It could have been so different. For the Minnesota Vikings, and the Philadelphia Eagles. For the Chicago Bears. For the Cleveland Browns.

According to analysts evaluating the 1999 draft, which featured the best crop of quarterbacks since 1983, the "closest thing to a franchise quarterback" with "prototypical NFL size and strength" and a "beautiful, natural touch" was Tim Couch.

The "awesome" athlete, "natural runner" and "flat-out playmaker" of the group was Cade McNown. The "strongest arm" in the draft and the player with the "highest upside" was Akili Smith.

But after five years, the best players have turned out to be Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb. Couch, McNown and Smith are out of the league. Culpepper and McNabb are on the verge of owning it.

Predicting future performance is a risky business, but ask football analysts now who they thought would have prevailed from that heralded class of '99, and few would have guessed it would be Culpepper and McNabb. Maybe one, but not both.

"I am surprised," McNabb said recently. "I guess not all first picks in the draft last that long. Who is the talent scout?"

Not only have Culpepper and McNabb survived, they have thrived.

You have to wonder whether Couch, McNown and Smith will be watching. And if so, what must they think?

Coming out of Kentucky in 1999, Couch was the lock of the draft. Great body. Strong arm. Tough. But Couch struggled behind the expansion team's weak offensive line in Cleveland. He was beaten up, and eventually lost the starting job to Kelly Holcomb. After the Browns released Couch in June, he landed in Green Bay, but was dogged by what now has been diagnosed as rotator cuff tendinitis in his right arm.

In his tryout to become Brett Favre's backup, Couch missed at least 12 practices, was wildly inconsistent, and in three exhibition games posted a miserable 41.5 passer rating.

Although he is jobless, Couch's career might not be over -- Indianapolis reportedly has some interest in him -- but it is definitely on hold.

Smith, the third pick in the draft behind McNabb, played 21 games in four seasons with Cincinnati before being waived, and last year also got a shot at being Favre's backup, but didn't make the team and is out of the league.

The 12th pick in the draft, McNown played two seasons for Chicago, then had brief stops in Miami and San Francisco, and also is out.

After four successful years at Syracuse, McNabb was known as a tremendous athlete, but not necessarily as a proven passer. One pre-draft analysis said he was prone to game-turning mistakes, another said he could run hot and cold. Nonetheless, he was picked second overall.

Likewise, Culpepper was viewed as an impressive physical specimen who could take a hit, but he was coming off a collegiate career at Central Florida, not exactly a Southeastern Conference power. He was taken 11th overall.

"Can I say that, yes, I would have predicted those two?" Eagles all-pro safety Brian Dawkins said Thursday. "I don't think I could have said that back then. I knew, not just because he came here but because I played against him, that Donovan was going to do that. I saw that. But I hadn't seen enough of Daunte to say that about him."

It's impossible to know whether Couch, McNown or Smith would have flourished in different systems or with more talent surrounding them.

But this is a fact: Culpepper and McNabb took advantage of their situations, worked hard, and learned. They've proved their teams right, and their early detractors wrong.

As a 58-game starter, Culpepper has completed 63.1 percent of his passes and has an 89.1 quarterback rating. In his season debut, Culpepper had the best game of any quarterback in the league, throwing for 242 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions in a win over Dallas.

McNabb has started 65 of 71 career games and, although his accuracy remains a frequent topic of critics, he was stellar in his season debut, finishing a little behind Culpepper with a 137.5 rating against the Giants.

"I don't know," McNabb said, "if we were just put in great positions, great situations, the coaches that we've had, coming to a great staff or a great organization. It could be a lot of those things. . . . The whole deal about it is that if you work hard, and you have a little success, and guys around you take some pressure off of your shoulders, then it makes your job easier."

Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress remembers scouting all the quarterbacks of 1999. He saw Culpepper first, and thought there was no way he would see anyone better. Then he saw McNabb. Childress loved Smith, and was unimpressed by Couch.

Childress was elated when Philadelphia picked McNabb second, and devastated at the Eagles fans' reaction that day.

"Those are pretty graphic pictures I have burned into my brain," Childress said.

But the images since -- 57 victories, three NFC title games, McNabb's four Pro Bowls -- have been better.

Childress admitted that the demise of Couch, McNown and Smith is sad -- "I know it's probably sad for them," he said -- but part of the beauty of this game.

"Everybody had reason to believe that these guys would be playing for a long time, but you don't have a crystal ball," Childress said. "I think about our place in time, and I'm just happy we got the guy we got."

It could have been so different.

Eagles' Donovan McNabb (5), Vikings' Daunte Culpepper (11) took a back seat to the Browns' Tim Couch (2), who was thought of as the premier quarterback in the 1999 NFL draft.NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue gives UCLA's Cade McNown a Bears jersey after QB was selected in 1999.