Young Qbs Grow With The Flow

As the next generation of NFL quarterbacks comes of age quickly, a few of those in the 26-and-younger crowd begin to separate themselves.



Right on cue, auspicious young quarterbacks are sprouting across the NFL landscape. Sightings have been made in Cincinnati and San Diego, Jacksonville and New York.

Eli Manning has taken a giant step forward in his second season.

Carson Palmer is dropping jaws in the Jungle as a second-year starter.

Drew Brees is forcing the San Diego Chargers to rethink their 2004 draft strategy.

The next generation of star quarterbacks already is taking shape.

But in a season when young phenoms are growing like grapes on the vine, the Ravens have had to swallow the bitter taste of their inability to find or develop even a competent quarterback since Trent Dilfer left in 2001.

Starting tonight in Pittsburgh, and through the next four weeks, the Ravens play the upper tier of the NFL's quarterbacking future. In their next five games, they will face the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger and the Cincinnati Bengals' Palmer twice each, with Byron Leftwich of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the middle.

As the Ravens remain stuck in quarterback limbo, those three have combined for 73 career starts and 46 career wins.

Throw in the Atlanta Falcons' Michael Vick, the New York Giants' Manning and Brees, and you have a collection of six quarterbacks 26 years old or younger who appear destined to reach Pro Bowls or Super Bowls sometime in the near future.

Young quarterbacks are reaching a maturation point more quickly these days through a combination of forced feeding, better coaching and individual initiative.

"I think the most impressive thing is some of them have come so fast so early," said James Harris, vice president of player personnel for the Jaguars. "A number of those guys are playing well, their teams are winning and they're making plays that are determining games."

Ken Zampese, the Bengals' quarterbacks coach all three years Palmer has been in the league, said the common denominator for the above-mentioned quarterbacks is that they all stepped onto winning or on-the-rise teams.

"I feel strongly about that," Zampese said. "It helps a guy get going, because there aren't as many plays that fall completely on his shoulders. Ben is terrific, and, to his credit, when he gets a chance to throw it, he is really good at it.

"[But] his pass attempts are in the low 20s, sometimes not 20. Other guys are throwing it 20 to 28 times a game because they have to."

Roethlisberger, 23, who led the NFL in passer rating (120.7) and yards per attempt (10.06) coming into Week 8, is quick to agree.

"I think a quarterback develops with the team he's with," he said. "I got lucky to get thrown into a team, a great organization, that runs the ball, that hasn't asked me to do too much.

"Eli's kind of done the same thing. ... Then it just works out for someone like Philip Rivers who goes into a situation [with the Chargers] where they already have a starting quarterback who's playing well and hasn't gotten hurt. So it just kind of depends on what team you're thrown into."

Manning, Rivers and Roethlisberger -- the first, fourth and 11th picks of the 2004 draft, respectively -- represent one of the best quarterback classes in recent years. Roethlisberger has won 17 of 18 regular-season starts with Pittsburgh and played in the AFC championship game last season.

Rivers has yet to start in San Diego because of the inspired play of Brees. He has thrown just eight passes for the Chargers so far.

Manning, 24, took his lumps in seven starts last season, but he has made remarkable progress this year. In weeks 6 and 7, he led game-tying or game-winning drives against the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos, two playoff hopefuls.

The younger brother of the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning already is building a reputation for poise under pressure. Against Denver, he overturned a 13-point, fourth-quarter deficit with touchdown drives of 65 and 83 yards.

"Well, he gets in these situations and he fights his way out of it," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said in a news conference. "He's a young guy who hasn't seen it all. He hasn't even had 16 games under his belt. But to see him come back in that situation, where he keeps his cool and knows exactly what he wanted ... he comes over to the sideline and he's the one who has the most poise."

Palmer, 25, was the first pick in the 2003 draft, ahead of Leftwich (No. 7) and the Ravens' Kyle Boller (No. 19). He sat behind Jon Kitna his rookie season, but has improved steadily since then.

Palmer probably has the best mechanics and one of the strongest arms of any quarterback in the 26-and-under group. His completion percentage of 70.4 led the league into Week 8.

"He's extremely accurate, first of all," Zampese said. "Second, it kind of shows how much he works at knowing where [receivers] are, where to go with the ball and go confidently and quickly. That's because he studies and works really hard."

Despite a solid running game, Palmer has thrown 33 or more passes in seven of his eight games this season. The Bengals have won five of those games.

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