It's seems unfathomable today, but Ryan Leaf was a great college quarterback and at one time looked to be a great quarterback prospect.
A lot of scouts lost a lot of credibility talking up Leaf over Peyton Manning. But what could they do? Scouts observe tools and skills, and whatever the revisionist say, Leaf had ample of each. He wasn't winging interceptions or padding his stats against Moorehead State. He wasn't just an arm. He was a winner with intangibles and incredible upside.
The year before Manning and Leaf were drafted, Leaf had the better season. He averaged 9.7 yards an attempt to Manning's 8.0. Manning had more interceptions and fewer touchdowns per pass attempt. Leaf was a clutch performer who led a no-name Washington State team to its first Rose Bowl since 1931; Manning was the polished college kid that choked away the Orange Bowl. Peter King, when he was good, had Phil Sims, Jerry Angelo, Sid Gillman, Mike Shanahan, Bob Toledo and Bill Walsh watch tape of the two and then solicited their opinions. The consensus, Manning was better, but both were good*. However you slice it, Leaf was once considered almost Manning's equal, and even his superior by some. Manning is now a living legend. A current NFL starter already considered among the greatest quarterbacks who ever played. Leaf, of course, is a total bust.
It's not that scouts are totally incompetent or outright blind. It's simply that scouts didn't properly assess risk. They weren't wrong about Leaf's tools, and I'd wager they weren't even wrong about Leaf's skills, but they were wrong about Leaf's head. They didn't consider how Leaf would fare under adversity, how he would adapt to fame, scrutiny, failure, if he'd stay driven after becoming rich, or if maybe Leaf was just completing the best hot streak of his life.
Leaf started 24 games in college. He was great the final 13. Mark Sanchez started 16 games in college. He was great in 13. Football fans should know by the examples of Rex Grossman and Derek Anderson, 13 games isn't much more than an extended hot-streak. Leaf rose to fame during that hot streak. As a college kid leading an improbable contender, Leaf was largely spared criticism. Sanchez has suffered two losses his entire college career. Inevitably, Leaf succumbed to the pressure of the pros, proving just not capable of the workload or burden of expectation. His character undercut his ability and he rather infamously flamed out. Sanchez, well...
Sanchez was never charged with sexual assault, but he was accused. That doesn't make him guilty, and I'm not implying he is guilty, but it's ignorant to ignore the accusation. We're talking brass tacks, risk/reward, investment, not right and wrong. If we say that there's a 25 or even 10 percent chance that Sanchez did commit sexual assault, than that must be part of how we evaluate him as a prospect. How do we see that 10%? If he did do it, what then does that say about his character? If he was the exact same prospect otherwise, but we knew he was guilty of sexual assault, how would that affect his value?
It also must be considered that Sanchez used a fake ID, was caught for underage drinking and was detained for breaking a window during a fraternity party. None of that touches my exploits at that age, but again we're not talking the measure of the man, we're not judging Sanchez, we're evaluating him as a, for lack of a better word, commodity. We're attempting to project his future value. Sanchez must have known he had a legitimate chance at playing in the NFL, so the above is, if nothing else, rather stupid decision making.
It's not the commie color guard of red flags, but it's a couple and both are conspicuous and undeniable. No one knew that Ryan Leaf would fail so fantastically, but there were signposts. That's what I see in Mark Sanchez: A physically talented kid, with good skills, but frightening red flags.
The oft-quirky Walsh was the only one of the six experts who said he wouldn't take Manning with the first choice. "I'd pick another top player," he says, "and then I'd take [Michigan quarterback] Brian Griese in the second round. I think he could have the tools to be special."