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The Chairmen
Peter King
April 13, 1998
Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf are the class of the NFL draft, but experts say one of them stands head and shoulder pads above the other
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April 13, 1998

The Chairmen

Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf are the class of the NFL draft, but experts say one of them stands head and shoulder pads above the other

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Leaf's Case

Both Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf put up impressive numbers last year, but based on the NFL formula for computing quarterback ratings, Leaf had the better season.

PLAYER

ATT.

COMP.

COMP.%

YARDS

TDS

INTS.

RATING

Leaf

375

210

.560

3,637

33

10

107.4

Manning

477

287

.602

3,819

36

11

101.1

When Washington state quarterback Ryan Leaf stepped onto the scale at the NFL scouting combine in early February, the digital readout was 261. He stepped off in disbelief, then stepped on again. The number was still 261, about 20 pounds over Leaf's playing weight. "I can't believe it," he muttered, shaking his head.

Here's something else Leaf might not believe: The weight of opinion in the NFL now says that Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning is the clear choice, ahead of Leaf, as the No. 1 pick in the draft, which will be held on April 18 and 19. In the wake of a meteoric Rose Bowl season that sent his pro stock soaring, Leaf became a sort of joint entry with Manning. Discussion of one player rarely passed without mention of the other. There was little doubt that Manning and Leaf would be the top two draft picks; the issue was which would be selected by the Indianapolis Colts, who will choose first, and which would end up with the San Diego Chargers, who have the second selection.

But in the view of a six-man blue-ribbon panel that analyzed game tapes of the players for SI, Leaf doesn't rank as high as Manning. Each expert was asked: If you had to pick one of these players, whom would you take? With different degrees of conviction, each said Manning. Three said they would be shocked if the Colts didn't select him.

The panel was made up of Tampa Bay Buccaneers director of player personnel Jerry Angelo; Sid Gillman, who was instrumental in the development of the West Coach offense; Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan; former New York Giants quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Phil Simms; UCLA coach Bob Toledo, whose Bruins played Tennessee and Washington State in each of the last two seasons; and former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh. The panelists raised doubts about Leaf's mental preparedness and mechanics but still liked him as a player. However, they think Manning is the superior prospect at the most important position in the game.

"Now this is a pro quarterback," the 86-year-old Gillman says admiringly as he watches tape of Manning bluffing the Mississippi defense by looking to one side of the field and then throwing a deft screen to the other. Gillman is sitting at the controls in the second-floor screening room of his Carlsbad, Calif., home. "Is that a beautiful throw, or is that a beautiful throw? I'd draft this kid in a second."

"I don't see Favre or Elway," Walsh says. "I see those guys on the next level. But Manning seems to be more pro-ready than Leaf."

The oft-quirky Walsh was the only one of the six experts who said he wouldn't take Manning with the first choice. "I'd pick another top player," he says, "and then I'd take [Michigan quarterback] Brian Griese in the second round. I think he could have the tools to be special."

All the panelists except Shanahan and Toledo, both of whom did extensive analyses of their own videos of Manning and Leaf before being interviewed, watched SI-provided game tapes. The group shot down the popular belief that Manning can't throw the deep ball. Indeed, the experts extolled Manning for making every throw with precision. He lofted touch passes into the corners of tire end zone. He zipped arrows into tight coverage over the middle. Other than some ignominious throws under heavy pressure in two losses to Florida, he stood in the pocket, took hits and delivered the ball with accuracy. On one play against UCLA, Volunteers wideout Marcus Nash seemed covered until Manning, about to be swallowed by the pass rush, hit him with a perfect 39-yard spiral for a touchdown. "We did everything right on that play—good pressure, good coverage," Toledo says. "Peyton made as good a play as any quarterback could make, and then we leveled him."

"Completely nuts," Shanahan says of the notion that Manning can't throw deep. "Peyton will make every throw there is." Walsh says that Manning's ability to go long is "not as good as Bradshaw's but better than Unitas's." Simms becomes incredulous when the question is posed. "His arm's plenty good," he says. "You know how many times Drew Bledsoe really aired it out last year? I mean, 50, 60 yards in the air? Five. Ten, maybe. In the NFL, you make your living throwing the intermediate pass, and look at how many good intermediate throws we're seeing Peyton make."

Manning and Leaf rose from different backgrounds to the pinnacle of the college game. Leaf, the son of a Great Falls, Mont., insurance man and nurse, grew up participating in many sports and began getting raves as a football player only when Washington State rose unexpectedly to the top of the Pac-10 last fall. Manning, raised in New Orleans, has been in the public eye since high school because of his passing arm and his famous dad, former NFL quarterback Archie Manning. Leaf is leaving college a year early, an eminently reasonable decision given that he figures to collect a signing bonus of at least $8 million. Manning turned down similar millions in 1997 to return to Tennessee for his senior year—though he'd already earned his degree in speech communications—citing how much he enjoyed the college experience. Leaf is 6'5 ⅜" and (thanks to a personal trainer in Newport Beach, Calif.) back down to 241 pounds. Manning is an eighth of an inch shorter and six pounds lighter.

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