Culpepper Still The Class of His Class

Remember the much-ballyhooed quarterback Class of 1999? Yeah, right. Now there is Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb left, and Culpepper continues to show his incredible leadership skills and physical abilities.

He was considered a long-shot at the time, but as Daunte Culpepper enters his seventh season in the NFL, he has emerged as the cream of the crop of the Class of 1999.

It was that Class of '99 that many considered the best class of quarterbacks since 1983, when future Hall of Famers John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino were all drafted in the first round.

Culpepper was joined in the first round of the '99 draft by fellow quarterbacks Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, Tim Couch, Cade McNown and Shaun King. Of those six quarterbacks, Culpepper appeared to be the biggest gamble, since he was coming from Central Florida, hardly a juggernaut in major college football.

McNabb, of course, led the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl last season. King, Smith, Couch and McNown are no longer in the NFL. (Couch worked out for the New York Giants earlier last week).

Culpepper joins McNabb among the elite quarterbacks in the NFL.

In 2000, his first season as a starter, Culpepper led the Vikings to the NFC Championship. None of his draft-day classmates did the same. Unfortunately for Culpepper, his team was drubbed 41-0 in the Meadowlands massacre.

"I wish we would have played better that day, but that was just a game – but that was the NFC Championship," said Culpepper. "That 41-0 is part of my history, but I'm not worrying about that or beating myself up."

Culpepper and the Vikings haven't returned since.

"If you asked me in 2000 I would've said I'd definitely have a championship ring right now," Culpepper said. "But going through the experiences I have, I've realized it's a lot tougher than it is easy."

With the season opener just a couple of weeks away, Culpepper is about to embark on his sixth season as the Vikings' starting quarterback. He is coming off his best season as a pro, having thrown for 4,717 yards, 39 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. Were it not for Peyton Manning's incredible season, Culpepper would have been the league's most valuable player. His 2005 preseason is equally as impressive, going 23-for-33 for 427 yards in three games of limited action.

"He has evolved from being a quarterback to being a leader of this offense to being a leader of this team," offensive coordinator Steve Loney said. "He's always had the individual characteristics that you so admire in a player. At one point in time he was trying to master the quarterback position and was doing it well. But now he has become a real influence on everybody around him."

Even with a vastly improved defense it is clear this is Culpepper's team. Most agree there isn't a better cornerstone to build a franchise around.

"I evaluate the type of person Daunte is and he's a good person," Loney said. "He cares not just about himself, but about his teammates. He's as good of a playmaker as I have ever witnessed. When the walls are crumbling around him, he has a knack — whether it's with his feet or with his arm — to make big plays."

Loney was asked if he thought there would be a place waiting in Canton, Ohio, someday for Culpepper.

"I always hesitate when you start talking about awards because those things are out of your control," Loney said. "Do I think he's on track? Absolutely."

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