Most likely to succeed


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Jan 22, 2006
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Most likely to succeed

Don Banks,

Every year gives us a new quarterback lineup in the NFL. The only constant at the game's most high-profile position seems to be change.

This year is no different. Drew Brees has taken his act to New Orleans. Daunte Culpepper has migrated to Miami. Patrick Ramsey got paroled from Washington, Jon Kitna is Motown's new man and Aaron Brooks has gone from Saint-hood to a man in black. And the carousel isn't even finished turning, with the fate of veterans such as Brett Favre and Steve McNair still unknown.

Which quarterbacks are the best bets to seize the day and prosper in their new place of employment? Here's our most-likely-to-succeed list, rated from top to bottom:

1. Drew Brees, New Orleans: You can feel that Brees passed up the better short-term situation in Miami for the bigger paycheck in New Orleans and still believe he'll have a successful first season as the Saints' new quarterback. How quickly Brees returns to his 2004-05 form after rehabilitating from surgery on his throwing shoulder is the major storyline this season. But the sixth-year veteran is in the prime of his career, and his style of smart and efficient play, with a minimum of mistakes (51 touchdowns to just 22 interceptions the past two years), is going to play like a breath of fresh air in New Orleans after the maddening Aaron Brooks era.

And here's the thing Brees has to look forward to the most in the Big Easy: Sean Payton. Wherever the Saints' new head coach has worked in the NFL, he's gotten more out of the quarterback than anyone expected. He did wonders for Kerry Collins in New York and coaxed production out of the likes of Quincy Carter, Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe the past three years in Dallas. In Brees, Payton finally has a well-polished and proven talent.

"With Drew, the selling points for us, getting him to consider us, was my involvement in the position in the past,'' Payton said, "be it in New York or Dallas. We identified quarterback as certainly one of our needs, and now Drew Brees is available. So having nothing to do with where we're drafting this particular year, we decided to be aggressive about him because we think there's a fit here. We think he's a player who makes good decisions, and we were surprised he was available. I'm excited about getting him.''

2. Jon Kitna, Detroit: We're giving the nod to the veteran Kitna earning the starting job out of training camp, but we wouldn't be shocked if the offense would up in the hands of Josh McCown at some point. The ex-Cardinals starter was perhaps the best quarterback value in free agency this year, and we're eager to see if new Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz decides to bestow upon him the same magic fairy dust he sprinkled on Kurt Warner, Marc Bulger and Trent Green during his St. Louis tenure.

Much like Brees in New Orleans, Kitna will provide the Lions with a much steadier hand than they were used to under the erratic Joey Harrington. Kitna isn't going to wow you at this point in his career, but he's not going to kill you, either. The Lions will happily settle for that, because he's a quality team leader and a selfless player who should set a good example for professionalism on a club that was woefully lacking in that department during the Steve Mariucci era.

3. Patrick Ramsey, New York Jets: What about Chad Pennington? What about him? After undergoing operations on his throwing shoulder in each of the last two seasons, the Jets can't count on Pennington returning to his 2002 form. Which is how Ramsey entered the picture in New York. The former Redskins first-round pick looks like the best bet to start for the Jets this season, and that probably stands even if New York selects a quarterback with one of the top picks in the draft later this month.

It's hard to know what remains of Ramsey's confidence or development as a passer after his tumultuous trip up and down the depth chart in Washington, but his tough, hang-in-there style of play seems to be a decent fit for what new Jets head coach Eric Mangini wants out of the position. After all, Mangini's blueprint for a quarterback is New England's Tom Brady, and toughness is one of Tom Terrific's most respected qualities. Ramsey probably won't be surrounded by the best team on the field many game days this season, but he had started showing a decent knack for dealing with adverse situations before having the rug pulled out from under him in Washington.

4. Daunte Culpepper, Miami: Here's the flaw in the logic that says Culpepper will have a quick and painless transition to the Dolphins' offense because Miami will run the same attack used in 2005 by former Dolphins offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who brought that system with him from Minnesota: Why didn't that same offense, which was kept in place by Vikings offensive coordinator Steve Loney last season, help Culpepper avoid the worst stretch of his seven-year career when he threw 12 interceptions with just six touchdowns in his injury-shortened seven-game season?

Culpepper has a lot to prove in Miami, and it starts with whether or not he'll return as good as new from the surgery that rebuilt his right knee after he tore three ligaments last October at Carolina. If that part of the equation comes off without a hitch, he still has to convince skeptics around the league that he can produce at 2004 levels without Linehan's direction and calming influence on his game. While we have a good deal of respect for new Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and believe he'll find ways to best use Culpepper's talents, the hunch here is that Culpepper will be guilty at times of trying to do too much in an effort to erase the stench of his abysmal 2005 season. When he presses, Culpepper's game unravels and things get ugly, kind of the way his tenure did in Minnesota.

5. Philip Rivers, San Diego: Due to circumstances beyond his control, Rivers won't begin his stint as the Chargers' starting quarterback on a level playing field. Whether he or anyone else admits it or not, he'll be competing with Brees, his highly successful predecessor who led the Chargers to a 21-11 record and a division title in the last two seasons. While Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger have been front and center almost since the 2004 draft, Rivers has been the forgotten man. We know virtually nothing more about him now than we did when he came out of North Carolina State with that slightly funky throwing motion, inspiring some to predict that in time he'd be the most accomplished of the three big QB prospects.

The pluses are obvious: Cam Cameron is a quality offensive coordinator, and Rivers has a pretty good team around him. Talents like running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates will make any young quarterback look a little better. But there's a downside to that as well, in that the Chargers are primed to win now but have a quarterback who must go through the position's typical two- or three-year learning curve. Can San Diego win with Rivers taking baby steps? Probably. But if the Chargers don't win big and Rivers struggles through his share of growing pains, the specter of what Brees might have done had he remained in San Diego will be inescapable for both Rivers and the Chargers franchise.

6. Aaron Brooks, Oakland: With his penchant for mind-numbing mistakes and head-scratching decisions, Brooks has been an easy target the last two years in New Orleans. For every good play he made, there was seemingly a miscue (34 touchdown passes, 33 interceptions in 2004 and '05). And yet he's only 30, has six seasons of starting experience and is the possessor of obvious, albeit undisciplined at times, talent. Our point is that Brooks could very well have a successful second act in the NFL, if he falls into the right situation and raises his game accordingly.

Is Oakland that situation? On the surface, no. The Raiders have been plagued by undisciplined play in recent years, and Brooks is replacing a quarterback in Kerry Collins who shares so many of his frustrating traits of inconsistency. But you never know. It could be a Jim Plunkett-like renaissance in Oakland for Brooks. Then again, it could be more like the Raiders' Jeff George experience. We're skeptical, but the outcome is in Brooks' hands.

• Where else might starting-quarterback changes shape the season to come in 2006? Several other NFL teams are still works in progress at the game's most pivotal position:

• Baltimore: The Ravens have yet to add the veteran passer who will challenge fourth-year veteran Kyle Boller's grip on the starting job, but that acquisition will be made long before training camp opens. In their dream scenario, the Ravens would be the beneficiary of Tennessee releasing Steve McNair. Barring the disintegration of that longtime relationship in Nashville, look for Baltimore to land Kerry Collins as the safety net should Boller's make-or-break year take a turn toward the desultory.

• Tennessee: If the Titans do part ways with McNair, they'll elevate either veteran backup Billy Volek or a yet-to-be-determined first-round 2006 draft pick to the No. 1 slot on their depth chart. The Titans would prefer to bring a rookie along slowly, as the franchise did with McNair after taking him first overall in 1995, but if Volek doesn't take command of the situation, it's not beyond possibility that a potential draft pick such as Matt Leinart or Jay Cutler could be taking snaps at some point during the regular season.

• Green Bay: Keep this one quiet, but the word is that Brett Favre might retire. (Remember, folks, you heard it hear first.) If that cataclysmic event ever does transpire, the Packers for the first time since 1992 would have themselves a question mark at quarterback. First-round pick Aaron Rodgers would get the first shot at replacing the irreplaceable, but Green Bay also would go shopping in the veteran backup market, at the very least addressing their loss of Craig Nall to Buffalo via free agency.;
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