NEW YORK -- The first pick in next weekend's NFL draft probably will be a quarterback, and four or five QBs could go in the first round.
Still, the days when NFL teams gamble early on signal-callers are over, because there are more good ones available and the risk can be greater than the reward when QBs gobble up salary-cap space.
Thank you, Rick Mirer, Ryan Leaf, Heath Shuler, Dan McGwire, Todd Marinovich, Jim Druckenmiller, David Klingler, Cade McNown, Akili Smith and a host of other first-round flops.
Thank you, Kurt Warner, Tom Brady, Aaron Brooks, Marc Bulger, A.J. Feeley and other lightly regarded prospects who turned into starters or prospective ones. Even Brett Favre was a second-round pick traded by Atlanta to Green Bay before his second pro season.
And thank you, Trent Green, Jay Fiedler and Kelly Holcomb, nobodies coming out of college who have blossomed in their late 20s or early 30s.
There's hardly a team in the NFL that drafts a quarterback and throws him right into the starting lineup.
''We're developing more quarterbacks than ever,'' says Gil Brandt, the longtime personnel director of the Dallas Cowboys and now an NFL draft consultant.
''That means there are a lot of guys out there with good high school and college experience. They may not have the gun for an arm, but they have the intangibles that make them winners. It gives NFL teams more time to develop them.''
This year, there are six QBs rated as first- or second-round choices: Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer of Southern California; Byron Leftwich of Marshall; Kyle Boller of California; Rex Grossman of Florida; Chris Simms of Texas; and Dave Ragone of Louisville.
But all have question marks, including Palmer, who most likely will be the first pick -- a reluctant choice, perhaps, of the Cincinnati Bengals, who would prefer to trade out of the No. 1 position and take a defensive player.
Palmer and Boller, for example, did little until their senior seasons; Ragone was the opposite -- his senior performance was weak.
There are questions about Leftwich's twice-broken leg; Grossman is not a great athlete; and Simms, son of 1987 Super Bowl MVP Phil Simms, played poorly in big games.
So perhaps a lower-round QB -- say Brooks Bollinger of Wisconsin -- will turn out to be a better pro than some of the high choices.
''If you're looking for a quarterback on the second day of the draft, he's a good prospect,'' Brandt said, referring to Bollinger. ''You look at the successful quarterbacks and they're winners in college. This guy's a winner.''
Still, drafting quarterbacks remains a gamble.
In 1993, Drew Bledsoe was the No. 1 overall pick, and Mirer was second. Bledsoe made it big; Mirer is a career backup who's never approached ''the next Joe Montana'' tag applied to him a decade ago.
In 1998, the Colts took Peyton Manning No. 1, and Leaf went second to the Chargers. Leaf's name is now synonymous with ''bust.''
And in 1999, only one of the five QBs taken in the first round, Donovan McNabb of Philadelphia, has become a star. Tim Couch and Daunte Culpepper have had moderate success and could have more in the future. But Smith and McNown already have been written off.
Palmer, Leftwich and Boller all could go in the top 10 next Saturday. But they probably are the only first-round guarantees.
First-round quarterbacks also get a premium salary that sticks with their team for years. Manning's cap figure this season is $15 million, or more than 20 percent of the Colts' cap, which is why the team has been renegotiating his contract to get more room to sign other players.
''When you pay someone that much, you tend to rush him into a starting position,'' says agent Leigh Steinberg, who's had his share of first-round quarterback busts, notably Leaf, McGwire, Dave Brown and Jeff George, the No. 1 overall pick in 1990 whose temperament made him no more than a journeyman who squandered considerable talent.
Steinberg also has handled Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Warren Moon, Bledsoe and many other successes.
''What a young quarterback needs is tutelage and coaching, a time to develop a feel for the speed of the defenses and the ability to read them,'' he said.
One exception was last year's No. 1 overall pick, David Carr, who went to expansion Houston. The Texans didn't have high expectations, and the four games they won made it a semi-successful season. Carr started from Game 1 and was sacked a record 76 times.
But he survived, and the future looks bright.
''I wanted to be out there with the guys every snap, and I was able to do that,'' Carr said. ''I'm going to be better next year.''
Probably -- but there are no guarantees.
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