Quarterbacks Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez Are Subjects of Intrigue Leading Up to NFL Draft

The draft stock of Southern Cal quarterback Mark Sanchez is soaring.
The draft stock of Southern Cal quarterback Mark Sanchez is soaring. (By Jeff Gross -- Getty Images)
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

It's always about the quarterbacks. When there aren't a few in the mix to be among the first players selected in an NFL draft, the question is why not. When there are, as with this draft that begins Saturday, the major intrigue surrounds when they'll be taken and by which teams.

It's just the nature of the sport: If you don't have a franchise quarterback, you have to get one.

"You really have to go back and walk through what Paul Brown called the eternal verities in the game," Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian said at the NFL scouting combine in late February. "The two most important commodities in the game are pass rushers and quarterbacks. I'm sure you've heard coaches repeat that over and over. If you have one, if you've identified one that you think can win for you, you have to pull the trigger."

The early stages of this draft are likely to be more heavily populated with wide receivers, tackles and hybrid players who could end up as either defensive ends or outside linebackers. The biggest story lines, however, are whether the Detroit Lions will select Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford with the top overall choice and which team will take Southern Cal's Mark Sanchez.

The Lions are coming off the first 0-16 season in league history, and their brain trust of President Tom Lewand, new general manager Martin Mayhew and rookie head coach Jim Schwartz is fully aware it can't afford to get this pick wrong.

"I think this is my 16th year in the NFL, and it's my first exposure to it, and hopefully my last," Schwartz said at the combine of having the top pick. "It is a different animal. I've compared it a little bit to playing blackjack. You can go play blackjack in Vegas and play the $5 table and play for a couple of hours and make a lot of bad decisions and lose $100 and have some fun. If you go play at the $5,000 or $10,000 table, if you make bad decisions, you're walking home. You're not flying home. I think you've got to add that into the equation. Not only is it an opportunity to get a great player, but you need to make sure."

Most NFL talent evaluators seem to agree Stafford has the arm strength and quick mind necessary to be a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback. There are some questions whether he has the pinpoint passing accuracy. The Lions have been negotiating with the representatives for Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry and Baylor left tackle Jason Smith as well as with Stafford's agent, Tom Condon, in hopes of having a contract completed before the draft with the player who will be chosen. The general consensus around the league seems to be the Lions probably will select Stafford.

Polian, who drafted Peyton Manning for the Colts with the top overall pick in 1998, said: "The big difficulty is trying to identify one that can win for you. That's a hard job. In our case, it was not as hard as it might be in other cases because Peyton was such a stick-out. If either of those two commodities [top quarterback or top pass rusher] are available to you, you should take them because they are hard to come by, and they do change the game. And you can't really win big without either one of them."

Stafford has done his best to take it all in stride. "It's not up to me to say," he said at the combine of the prospect of being selected first. "I think I'm doing everything that I can to prove to people that I'm a good football player and worthy of the pick, and if that so happens to be the first pick to the Detroit Lions, I'd be more than happy to be there."

If the Lions indeed take Stafford, the focus immediately moves to which team will choose Sanchez. The Seattle Seahawks have the fourth overall pick and need an eventual replacement for their starter, Matt Hasselbeck, who was plagued last season by an ailing back. The San Francisco 49ers, who choose 10th, have an unsettled quarterback situation. The Denver Broncos, at 12th, recently traded disgruntled Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler. The Washington Redskins, at 13th, are said to be enamored with Sanchez, and the New York Jets, at 17th, just lost Brett Favre to retirement.

Whichever teams don't get Sanchez would become candidates to choose the third quarterback expected to go in the first round, Kansas State's Josh Freeman. But it's Sanchez whose draft stock has been soaring in recent weeks, and some teams might be willing to trade way up in the first round to get him.

The competition between Stafford and Sanchez has been friendly, with the two having gotten along well since meeting at an offseason quarterback camp.

"It was fun to watch each other on TV [last season] and root each other on," Sanchez said at the combine. "And now we're back to competing again, and it's all business. It makes things a lot more fun and easygoing. Everybody tries to make it so serious -- who's going to be number one -- and it's going to be fun either way."

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