Leinart pays for staying


Published: Monday, May 1, 2006 at 2:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 1, 2006 at 2:03 p.m.

(AP) - Matt Leinart's final year of college consisted of exactly one class: ballroom dancing.

This weekend, he got the bill: $10 million.

Or more.

If you're saving to put a kid through college anytime soon, relax. This story isn't about the spiraling cost of higher education, unless that kid throwing the football in your backyard will grow up to win the Heisman Trophy someday.

Leinart didn't really get a bill from Southern California - he was on scholarship - or anyone else. The $10 million is how much less he will pocket as the No. 10 pick in Saturday's NFL draft versus what Leinart would have received as the presumptive No. 1 pick a year ago. And that's a conservative estimate.

We know that because quarterback Alex Smith skipped his final year at Utah, became the top pick in the 2005 draft instead and got $24 million from San Francisco in guaranteed money - the only real way to compare NFL deals. That's more than twice the $10.5 million guaranteed to receiver Mike Williams, the No. 10 pick in last year's draft.

Leinart could wind up with a better contract in Arizona than Williams, his former USC teammate, got from Detroit. But it won't be nearly as good as the one signed by quarterback Vince Young, who beat Leinart and USC in the Rose Bowl, skipped out on Texas a year early, went as the third pick overall to Tennessee and stands to make roughly $7 million more than Leinart will.

Money wasn't the furthest thing from Leinart's mind when he announced he was returning to USC in January 2005, fresh off delivering a second straight national championship at Southern California and winning the Heisman. A week later, he answered his cell phone and said his only regret was having to squeeze another few thousand miles out of an aging Ford pickup he'd dubbed the "Danger Ranger." Leinart acknowledged having his eye on a new Chevy Tahoe, but said the jalopy would do for the time being.

"It still gets me where I need to go," he added.

To Leinart's credit, his tune hasn't changed. Every time he stood still for an interview over the weekend, he looked like he'd just seen a ghost, or worse, Ray Lewis bursting through the Cardinals' porous offensive line. But Leinart said all the right things.

There were "still no regrets" and never any guarantees where he'd wind up being drafted, either this year or last. There are "worse things in life" than getting picked 10th, and the money (somewhere between $11 million and $14 million guaranteed) is enough to buy a fleet of shiny new SUVs. Maybe it was a "blessing in disguise." And it definitely was a little extra motivation "to go out there and prove all those doubters wrong."

So hold off on the bake sale and the pity. Leinart is walking into a what might be a perfect internship. He gets an offensive-minded coach in Denny Green, a proven mentor at quarterback in Kurt Warner, a topflight running back who can shoulder much of the load in free agent Edgerrin James, and even a pair of promising young receivers, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, to play catch with for the next few years. Leinart will have time to ease into the job, a good supporting cast and warm weather besides.

The only victim, in fact, is the "stay-in-school" crowd, that loose affiliation of college coaches, boosters and fans who hope to convince stars that another season at State U., or Tailback U., in Leinart's case, is mostly reward and little risk. They just lost their poster boy.

Leinart accomplished just about everything possible in college football, kept his nose clean, nailed the Wonderlic intelligence test administered to potential draft picks _ and still got passed over by a handful of weak teams with unsettling quarterbacking prospects that would have gladly thrown $20-something-million at his feet last year.

Whether Leinart becomes a cautionary tale - you can almost hear some agent whispering to a kid next year, "Don't pull a Leinart!" - remains to be seen. But he's already part of a disturbing trend. The NFL draft is becoming more like the NBA version, where potential trumps proven every time and upside is everything.

A dozen underclassmen went in the first round Saturday, including the top three picks and six of the first 10. That figure fit squarely in the five-year average, but the number of underclassmen declaring for the draft has been climbing, from an average of 34 in the years 1998-2004, to just under 50 the past two years. Had Maurice Clarett won his court challenge to the NFL's minimum-age requirement, there's no telling how much faster those ranks would have swelled.

"I'm just happy that I'm going to a team that wants me," Leinart said.

Who knew there would be so few of those left?

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