The last time the Indianapolis Colts had the first overall pick of the NFL Draft, they made a move that forever altered the course of the then-downtrodden franchise.
Fourteen years, 11 playoff appearances, eight division titles, two AFC championships and one Super Bowl victory following the shrewd selection of Peyton Manning in 1998, the Colts have come full circle. With Manning now residing in Denver after the most earth-shattering event of this offseason, Indianapolis is once again in search of a brilliant young quarterback capable of returning the organization to its previous heights.
The Colts choose correctly in tabbing Manning over heralded washout Ryan Leaf back in 1998, and will have a pair of tantalizing prospects to decide from this year as well. Unlike the shell-game scenario that existed when the team most recently picked first, however, it seems as if Indianapolis can't go wrong with either Stanford prodigy Andrew Luck or Baylor sensation Robert Griffin III.
The All-America duo are a virtual lock to be the initial two names coming off the board when the 77th edition of the NFL Draft gets underway at New York's Radio City Music Hall on April 26, with Luck seen as a moderate favorite to wind up as Manning's successor in Indianapolis. It would mark the first time signal-callers were taken in the opening two slots since 1999, one year after the Colts struck gold with the famed 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterback with the laser rocket arm.
The Washington Redskins, having positioned themselves to ideally solve their longstanding quarterback problems after trading up into the No. 2 spot, probably wouldn't mind a reprisal of how 1999 played out. After Cleveland took injury-plagued disappointment Tim Couch with that year's top pick, the Philadelphia Eagles landed Donovan McNabb with the subsequent selection.
Of course, the Redskins will be hoping for a player comparable to the McNabb in Philadelphia, who made six Pro Bowls and led the Eagles to five NFC Championship Games in a successful 11-year stint, and not the out-of-shape, entitled version who failed to mesh with Mike Shanahan during a 13-game nightmare in Washington in 2010.
A more detailed look at the top candidates of this year's incoming quarterback crop is below, kicking off The Sports Network's detailed coverage of the 2012 NFL Draft over the next month.
While Luck and Griffin are undeniably the crown jewels, the class also contains two of the most decorated field generals in college football history among its members. Houston's Case Keenum finished a remarkably prolific career as the NCAA's all-time leader in passing yards, touchdown passes and completions, while Boise State's Kellen Moore was under center for more wins (50) than any quarterback in FBS history.
Despite those outstanding accomplishments, neither player is guaranteed to even be drafted due to size and arm strength deficiencies as well as durability concerns.
1) ANDREW LUCK, STANFORD Height: 6-4; Weight: 234; Age (as of Sept. 1): 22
Hailed in many circles as the best quarterback prospect in more than a decade prior to his junior year at Stanford, Luck did nothing to dissuade opinions after completing nearly 70 percent of his passes this past season, leading the Cardinal to a second straight BCS bowl and placing second to Griffin in the Heisman Trophy race -- all while facing intense and constant media scrutiny. As a three-year starter in a pro-style offense with the authority to audible at the line of scrimmage, he's as advanced and NFL-ready as you'll find out of the collegiate ranks, and possesses prototype size and the arm strength to make all the throws at the next level. Luck is also a better athlete than maybe given credit for, having proved as much by producing test results similar to Cam Newton at the combine, and his ability to move in the pocket and evade pressure is a plus as well. Other than the fact he doesn't have a howitzer for an arm and showed a tendency to throw into coverage at times, there really aren't any minuses to Luck's game.
PROJECTION: Don't believe what you may hear or read about this being a two-man race for the No. 1 pick. The Colts have been locked onto Luck for months, and the cerebral youngster's pedigree and performance make him the most sensible choice to be Peyton Manning's heir apparent.
2) ROBERT GRIFFIN III, BAYLOR Height: 6-2; Weight: 223; Age (as of Sept. 1): 22
Blessed with elite speed and arm strength, outstanding intelligence as well as makeup and leadership skills that are off the charts, the reigning Heisman recipient has every attribute teams seek in a franchise quarterback. Griffin displayed above-average accuracy, particularly on deep throws, during his breakout junior season at Baylor and is a natural playmaker with a knack for coming up big in the clutch, and his superior athleticism and running ability allow him to succeed on the move or when the pocket breaks down. He may have a higher overall ceiling than Luck, but isn't nearly as polished than his counterpart right now from having operated almost exclusively out of the shotgun in a pure spread offense with few pre-snap reads. Still, Griffin's smarts and strong work ethic should allow him to make the transition to the pro game over time, and his confident demeanor and take-charge mentality are obvious pluses.
PROJECTION: The Redskins paid a king's ransom to trade with St. Louis for the No. 2 pick to presumably secure the services of Griffin, whose mobility and terrific skill set make him an ideal fit for coach Mike Shanahan's system.
3) RYAN TANNEHILL, TEXAS A&M Height: 6-4; Weight: 221; Age (as of Sept. 1): 24
A converted wide receiver who led Texas A&M in receptions his first two seasons, Tannehill switched full-time to quarterback midway through his junior year and demonstrated the physical tools of a potential frontline NFL starter at the position. Smart and competitive, he's a multiple Academic All-Big 12 honoree with designs on becoming an orthopedic surgeon someday, and his willingness to move to receiver illustrated both a team-first attitude and intriguing athleticism. Scouts still have varying opinions on Tannehill's game, however. He made only 20 collegiate starts at quarterback and had an inconsistent 2011 season for a Aggies squad that underachieved, and was forced to miss both the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine after breaking his foot in January. Others see Tannehill as a player with great upside who could blossom with added seasoning and repetition.
PROJECTION: Despite his relative lack of experience, Tannehill is a better prospect than Christian Ponder, taken by Minnesota with the 12th overall choice a year ago, and the injury and questionable game tape hasn't hurt his draft stock. He may not last past Miami, where his college coach is now the offensive coordinator, at pick No. 8, and could even be a realistic target for Cleveland at No. 4.
4) BRANDON WEEDEN, OKLAHOMA STATE Height: 6-4; Weight: 221; Age (as of Sept. 1): 28
With a big arm, a body type well-suited to physically handle the rigors of the NFL and the toughness to play through pain and adversity, Weeden has most of the requisite characteristics of a high-caliber pro quarterback -- with one very notable exception. He'll be 29 years old in October, having spent five seasons as a minor-league pitcher in the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers organizations before arriving at Oklahoma State. Teams may view his advanced age and medical history (shoulder problems forced his retirement from baseball) as a red flag, and not having spent much time under center in the Cowboys' spread attack may hurt Weeden's draft status as well. On the positive side, his maturity and previous ability to handle failure as a professional athlete are definite assets, and he has shown to be a quick and dedicated study.
PROJECTION: Being considerably older than the other members of his class will likely prevent Weeden from being taken in the first round, but his talent makes him a worthwhile second-day selection for a team looking for depth.
5) KIRK COUSINS, MICHIGAN STATE Height: 6-3; Weight: 214; Age (as of Sept. 1): 24
Cousins' physical traits won't wow anyone, as he sports only average arm strength and a somewhat slight build, but the all-time leader in wins in Michigan State history compensates for his limitations with a strong football acumen and extremely high character. Unlike many of his incoming peers, he also owns plenty of experience in a pro-style offense, and has shown good accuracy on short and intermediate throws throughout his college career. He hasn't been as proficient as a deep passer, which may restrict him to a West Coast system at the next level, and his decision-making could use some refinement as well.
PROJECTION: Cousins' size and great intangibles have drawn comparisons to Andy Dalton, who led Cincinnati to the playoffs as a rookie after being plucked in the early second round of last year's draft. After delivering impressive performances at the Senior Bowl and Combine, Cousins could find himself taken in a similar range.
6) BROCK OSWEILER, ARIZONA STATE Height: 6-7; Weight: 242; Age (as of Sept. 1): 21
Osweiler is the true wild card of this year's quarterback group, an early entrant with premium size and perhaps the strongest arm of the 2011 candidates. He's also pretty athletic for such a big man, having been recruited by Gonzaga to play basketball out of high school, and has earned a reputation as a hard worker and vocal leader. On the other hand, Osweiler only started 15 games at Arizona State and is a long way from being pro ready, and his decision to skip both his senior season and the Combine (due to a reported sprained foot) has kept him as an enigma in many scouts' minds. He still needs to master the nuances of reading defenses and exhibiting proper footwork, and a longer release caused by his tall stature is also a concern.
PROJECTION: How Osweiler fares in a workout scheduled for late March will determine his draft fate. If he can answer the questions evaluators still have about him, it's conceivable a team with a vertical-based offense could nab him as high as the second round as a developmental project.