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NFL draft: Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III promise greatness, but watch out for pitfalls

The suspense is pretty much over. There's virtually no mystery remaining when it comes to the top two picks in next week's NFL draft.

But what remains unanswerable is this question: How will Stanford's Andrew Luck and Baylor's Robert Griffin III fare as NFL quarterbacks?

Clearly, NFL evaluators think they'll be highly successful. But there are no sure things, even when it comes to players who look to have the potential to be transcendent.

"No one likes to talk about it, but you can go and find coaches and general managers in the league back in '98, and they won't tell you how much they liked Ryan Leaf," said Colts owner Jim Irsay, whose team owns the No. 1 pick and is expected to draft Luck.

"But I'm telling you, they did. More than you think they did."

Most know the sad tale that is Leaf's career. The No. 2 pick by the Chargers behind Peyton Manning by the Colts in 1998, Leaf was a bust of historic proportions, playing four seasons and throwing 14 touchdown passes and 36 interceptions. He has since battled drug addiction and currently is facing burglary and drug charges in Montana.

No one expects Luck or Griffin — who almost certainly is headed to the Redskins with the No. 2 pick — to have that kind of outcome. But success is never a guarantee.

So what will it take to help ensure that Luck and Griffin become transformative franchise quarterbacks?

Surround them with talent

The Colts and Redskins must understand these quarterbacks can't be one-man shows. For the Colts, after finishing 2-14 in 2011, reworking their offensive lineup should be a high priority. Luck has few of the advantages that his predecessor, Manning, enjoyed for years.

"The Colts are a lot different team now than they were five years ago," said former Bucs coach Jon Gruden, now an ESPN analyst. "Not only do they have to address needs in the draft, they have to continue to do that after the draft and into free agency. Obviously, a quarterback's success rate is largely dependent on those around him.

"They've got to (improve) their personnel, no question. (Wide receiver) Marvin Harrison's gone. (Receiver) Reggie Wayne is at a different stage of his career. I don't know who the featured back is going to be."

The Redskins made an effort to upgrade offensively ahead of Griffin's arrival by picking off one of the Colts' key offensive weapons, receiver Pierre Garcon. He signed a $42 million contract last month. Washington also added 49ers free agent receiver Josh Morgan.

Shoring up the offensive line is a critical element for young quarterbacks to avoid a David Carr scenario. The 2002 No. 1 overall choice was sacked nine times in his second career game with the Texans, and things never got much better. He was a backup with the Giants last year.

Colts coach Chuck Pagano says his team must "get the line solidified" so Luck isn't "getting his brains beat out" like Carr.

The right coaching and scheme

During the draft, it's often debated whether a player has landed in "a good situation." The answer is most critical when the player in question is a quarterback.

Luck will be coached by former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, under whom Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had arguably his best season in 2009. Arians, hired in January, is expected to bring some of the more successful elements of the Pittsburgh offense. Luck figures to be in good hands.

The same appears true for Griffin, the Heisman Trophy winner in 2011, who will be under the tutelage of Redskins coach Mike Shanahan. It's an ideal fit, Gruden said.

"I think it's really exciting for the Redskins and Mike Shanahan because of his expertise with mobile quarterbacks," Gruden said. "Some of the best tapes that I've ever studied was Mike Shanahan and John Elway in Denver.

"And what Mike did in San Francisco with Steve Young, another mobile quarterback, those were as good as offensive tapes as I've ever seen. So, I think when you get Robert Griffin, one of the most explosive quarterbacks to ever play the position, in a Mike Shanahan system, the possibilities are very exciting."

Some defensive help

A top-flight quarterback can cover up many warts, but he cannot play defense. A lack of defensive consistency inevitably will put a quarterback in situations where his chances for success plunge.

Take the Cam Newton example. Carolina's No. 1 pick in 2011, Newton had a record-setting rookie season. The Panthers averaged 25.4 points and ranked seventh offensively in yards per game.

None of that mattered. The defense didn't get stops, and Carolina finished 6-10.

Neither the Colts nor Redskins have stellar defenses, though both are working on improving their units.

Defense is just one thing on a long list of things their quarterbacks will need to live up to their lofty expectations.

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@tampabay.com.

NFL draft: Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III promise greatness, but watch out for pitfalls 04/20/12 [Last modified: Friday, April 20, 2012 8:35pm]
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