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Finding QB pivotal for could-be contenders

This happened two or three decades ago, and the exact names and timing are lost to history but the point of it is not, and it is applicable to the NFL draft next week.

George Young, the late general manager of the New York Giants, was being criticized after one draft was over for choosing a player in the first round when that player generally had been rated as a second-round pick by most of the so-called experts.

Typically, Young did not mince words in defending his choice.

"I wanted the guy," he said, "and I didn't have a second-round pick."

Such conviction and such candor is relatively rare in the NFL today, but even beyond that, the point is inescapable. If you need something, you better go get it, and that's a lesson that would apply to the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears as they head into the draft with the first three selections.

There are others in the same situation as those three but since those teams are starting things off, they are in the driver's seats. And regardless of anything that has happened this off-season, including the Bears throwing a fortune at a quarterback named Mike Glennon whose work at Tampa Bay does not quite scream, "Hall of Fame," all three teams need a legitimate starting quarterback for the long term.

They don't have to get it in this draft, of course.

A quarterback could fall out of the sky during minicamp. Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers could force the Patriots or Packers to release him so he could sign with one of the league's dogmeat teams. Brian Hoyer could suddenly turn into Peyton Manning. Or Joe Montana could make a comeback.

But, seriously, there are two imperatives at work here.

One is that the best chance of getting a long-term, so-called franchise quarterback comes when you are at the bottom of the league and the top of the draft. The other is that if you -- meaning the coach and general manager of these crummy teams -- don't get that quarterback when you have the chance, the odds are that some other coach and general manager will be in your chairs before long.

It might be worth noting that teams who know what they are doing have been known to get another quarterback even if they already have one. It's called insurance. It also can be part of a smart plan of succession, knowing that someday the incumbent would have to be replaced and it's always better to do that with a plan rather than with a panic.

It may be going on right now, for example, in New England, where the Patriots are hanging onto Jimmy Garoppolo.

It happened in Indianapolis a couple years ago when the Colts drafted Andrew Luck although Peyton Manning was not quite finished. It happened in Green Bay a decade ago when the Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers while Brett Favre was still going strong. It happened in San Francisco years before that when the 49ers got Steve Young while Joe Montana was in his prime. And it is such a well-established principle that it happened a half-century ago, when the Pittsburgh Steelers chose Terry Bradshaw a year after drafting Terry Hanratty. The second Terry worked out much better than the first.

In other words, teams have prepared for quarterback transitions forever but the three teams at the top of the draft, Cleveland, San Francisco and Chicago, are there in large measure because the people running the franchises today did not prepare, forcing them into a most unenviable position.

In Cleveland, Sashi Brown and Hue Jackson are in their second season together as coach and geneeral manager. So far, they have done a magnificent job of collecting a lot of draft picks. They have not yet done much in the way of turning those picks into productive players.

Last year, the Browns had the second pick in the draft. They traded down to the eighth spot. They finally wound up picking 15th, choosing a wide receiver, Corey Coleman. He caught 33 passes as a rookie. Meanwhile, Philadelphia chose quarterback Carson Wentz with the second pick and Dallas got running back Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth pick.

Wentz started 16 games for the Eagles and showed promise, although he clearly has a ways to go. Elliott led the league in rushing with a margin over 300 yards more than the second-leading rusher. (And, of course, Dallas also found a quarterback later in the draft, Dak Prescott).

In fairness, the Browns did draft a quarterback, Cody Kessler, in the third round last year, and he started eight games though without apparent distinction.

San Francisco has a new coach-GM tandem, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, and did not retain a single quarterback from the old regime. The 49ers signed a couple of stopgaps but need so much help there is open talk of letting the quarterback decision wait a year, until Shanahan might be able to pry Kirk Cousins from his old team, Washington, or find another option in the draft. Of course, if the 49ers are drafting this high again next year, Shanahan and Lynch might not find their six-year contracts to be of much comfort.

And in Chicago, coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace are beginning their third year together, having taken a painfully long time to come to an overdue conclusion about Jay Cutler. They threw a ton of money at Glennon but it's hard to believe they think he is really a long-term solution to their problem.

Keep this in mind next week. In the last quarter-century, 15 winning Super Bowl quarterbacks were first-round draft picks and, of the other 10, five were a freak named Tom Brady. You don't have to get your Super Bowl winner in the first round, but history proves it's not a bad idea.

--Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

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