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Draft spotlight on Russell, Quinn

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JaMarcus Russell, left, and Brady Quinn are considered the top prospects at QB.

JaMarcus Russell, left, and Brady Quinn are considered the top prospects at QB.

Frank Franklin Ii, Associated Press

NEW YORK — Casual fans didn't discover JaMarcus Russell until the Sugar Bowl last January. Neither, apparently, did some NFL scouts — not to the extent that they're on to him now as the likely No. 1 pick in Saturday's draft.

In those three-plus hours, Russell's 332 yards and two touchdown passes carried LSU to a 41-14 win over Notre Dame. That performance helped propel him to the top of the 2007 NFL draft class over the presumptive heir to that spot, Notre Dame's Brady Quinn. Never mind that LSU was simply the better team, Quinn's 15-of-35 for 148 yards with two interceptions put a huge question mark after his name.

So the top of the NFL draft is about the two quarterbacks, notwithstanding the fact Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson is conceded to be the one "can't miss" player — perhaps the best at any position in the last five years or so.

But in the endless analysis that starts in early January and carries on for four months, Quinn's "can he or can't he" status has been the focus, despite the fact he had a far more consistent college career than Russell. Suddenly he became a "can't win the big one" QB, a label that also was applied in college (and for a while in the NFL) to Peyton Manning.

So if the Raiders don't grab Johnson or trade down to someone who wants him, they are likely to take the 6-foot-5, 260 pound-Russell. Al Davis has always coveted quarterbacks like him who can throw the ball 40-50-60 yards in the air, as he can.

Quinn might go second, third ... or 10th, as Matt Leinart, who spent almost two years at Southern Cal fighting the burden of being a potential No. 1 did a year ago. Such a drop could cost Quinn a lot of money.

"I don't care about money, I care about football," Quinn said Thursday at a media session in New York for potential top picks. "Look at it this way: the lower I go, the better chance I have of playing for a winning team."

The other subplot to this draft is behavior.

There is supposed to be increased scrutiny on players who misbehaved in college — whether on the field or off — following a season in which nine Cincinnati Bengals were arrested and a variety of other players were in trouble for a variety of other reasons. Earlier this month, commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Adam "Pacman" Jones of Tennessee for a year and Cincinnati's Chris Henry for eight games for their misbehavior. More suspensions could be upcoming.

But at least one player with a checkered past, cornerback Eric Wright, is likely to be drafted in the first round. Wright was charged with rape while at Southern California, but the charges were dropped, he transferred to UNLV and seems to have passed most teams' character tests.

In an odd twist, after a report leaked out that three of the top players — Johnson, Louisville defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, and Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams — acknowledged at the scouting combine that they had used marijuana, the reaction to those revelations seemed to be positive. What college kid, many NFL types asked, didn't try the drug at some point? And weren't these three more honest than others who didn't acknowledge they used it?

There is a consensus on the top 10 players, although not all will go in the top 10 simply because drafts never quite work that way. They include Russell; Quinn; Johnson; Adams, Okoye; Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson; offensive tackles Joe Thomas of Wisconsin and Levi Brown of Penn State; safety LaRon Landry of LSU; and cornerback Leon Hall of Michigan.

But the focus is on Quinn, who has been analyzed and overanalyzed. He could go to Detroit at No. 2, Cleveland at No. 3, or perhaps fall as low as ninth to Miami.

"I think that everything about him points to him being a successful quarterback in the NFL," says his coach, Charlie Weis, who as an assistant with New England helped turn Tom Brady into a star. "The way he carries himself on and off the field, his athletic ability, his moxie, his leadership. That 'it' that certain people have, well he has it."

A more neutral opinion?

"I think if it wasn't for Brady and his production, Notre Dame never would have been there playing LSU," says Gil Brandt, the NFL's draft analyst and Dallas' personnel director for the first 30 years of the Cowboys' existence.

The best prospect?

Without question it's Johnson, who is 6-foot-4, 237 pounds, runs a 40-yard dash under 4.4 seconds and can outleap almost anyone — he's been called "Spiderman." Comparison? Randy Moss without Moss' excess baggage and lackluster work ethic.

Assuming the Raiders take Russell, Johnson presents an interesting dilemma to Detroit, which picks second, putting considerable pressure on team president Matt Millen, under whom the Lions are 24-72.

From 2003-2005, Millen chose wide receivers with high first-round picks. Only one of them, Roy Williams, has worked out, and taking another, even one seemingly as sure a thing as Johnson, would be acknowledging how badly he has drafted.

But Millen has said the NFL now is "a throwing, wide-open game."

"That all points to catching the football," he added in defense of those three picks.

So does he take Johnson? Or Quinn for the throwing part; the Lions' incumbent QB is veteran journeyman Jon Kitna. Or Thomas to block? Or trade down and take Adams, the pass-rusher he needs.

That's makes this an unusual draft, especially in the top five, which normally is pretty well set this late.

On the air

When: Saturday-Sunday

Where: New York City

Saturday TV (Rounds 1-3): 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (ESPN); 6-8 p.m. (ESPN2)

Sunday TV (Rounds 4-7): 9 a.m.-4 p.m. (ESPN)

On the clock: Oakland Raiders