More than a "Passing Interest?"

Much has been said about the different directions the Dallas Cowboys – and every other team – might go in this year's NFL Draft the last weekend in April. Some needs are glaring: offensive line, safety (the signing of Ken Hamlin notwithstanding), defensive line, wide receiver.

But one area that has gotten very little mention this offseason has been the need for another quarterback, a position the Cowboys would be well-served to address in this year's draft.

It's easy to understand why a passer hasn't been at the top of the wish lists of most media and/or fans. After all, most Cowboys fans still are basking in the glow of Tony Romo's transformation from Drew Bledsoe's caddy to superstar-in-waiting. If not for that one slip of the fingers in Seattle, there are some Cowboys fans who would have made the trek north to start chiseling his grin into Mount Rushmore.

Likewise, Dallas made one of the shrewdest offseason signings in the league – and in the team's recent history – when Brad Johnson put his name on the dotted line. Johnson is big, strong, very smart, very accurate and can more than handle either role: Romo mentor or emergency replacement.

However … Johnson will be 39 years old in September, and while he is very big (6-foot-5, 225 pounds) and strong quarterbacks not named Vinny Testaverde don't generally last that long, and therefore can't be counted on as a long-term answer. More than likely, Johnson is in Dallas for a year, or two at the most. That's it.

And while Romo walked on water when he first got put into the lineup (although wasn't the banner suggesting his enshrinement in the team's Ring of Honor just a bit much?), the fact is that he gets the job done more because of mobility and moxie than because of overwhelming physical gifts. NFL teams dump piles of money on – and build their futures around – quarterbacks who are built like Johnson or JaMarcus Russell. Romo had a nice year in his debut campaign, and there's always a chance his next Pro Bowl appearance will have nothing to do with a glaring lack of star passers in the NFC. But that sure didn't hurt this year.

Nobody would suggest benching Romo over his slippery fingers act in Seattle. Mistakes happen, and his just happened to occur under the glare of a rather blinding spotlight. It's a shame that it happened, but fans and foes alike know that without Romo, the Cowboys wouldn't have been playing in the postseason at all.

Johnson, for all of his comments after he signed about how he's not in Dallas to be Romo's mentor knows that he is here for exactly that reason. Romo was 12 years old when Johnson took his first NFL snap, and until the offense stagnates under Romo's direction, the job is his. But injuries happen, and the first half of the 2007 season still will not give him a full season's playing experience, so despite all of Romo's success, it's not out of the question to assume there could be some bumps along the road. There are very few teams that go into a season without three quarterbacks who could play, at least in an emergency situation. The chances of unearthing a Jason Garrett, a lifetime No. 3 quarterback who virtually never drops the clipboard and takes off the visor, is slim. Even if it's as an eventual replacement for Johnson as Romo's understudy, the Cowboys need a third quarterback they can groom, and it has to be someone they can talk about with a straight face. Does Matt Baker make anyone breathe easily?

Dallas certainly won't go with a quarterback in the first few rounds – the offensive line needs bolstering, the defensive line needs depth, and a playmaking receiver who is not yet in his 30s needs to be found in case Patrick Crayton bolts next year, and in case Terrell Owens is … T.O. again.

But in the middle or later rounds, Dallas would do well to target a quarterback who can play down the road. Ideally of course, he does the Jason Garrett clipboard-and-visor routine this year (talk about having an offensive coordinator who understands the value of that process). Hopefully Romo doesn't get a finger laid on him all year, plays well and Johnson plays only when the margin is 30 points or more. In today's NFL, that's not likely.

Before picking a third passer, head coach Wade Phillips and his staff need to determine which kind of passer they want. Romo clones won't have huge arm strength, but will have brains and mobility and that playground mentality that allows them to make plays that don't occur to the more "traditional" drop-back passers. Johnson clones will look like Adonis, standing tall in the pocket and launching missiles all over the field with a rifle arm. Someone who has both will be gone when Dallas gets around to addressing the position.

Depending on how high the team wants to draft a quarterback, one who merits scrutiny – and falls into the Romo clone group – is Houston's Kevin Kolb. At 6-3, 218, he has decent size. He runs (4.84 in the 40) OK, but not well enough to make anyone forget Michael Vick … or even Romo. Kolb has a very quick release and a strong arm, and has been nothing if not productive in four years as UH's starting passer (throwing for nearly 13,000 yards in 50 career games, as well as 85 touchdowns and 31 interceptions). He's a lot like Romo in the sense that he has an innate ability to scramble just enough and scrap just enough to make plays where other passers might take a sack or throw it out of bounds. He's not going to throw the ball 70 yards like Russell can, and he's not going to win a lot of footraces, but the guy just makes plays. Given a few years to learn, he could be a perfect backup (or potential replacement) for Romo.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is UTEP's Jordan Palmer, the younger brother of Cincinnati's Carson Palmer. Jordan Palmer looks like a small forward in a helmet and pads (almost 6-foot-6, 231 pounds), and has the same bazooka-like arm strength his brother has. Statistically, his numbers aren't a great deal different from Kolb's – Palmer threw for nearly 2,000 fewer yards in 46 career games, and he threw 88 touchdowns for the Miners. However, he also threw 64 interceptions and developed a reputation among opposing coaches for locking in on a single receiver and throwing into tight coverage. He has raised eyebrows with inconsistent throwing mechanics, and doesn't move particularly well.

But many of the same things were said about Johnson when he came out of Florida State. The overwhelming factor for each is that great size and strength and productivity got them a chance. Some NFL coach will have enough of an ego that he'll look at Palmer and see … a young Johnson?

A tantalizing combination of the two might be Tulane's Lester Ricard (6-5, 222), who didn't play as much as Kolb or Palmer, but combined excellent size and arm strength with deceptive speed to be a very effective passer for the Green Wave, who very likely will end up being a better pro than former Tulane quarterbacks Shaun King, Patrick Ramsey or J.P. Losman.

Give the choice of these three, Kolb would be the best fit. He's the closest to being "another Romo" and he'd be joining a team that is having its offense built around Romo, not Johnson. If Romo develops as Cowboys fans hope, and becomes to expensive to keep, Kolb could be the man to take over.

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