The 1999 college draft was notable because five quarterbacks were selected in the first round, including the first overall pick, Tim Couch. But a number of NFL teams are prospering this season by starting quarterbacks who basically were ignored when they were coming out of college.

The best of that group this season is the St. Louis Rams' Kurt Warner, who toiled in the Arena and NFL Europe leagues and ended the 1998 season as the Rams' number three quarterback. Now, he leads the league with an astounding 131.4 quarterback rating and has thrown an NFL-high 15 touchdown passes.

There are other survivors all around, including the player Warner replaced, Trent Green, who got his chance with the Washington Redskins last season after years as a third-teamer. It paid off with a $16 million free agent contract with the Rams, although he suffered a season-ending knee injury during a preseason game.

The latest success story is Miami backup Damon Huard, who signed with the Dolphins as a free agent in 1997 after not playing in 1996 after being cut by the Cincinnati Bengals before the regular season. Although he was a three-year starter at the University of Washington, where he also was the school's all-time passing leader, he wasn't even drafted.

He became an instant hero in south Florida on Sunday, when he replaced injured Dan Marino and led the Dolphins to a 31-30 victory over the New England Patriots that left Miami (4-1) atop the AFC East. Huard survived nine sacks to lead a last-minute drive that culminated in a five-yard touchdown pass to fullback Stanley Pritchett with 23 seconds left.

Other quarterbacks ignored by NFL scouts and playing well now include Seattle Seahawks starter Jon Kitna, an undrafted free agent who is the AFC's third-leading passer, and the San Francisco 49ers' Jeff Garcia, who toiled for years in the Canadian Football League--the league that gave the Buffalo Bills Doug Flutie.

How could so many scouts be so wrong on so many productive players? Most personnel men will admit that quarterback is the most difficult position to judge on a football field.

"You can weigh them and measure them," said Indianapolis Colts General Manager Bill Polian. "But how do you measure their hearts? Some guys just need a little more maturity. Some guys sit for a few years and know the systems better than the coaches. When they get a chance, they know what to do."

Said Flutie of his fellow late bloomers: "All these experts who have their stopwatches out and go to the meat markets and their combines and this and that. All you have to do is look at the film and decide if they can play or not. A lot of them don't really know what it's like to be under fire."

George at Vikings' Helm

In Minnesota, the pressure will be on Jeff George, whom Coach Dennis Green has anointed as the Vikings' quarterback of the "forseeable future" after Green benched Randall Cunningham during the Vikings' 25-23 loss to Detroit on Sunday.

The well-traveled George entered at the start of the second half and completed 10 of 12 passes for 214 yards and two touchdowns. The Vikings rallied from a 19-0 deficit to take a late 23-22 lead, but Detroit's Jason Hanson kicked a 48-yard field goal with seven seconds left.

Cunningham so far has not complained about his benching, which occurred less than a year after he was named the NFL's player of the year for leading a high-octane offense that led the Vikings to the NFC championship game. The team was a favorite to get to the Super Bowl this season.

Maybe age or defenses caught up with Cunningham, who struggled as his team slipped to 2-4. There were all manner of theories on the team's offensive problems, most notably longtime offensive coordinator Brian Billick leaving to become coach of the Baltimore Ravens.

Billick was replaced by Ray Sherman, who was fired by the Pittsburgh Steelers last season but is running most of the offense Billick installed. George succeeded with basically the same plays, from the same coordinator and facing the same defenses Cunningham had.

The Vikings have other major problems: the league's 21st-best running game, a defense ranked 29th and five turnovers in each of their past two games, both two-point losses.

Just Kickin' It

Most of the howling has ceased from place kickers and punters who were upset by a rule change that called for them to use a new, basically untouched football rather than balls they had been able to doctor to get more distance.

So far this season, the difference in punting average and field goal success rate compared to a year ago is negligible. In 1998, the league-wide punting average was 43.9 yards per punt; this season, it's 42.3 yards. The field goal percentage was .782 in '98, and it's .774 this season.

The new rule about the footballs has not affected Minnesota's Mitch Berger, who is averaging a league-best 49.8 yards per punt. That's a Sammy Baugh-like figure. Baugh averaged 51.4 yards to set the NFL record in 1940, a number aided by his frequent use of the quick kick while playing quarterback.

The Cavalier Connection

How about those Virginia Cavaliers? Several of Coach George Welsh's former players had outstanding performances last weekend, including the best of all--New York Giants running back Tiki Barber's 231 total yards, which helped beat the Dallas Cowboys, 13-10, on Monday night. Barber scored the Giants' only touchdown on an 85-yard punt return, then set up the winning field goal when he stretched a short dump-off pass into a 56-yard gain.

Other former Virginia standouts included Carolina wide receiver Patrick Jeffers, with six catches for 93 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-29 victory over the 49ers; wide receiver Terrence Wilkins's 22-yard touchdown catch for the Colts in a 16-13 win over the New York Jets; Michael Husted's two field goals in Oakland's 20-14 victory over Buffalo; and running back Terry Kirby's nine-yard scoring catch for the Cleveland Browns in a 24-7 loss to Jacksonville.

Chargers Tough on the Run

San Diego is off to an impressive start under first-year coach Mike Riley, mostly because of defense. The Chargers have gone 24 consecutive games without allowing a runner to rush for over 100 yards. . . . Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 18 straight games, the league's longest active streak. . . .

Jerry Rice turned 37 last week but there's another number far more troubling--he's only averaging 10 yards a catch, the lowest mark of his career. . . . Look for the new Houston franchise to settle on Texans as their nickname. The Dallas Texans were a charter member of the American Football League, then moved to Kansas City in 1963 and became the Chiefs. . . . The Jaguars are leading the NFL in defense for the first time in team history.