Leftwich, almost a Raven, faces off with Baltimore

OWINGS MILLS - This combustible version of high-stakes poker involved multiple trading partners and millions of dollars in future signing bonuses. The potential jackpot causing a lot of commotion during the first round of the NFL draft this spring was Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich.

And the Baltimore Ravens were in the thick of the conversation regarding the towering pocket passer eventually drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Minnesota Vikings desperately wanted to trade out of the seventh overall pick and held discussions with several teams, including the Ravens and Jaguars. Between a last-second verbal agreement for a trade for the Vikings' selection and a busy signal at league headquarters, the deal was never consummated by the Ravens as the deadline expired.

Jaguars vice president of player personnel James Harris, the former Baltimore pro personnel director, immediately leap-frogged the Vikings to nab Leftwich. Now, the Ravens (4-3) sport a pair of first-round draft picks in starting quarterback Kyle Boller along with designated pass rusher Terrell Suggs as they prepare to play Leftwich and the Jaguars (1-6) on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. 

Baltimore chose Suggs with the 10th overall pick, trading next year's first-round pick and this year's second-round selection to New England to draft Boller 19th overall. "It's been well-documented that we tried to make the trade to that spot and would have drafted Byron Leftwich," said Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome, who kept dialing NFL director of football operations Joel Bussert to try to finalize the trade. "Byron is a very poised guy, very accurate with the strong arm that you need, but the opportunity to get Terrell and Kyle was something unique that we didn't think we could do. "That puts us ahead of the game in my book. We needed to address both our passing game and our pass rush and we did that."

Comparisons remain inevitable, though, especially with Boller and Leftwich representing the only two rookie starting quarterbacks in the league. Under a relative microscope, Boller and Leftwich are experiencing the traditional growing pains during the initiation to the speed and complexity of NFL defenses. "We've got Kyle. We like what we got," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, who lobbied hard for Boller. "They are both excellent young quarterbacks. This comparison or quasi-competition is probably going to go on for a long, long time." The rookies' respective situations differ greatly.

On the top-ranked team in the AFC North, Boller is being asked to complement the efforts of league rushing leader Jamal Lewis. Meanwhile, Leftwich is part of a major rebuilding effort being orchestrated by Harris and coach Jack Del Rio, the former Ravens' linebackers coach.  Leftwich wasn't groomed to start immediately because of veteran Mark Brunell's presence. Also, the Jaguars have been beset by a litany of off-field problems. Although the irony that Leftwich almost became the Ravens' quarterback instead of him isn't lost on Boller, it's evidently not his preoccupation. "All I know is that I'm a Baltimore Raven, he's a Jacksonville Jaguar, and we've got two teams playing each other," Boller said. "He's a great player. I have a lot of respect for him. He's going through a lot of the same things I'm going through."

Boller's numbers are modest with 982 yards, five touchdowns, seven interceptions and he ranks last in the AFC with a 62.2 quarterback rating. Leftwich has completed 58.5 percent of his passes for 1,105 yards, six touchdowns and a 70.3 rating. However, he has thrown nine interceptions with two fumbles in taking over for the injured Brunell. 

Hours after Boller commented on their first matchup, Leftwich struck a similar stance. "It is not Byron Leftwich against Kyle Boller," Leftwich said. "It is the Jacksonville Jaguars against the Baltimore Ravens. I am sure that he is going to do the things that he has to do to win the game, and I am going to do the same." Boller said he's too consumed by the details of his first season to measure his performance against Leftwich's output. He has a variety of blitz packages, protections and passing patterns to study. "To be dead honest, I don't have time," Boller said. "I've got too many defenses to look at."

Coming out of Cal, Boller was lauded for his athleticism, particularly his heralded arm strength. He was downgraded on several teams' draft boards for his lack of accuracy and consistency during his first three seasons before an excellent senior campaign under new coach Jeff Tedford. "Boller shows a lot of promise," Harris said. "All young quarterbacks struggle, but he seems to be doing some impressive things. To be playing in this league on a winning team says a lot."

Leftwich, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound Washington, D.C., native, completed 65 percent of his passes in three seasons at Marshall for 11,903 yards, 89 touchdowns and only 28 interceptions. "It was fairly chaotic how we got Byron, but we're very pleased to have gotten a young, promising quarterback," said Harris, a former Pro Bowl passer. "We had him highly-rated and liked his intangibles, his production, his history and his personality."

When both parties analyze the outcome of draft day, they tend to recite a similar mantra. Both note that Suggs' ability to rush the passer as he leads Baltimore with four sacks must be factored into the equation. "We got a very good quarterback and they got a good quarterback and a defensive end," Del Rio said. "Both teams made out pretty well that day. You're basically in the middle of a poker game."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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