throwaway pick destined to carry a clipboard, or a third-round concession with deficiencies.

It means a first-rounder, a highly regarded prospect who could be ready to play in two years, if not sooner.

Or, if that's just not realistic -- nine teams pick before the Ravens in the first round, meaning all the top-rated quarterbacks could be gone -- a second-rounder at the worst.

Either way, the drive for a new, young option at the game's most important position should govern the Ravens' decision-making.

No, it won't fill an immediate need; newcomer Scott Mitchell is set to start at quarterback in 1999, and the front office is considering bringing in either Warren Moon or Tony Banks as a possible backup, so a rookie probably wouldn't play next season. That would make it even harder for the team to show progress from last year's 6-10 season.

Using the first-round pick on a receiver such as Torry Holt or David Boston makes more short-term sense, especially since the Ravens currently have no offensive playmakers other than Jermaine Lewis and Priest Holmes. (Not counting the 16 new tight ends they have signed in the off-season.)

Drafting a top cornerback such as Chris McAlister also would fill a need, giving the Ravens a pair of promising, young pass defenders. (Duane Starks is the other.)

But for once, the Ravens need to put their long-term interests ahead of all others.

If they don't draft a quarterback Saturday, they could find themselves looking at a blank slate at the position in two years, or even sooner. Mitchell and Banks lost their starting jobs in Detroit and St. Louis, respectively, last season, so you can't count on them as long-term options. Moon is ancient, a Band-Aid at best. And if Eric Zeier isn't traded, he's just a backup.

The Ravens aren't doing their job if they fail to prepare for the possibility of needing a new answer at quarterback relatively soon.

And the time is right to find such an answer, with this year's rookie class deeper in quarterbacks than any since 1983.

Forget about the big names, Kentucky's Tim Couch, Syracuse's Donovan McNabb and Oregon's Akili Smith. They'll all be long gone by the time the Ravens pick. (Should the Ravens trade up to get one? No. They'd have to give up numerous draft choices, and they have too many needs.)

Central Florida's Daunte Culpepper and UCLA's Cade McNown are the top-rated quarterbacks who could be available when the Ravens pick.

Actually, Culpepper might be gone. He's a 6-foot-4, 250-pound player with a powerful arm, and doubts about him having played at a smaller school seemed to have lessened recently. The 49ers' Bill Walsh recently said Culpepper was the best pick in the draft.

The Ravens will have a tough choice to make if Culpepper and Holt are still available when they pick. They love Holt, a ready-made, big-play receiver. But Culpepper could pay huge dividends one day.

Who should they take if that's their choice? Culpepper. They can always draft a quality receiver in the second round -- Tennessee's Peerless Price could be available -- and Culpepper will need time to develop, so he's a perfect fit for a team already stocked with short-term answers at quarterback.

But what if Culpepper is gone and the Ravens' choice is Holt or McNown? That's a tougher one. McNown had a terrific college career and won a ton of games, and many scouts are coming around on him after some initial skepticism. He's a Ditka-style player who could make things interesting.

But he's also relatively short at 6-1, and Ravens coach Brian Billick prefers taller quarterbacks. Holt probably is the smarter pick.

That would leave the Ravens without a rookie quarterback, of course, and that's a bad idea. But there are other options in this year of the quarterback, those who haven't impressed scouts quite as much, yet still carry real credentials. Tulane's Shaun King, Washington's Brock Huard and Kansas State's Michael Bishop are the best of those.

King, whose team went undefeated last season, figures to be gone by the time the Ravens pick in the second round. Huard should be there, though, and Billick reportedly likes him. Keep that in mind.

Huard is a 23-year-old who is leaving school with a year of eligibility remaining. He was a possible first-round pick after the 1997 season, but his mechanics and production slipped in 1998 and his stock dropped.

He doesn't have the same upside potential as, say, a Culpepper, but scouting and drafting isn't a perfect science, either. A lot of scouts didn't like Jake Plummer.

One way or another, it's essential that the Ravens somehow give themselves a new option at quarterback. They have fooled around with short-term, low-budget answers long enough.

It's time for them to use a high pick on a rookie who won't disappear from their plans, as do so many of their faces from year to year.

If they don't, they could be sorry real soon.

Pub Date: 4/15/99

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